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A flamboyant warrior

Pramod Mahajan's tough as nails image and the aura of invincibility around him suggested that he would simply shrug off the worst crisis of his life, that he would somehow conjure a miracle that would place him once again in the thick of action in Indian politics. Tragically, the charismatic, if highly controversial, second generation leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party could not pull off that one last rescue act — this time not for his party as he had done so often in the past but for himself. Mr. Mahajan lived unusually — courting controversy with a daring and openness not associated with politicians. And he died unusually — taking three bullets at point blank range from a younger brother. Mr. Mahajan's passing is made worse for the manner in which it happened. It was a tragedy the family and the party could have done without. At 56, the BJP general secretary was at the peak of his career and a candidate for Prime Minister in a party short of leadership material, and crucially dependent on him for the revival of its sagging fortunes. From humble schoolteacher to powerful party general secretary, it was a complicated yet remarkable journey for the self-made man with a reputation that preceded him. Mr. Mahajan started his political life in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh but carried the saffron association lightly much to the chagrin of his elders. Indeed in the larger public perception, he was the complete antithesis of the preachy, morally superior politician. Mr. Mahajan's lavish lifestyle and his association with various business houses contrasted sharply with the severity of his party's ideology and the austerity obsessively observed in the hallowed quarters of Jhandewalan. Needless to say, the flamboyance of spirit earned Mr. Mahajan many enemies and stuck him with an image that brought him brickbats as well as bouquets.

Yet for all that his party and the parivar faulted him, the politically astute Mr. Mahajan was a necessity for them. In a crisis, the BJP leadership instinctively turned to him — whether it was to raise funds for the party, to tap a crucial corporate connection or to devise a strategy for winning elections. Mr. Mahajan was a backroom expert credited with approaching politics like a corporate head. The strategy paid the BJP handsome dividends in the closely fought 2003 Assembly elections and Mr. Mahajan's poll management technique assumed legendary proportions. The May 2004 debacle revealed the short-sightedness of this approach. The India Shining blitzkrieg was dazzlingly lavish and loud, as was the showcasing of the "feel good" factor by Team Mahajan. But it failed to carry conviction with voters who voted out the BJP, dismayed by its lack of concern for their problems. To Mr. Mahajan's credit, he did not blame the debacle on others, admitting instead to misreading the public mood. In Atal Bihari Vajpayee's fond imagination, Mr. Mahajan was Lakshman to Lal Krishna Advani's Ram. Few could have known that the Lakshman would make his exit without fulfilling the task assigned to him.

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