In June 2014, ahead of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s first bilateral visit to Bangladesh, M J Akbar landed in Dhaka. Akbar, who had joined the BJP in March that year, was asked to prepare the groundwork informally.
As a journalist, Akbar had developed a vast network with the political class in Bangladesh, and had a rapport with opinion-makers in that country. The BJP-led government wanted to tap his valuable network.
A top Bangladesh interlocutor told The Indian Express, “We had a relationship with the Congress, and there were many Bangla-speaking interlocutors, led by Pranab Mukherjee. But there was a gap with the BJP, as there were not many who spoke Bangla and had an understanding of the nuances. Akbar was the perfect fit.”
Akbar’s work in Dhaka impressed many in the establishment, and after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 2015 visit was considered a success, Akbar emerged as one of the backroom players along with Indian diplomats in Dhaka. That set the ball rolling for his induction in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which needed a interlocutor for Gulf and West Asian countries.
In July 2016, Akbar was made Minister of State in MEA, looking after West Asia, Gulf, north and western Africa, western and central Europe (except France, Germany and the UK), Eurasia (except Russia), the European Union, and the United Nations.
“He was a keen listener, and we could convey our issues frankly,” a diplomat from a West Asian country said.
After his resignation on Wednesday, a BJP leader said Akbar was an asset for the party as a “brilliant and articulate” communicator. “He is articulate, a respected writer, and could defend the government. “He was not to bring Muslim votes to the party, but still a credible Muslim face,” the BJP leader said.
— ANI (@ANI) October 17, 2018
Akbar, however, was never faithful to any particular politics or ideology. It was friendship that led him to India’s two main political parties — his admiration for Rajiv Gandhi made him a part of the Congress, his proximity with L K Advani led him to the BJP.
Akbar’s liberal stand, amid the intensifying conservative approach among Indian Muslims in the mid-1980s, had drawn the attention of Rajiv Gandhi’s close aides, including Mani Shankar Aiyar, then the press secretary to the PM. According to former Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, Akbar had persuaded Rajiv to intervene in the landmark Shah Bano case. The government’s move drew severe criticism, and still haunts the Congress party.
His friendship with Rajiv made him quit journalism in 1989, despite having earned the reputation as a precociously gifted editor. Rajiv, burdened with Bofors, chose Akbar to contest the 1989 Lok Sabha polls from the Muslim-dominated Kishanganj in Bihar. Akbar won but the Congress lost power.
Rajiv fielded Akbar to defend and project his party’s face. But luck did not favour him in 1991 — he lost the election, and his friend.
While Congress returned to power riding the sympathy wave after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the new Congress leadership, including Sonia Gandhi, sidelined him. Akbar quit the party in 1992.
Returning to journalism, Akbar founded The Asian Age (where most of the alleged sexual harassment cases took place), and grew close to Advani, who is said to have wanted Akbar to be inducted in the party before the 2004 elections. Akbar’s Congress past and the proximity with the Nehru-Gandhi family, however, became an obstacle.
After the 2002 Gujarat riots Akbar was sharp in his criticism of then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi. Modi, he wrote in The Asian Age in March 2002, “has been trying to destroy the idea of India as a nation in which every citizen is equal irrespective of his faith.”
Cut to March 2014. After joining the BJP, he wrote in The Economic Times: “I raised questions at the time of the riots as much as any other journalist did. Paradoxically, these questions were answered over ten years by the UPA government. There has never been, since independence, such intense scrutiny, or such absolute determination to trace guilt to a Chief Minister, as Modi faced from institutions loyal to the UPA government over two full terms.”