Skip to main content

The Man in the Shadows

By July 20, 2022August 17th, 2022Feature Article, North&South

The Man in the Shadows

The prime minister’s chief of staff is the most powerful non-elected political figure in the country. Current chief of staff Raj Nahna eschews the spotlight but, despite his best efforts, it somehow finds him.

By Pete McKenzie

Raj Nahna, Jacinda Ardern’s acting chief of staff, had just settled into work in his small office on the ninth floor of the Beehive when Tory Whanau, his counterpart in the Green Party, called at 8am to tell him her party’s co-leader had been assaulted.

Earlier that morning, James Shaw had been walking by the Botanic Garden on his way to work when a passing van made an abrupt U-turn and parked beside him. A stocky man with sunken eyes stepped out and began shouting about the United Nations and beneficiaries. As Shaw turned to keep walking, the man grabbed his lapel, punched him in the head and threw him to the ground.

Shaw lay in a daze. Tūī chirruped in the nearby native bush. Two passers-by wrestled the assailant away and ambulance officers arrived to assess Shaw’s condition. Eventually, he made his way to work and insisted on speaking in a ministerial meeting on climate change, which he then had to leave after his nose began bleeding and staff urged him to go to hospital.

Politicians are rarely assaulted in New Zealand. Over the phone Nahna and Whanau drafted a plan for explaining the attack to the public and responding to politicians newly afraid for their own safety. Afterwards, Whanau began briefing the media on the attack, while Nahna went to inform Ardern and start rolling out the government’s response. Discussions about new security measures and the protection of politicians consumed the rest of the day. It was Thursday, 14 March 2019.

The next morning was just as busy. Across the country, students gathered to signal their anger at a lack of climate action. In Wellington, tens of thousands streamed on to the forecourt of Parliament. “We just had this wave of teenagers walking towards us,” recalled Whanau. It was the largest protest New Zealand had ever seen. On the Beehive’s ninth floor, jaded political staffers pressed their noses to the windows as organisers in pink high-vis jackets ushered a generation on to their doorstep.

The government had to strike a delicate balance in their response. The Greens wanted to encourage the students and fuel their frustrations. New Zealand First was keen to ridicule what they perceived as a hippy-dippy farce. Labour was wary that any encouragement it gave could be denounced as hypocritical, given they led the government the students were protesting. Amidst it all was Nahna, balancing the competing political impulses between the government partners, wary that any sudden movement could introduce a thundercloud of disunity over the coalition.

It was only around 1pm, after the protest had peaked without a hitch, that Nahna relaxed. Whanau swung into his office for a debrief. A staffer walked past and handed out ice creams. The two chiefs of staff bantered over celebratory Magnums. It was a rare moment of peace. Eventually, Whanau stood up to leave. She had a birthday weekend planned in Masterton and was envisioning wine tours and total rest. Before she walked out, however, she paused and looked at Nahna.

“You need a break. I hope you’re getting this weekend off?” Nahna grinned in relief. “Yeah, absolutely!”

An hour later, Whanau was driving up State Highway 2 when her phone buzzed with a call from Andrew Campbell, the prime minister’s press secretary.

“There’s just been a shooting in Christchurch. Here are the details.”

The core responsibility  of the prime minister’s chief of staff is to solve problems. But that doesn’t capture the complexity or freneticism of the job.

“When you’ve got a really tricky political issue,” says Wayne Eagleson, the long-time chief of staff to John Key then Bill English, “you’re the one sitting in the room with the prime minister and not many others going, How are we going to do this? How are we going to manage this?’” Once the prime minister has decided the course of action, their chief of staff must then coordinate hundreds of politicians, political staffers and senior civil servants to ensure that decision is carried through.

That requires managing sensitive issues and delicate egos among the government’s most senior members. “I had a lot of MPs and ministers come in to see me about all sorts of things,” recalls Eagleson. “Often they were concerned about something the prime minister was doing. They would want to raise it and say, ‘We’d really prefer if they went in a different direction.’”

In such cases, a chief of staff will try to resolve things without creating further frustration. But when resolution isn’t possible, they must give unpopular orders. One senior Beehive source explains that “they often have to deliver very hard messages and be at the front end of frustration from ministers and their offices. That takes a degree of toughness.”

Nahna took on the role on an acting basis in March 2019 when Mike Munro, Ardern’s chief of staff at the time, took leave for a month to undergo surgery for cancer. That June, when Munro’s health issues drove him to resign, Nahna was formally appointed to the job.

Senior political officials usually need informal sign-off from internal party allies. By contrast, the chief of staff is appointed — and dismissed — at the prime minister’s discretion. The only prerequisite of the job is that their boss trusts them completely.

With that trust, the chief of staff is empowered to manage the countless smaller issues which aren’t important enough for the prime minister but are essential to the operation of government. “There’s this huge government machine that you have to keep running 24/7,” says Eagleson, from deciding whom to hire for a vacant press secretary position to sitting with senior civil servants each Thursday to plan the agenda for the weekly cabinet meeting. “It doesn’t sound sexy,” Eagleson says. “But it’s crucial.”

The sheer amount of work creates a heavy burden. The senior Beehive source notes that when they come into the Beehive most Sundays to get through their to-do list, “Raj will always be there.” Nahna’s brother Maneesh says, “He’s given up all his hobbies. Work takes up all his time.” Whanau agrees. “It’s a hugely lonely job . . . I was in a constant state of anxiety and depression because it was so hard.” (Whanau has now traded being the Greens’ chief of staff to run for the presumably more collegial role of Wellington mayor.)

The task was made harder by the coalition’s tempestuous bedmate, NZ First. “Managing that coalition would have taken years off his life,” says the source.

Nahna, right, and other party representatives on their way to a briefing on the day of the Christchurch massacre.
Nahna, right, and other party representatives on their way to a briefing on the day of the Christchurch massacre. Photo: Stuff.

Most difficult of all, the job must be done out of the public eye. Any indication that the chief of staff was responsible for the government’s triumphs would undermine another of their key goals: to make the prime minister look good. “This is a backroom job,” says Eagleson. “Every time your name is in the paper, whether good, bad or indifferent, that’s a bad day.”

Nahna, a 40-something-year-old with a studiously controlled face and a sweep of tousled black hair, has taken this to the extreme.When I tell one ministerial adviser in the Beehive that I am writing a profile of Nahna, they laugh. “Good luck.” Then they lean in close and emphasise in hushed tones that they can’t speak about him to me. Almost all the political staffers I contact give a similar response.

Apart from a few fleeting references in news articles and an abandoned LinkedIn profile, Nahna has no presence online. He declines my request for an interview, politely saying, “I have a policy of not doing interviews, but thank you for the offer. The role is a supporting one and works best behind the scenes.”

Nahna’s reticence, however, goes beyond mere professionalism. The people he works most closely with seem to know only the barest details about him. Mike Munro, his immediate predecessor as Ardern’s chief of staff, shrugs and says, “Raj is a very private guy. I don’t know a lot about his personal life.” Even his family seem mystified. His sister-in-law Emma Nahna calls him an “enigma”. His uncle Hari Nahna tells me, “I don’t really know much about him, to tell you the truth.” Among the characteristics that come up repeatedly is his aversion to the spotlight.

But his story is fascinating. The grandchild of migrants who fled Partition-era India, he got his start in politics thanks to National prime minister Jim Bolger, campaigned in the most conservative parts of Missouri for presidential candidate Barack Obama, survived the internecine brawling of Labour’s wilderness years and is now the most powerful man in the country as Ardern’s closest adviser. Due to his deeply private nature and fierce loyalty, that story has never been told. Until now.

In the middle of Te Kuiti, between a petrol station and the railway line, sits Nahna & Co food market. The brick exterior is a dirty white and its tin roof is a faded lime green. On the pavement outside, a small wooden sign with peeling lettering and a missing foot advertises fresh fruit and flowers. The weather-beaten appearance is unsurprising. Nahna & Co has stood on this corner, in some form or another, for 70 years.

Back when the shop was first opened, New Zealand generally — including the King Country, a Māori stronghold — was dominated by Pākehā. Brutal invasions and swarms of settlers had left Māori marginalised, while strict immigration laws kept out most other non-Europeans. Mid-century census numbers show that just 2000-odd Indians, for example, had slipped through the cracks to gain entry to the country.

But in a surprising twist, many of those few thousand chose to make the King Country their home, beginning a slow process of diversification which would one day make it a counterintuitive hub of Indian culture in New Zealand. From the start, the Nahnas were among them.

Parsot Nahna emigrated to New Zealand from the Indian state of Gujarat as a young boy in the 1920s. Some years earlier, his father had travelled abroad as a migrant labourer and settled in Te Kuiti. After securing a job and a home in the small farming town, he had written to his village with instructions for Parsot to join him to receive a proper education.

Parsot, however, arrived just as a backlash to “coloured” migration began. Pākehā farmers and market gardeners worried that growing Indian and Chinese communities were taking their jobs. Newspapers like The Waipa Post began warning of “The Hindu Menace”. In August 1923 a branch of the Ku Klux Klan was formed in Auckland with the explicit goal of stopping “Oriental” immigration to the colony. That December, Klan members allegedly burned down several Indian-owned stores in the central city. In 1925 a collection of Pukekohe potato farmers formed the White New Zealand League, which quickly gathered support from around the country. In 1926, the Returned Servicemen’s Association passed a resolution emphasising its support for a “white New Zealand”. It became common in some towns for Indians to be denied entry to bars and barbershops.

The xenophobia and racism of this period must have been hard to endure. Parsot decided to return to India sometime around 1940. But even without the demonstrable racism of New Zealand society, the pull of India would have been difficult to ignore. The Indian community in New Zealand was growing, but it was still small and overwhelmingly male. While some migrants married into local Māori and Pākehā families, for most starting a family meant returning to their ancestral homes.

It was there, in the small Gujarati village of Matwad on the banks of the Ambika River, that Parsot met Bhani Makan. Despite being a girl from a landless family in a rural area, Bhani had a reputation as a scholar. Potentially because of her passion for religious texts, her family allowed her to continue her schooling well past the age most girls were pulled out. Driven by a love of reading, she won prizes for history and writing. For Parsot, she must have seemed the perfect match. The two married in 1941. For six years they lived among Bhani’s family and raised their first four children.

India in the 1940s was tumultuous. It became increasingly clear that Britain would soon have neither the resources nor appetite to maintain imperial control. As independence became inevitable, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League started demanding a separate Muslim state. Mahatma Gandhi, who had campaigned for a unified and independent India for decades on a platform of peaceful resistance, began calling Jinnah an “evil genius”.

Entire villages emptied of whichever group — Hindu or Muslim — was in the minority. Neighbours forced each other out; other families proactively sought safety by fleeing. Political leaders, meanwhile, laid the ground for open conflict. In August 1946 the chief minister of Bengal, HS Suhrawardy, wrote in The Statesman — then India’s leading English-language newspaper — that “bloodshed and disorder are not necessarily evil in themselves, if resorted to for a noble cause”. Later that month, Suhrawardy hosted an enormous pro-partition rally in Calcutta and implied to attendees that police would not stop violence.

Incited by the rally, in some parts of the city roving Muslim gangs began setting Hindu shops alight with gasoline; in others, Hindu residents tossed bricks and flowerpots at Muslims in the streets. At night, marauding gangs marched through Calcutta’s slums. Wherever they found a resident whose religion was out of place, they slaughtered them with machetes. The violence raged for days. Ian Stephens, the editor of The Statesman, wrote of the aftermath that, “On plots of waste ground, you could see mounds of decomposing, liquefying bodies, heaped as high as the second floors of the nearby houses because of lack of space elsewhere.”

The massacre and wider conflict attracted close scrutiny in Gujarat, which bordered the largely Muslim region of Sindh in what has since become Pakistan. Calcutta’s riots were an ominous foreshadowing of the violence which could break out across a divided country; nowhere seemed more at risk than Gujarat.

So, the following year, Parsot returned to New Zealand. Leaving Bhani and their four young children in the care of their wider family, Parsot — like hundreds of other Indians fleeing the rupturing state — boarded a boat to Western Australia, a flying plane to Auckland and a train to the King Country. There, he settled back into tiny Te Kuiti. He purchased a modest house on the town’s main street and built a grocery store out the front: Nahna & Co. Two years later, he summoned Bhani to join him, just as his father had summoned him.

Parsot had lived a life abroad. For Bhani, however, Matwad was all she had known. Years later, her daughters recalled, she would talk fondly of gathering with village women in the early hours of the morning to wash clothes in the Ambika and gossip. In a book chapter they wrote in 2007, Bhani’s daughters explained, “It is only after writing about her life that we realise how heart-breaking it would have been to come to New Zealand, leaving behind her mother, sister, inlaws and cousins.”

In the end, she joined Parsot. But, as her daughters noted in the book, With a Suitcase of Saris, “She would never see her mother again.”

Passport photo of Bahni Nahna, Raj Nahna’s grandmother who moved from Gujarati to Te Kuiti in 1949 with her first four of eleven children.
Passport photo of Bahni Nahna, Raj Nahna’s grandmother who moved from Gujarati to Te Kuiti in 1949 with her first four of eleven children. Photo: withasuitcaseofsaris.com

By the time Raj was born, the Nahnas had established themselves as a local institution. Generations of Te Kuiti children spent their afternoons after school each day debating which dollar bag of lollies to buy at Nahna & Co or having an afternoon tea of samosas and spiced chai in the house behind.

As Parsot and Bhani’s 11 children grew into adulthood, many found homes nearby — including their sixth child, Amrat, who married an Irish immigrant named Val. The couple operated a sawmill on the outskirts of town and in a house tucked off the main drag they raised their two sons: Raj, the elder (and whose name means ‘king’ in Sanskrit), and Maneesh.

Along the boys’ route to Te Kuiti Primary School each day was Nahna & Co, which by then had been taken over by the boys’ uncle Hari. Even then, says Hari, Raj’s reticence was obvious. “When they went to school, Maneesh would stick his head through the door and shout, ‘Hello uncle!’ And Raj would just walk on. We didn’t have any problems — it’s just the way he is.”

By his final year of school, Nahna was juggling a job stacking timber at his parents’ sawmill with the responsibility of being head boy of Te Kuiti High School, coach of the girls’ top hockey team and drum player in the school band.

Most importantly, it seems that was the year that his interest in politics was hatched.

In 1997, New Zealand’s second Youth Parliament was held. Each MP was required to select a student to travel to Wellington for a week, where they would tour Parliament and participate in a series of mock parliamentary debates. For Nahna, the opportunity was particularly special. Te Kuiti lay within the King Country electorate, which at that point was represented by Prime Minister Jim Bolger.

Bolger doesn’t remember how he selected Nahna from among the students in his electorate. But when told of Nahna’s current position, he chuckles. “I picked well, didn’t I?” Thinking further, Bolger laughs again. “Isn’t it ironic that he started as a youth MP for one prime minister and ended as the chief of staff to another? On different sides of the House! There’s an interesting quirk there.”

Unsurprisingly for an event which brought together 120 students in their final year of school, the Youth Parliament occasionally descended into chaos. Bryony Shackell, now a criminal lawyer, who represented Labour’s Michael Cullen that year, remembers that at one point the speeches in Parliament’s grand debating chamber were interrupted by a young man sitting in the green leather chair behind her who discovered that the white plastic phone by his desk was connected to the outside world. “So he sat there and called his grandma, just to let her know where he was.”

For many, being at Parliament was a formative experience. “Even if we didn’t arrive politicised, some of us left politicised,” says Suz Jessep, who represented Rod Donald at the event and went on to become a prominent diplomat. Shackell remembers that “it was a pivotal moment in terms of finding some direction in my life and taking myself seriously. Seeing what the chambers of decision-making and power looked like, and what it felt like to be there.”

Usually, the most remarkable aspect of the Youth Parliament is the chance it provides for youth MPs to deliver a fiery speech from their patron’s seat in the debating chamber. But for Nahna, the event’s most resonant moment may have been somewhere else entirely.

In 1997, Bevan Peachey, who is now a lawyer at Russell McVeagh, was the youth MP for Murray McCully. He recalls how, at the end of their first day, the teenagers were ushered into the curving banquet hall which hugs the side of the Beehive. Against shining marble walls and soaring two-storey windows, they were treated to dinner with the era’s most significant politicians. Despite the wealth of political celebrity, says Peachey, all eyes were on one man: Winston Peters.

A hint of grey had crept into the hair of the politician with movie-star looks. But he still had the stylish double-breasted suit and intoxicating confidence. Most importantly, recalls Peachey, he was by that point “at the height of his power”.

In the previous year’s election, NZ First had overcome its birthing pains to win 13 per cent of the vote and put Peters in the position of kingmaker. Following almost two months of intense negotiations, Peters surprised everyone and returned Bolger to the Beehive. In exchange, he was named deputy prime minister and treasurer, National sacrificed the superannuation surtax, and NZ First won a raft of ministerial positions. Six months later, his political manoeuvrings were still on the minds of many at the banquet.

It’s hard to imagine Nahna wasn’t watching closely as Peters held forth to a fascinated audience of nascent political enthusiasts about how he had emerged victorious from the first MMP election. What neither of them could have known as they sat under the shining chandeliers was that in 20 years’ time it would be the shy boy from Te Kuiti who was charged with corralling the incorrigible politico.

For the next decade, Nahna’s life was what one would expect of an ambitious young man. He went to Wellington for university, studied law, joined the prestigious legal practice Chapman Tripp and settled into a stable working life. Yet by 2008, says Kath Gabites, who worked with him at the time, the experience had begun to wear thin. “Chapman Tripp was a wonderful place to work, but . . . he had been with us for most of his twenties.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, adventure beckoned.

Barack Obama, an electric first-term senator from Illinois, had just clinched the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination after months of grinding political warfare against senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton.

On 28 August, 84,000 people crammed into Denver’s Mile High Stadium to hear Obama declare that the moment was theirs for the taking. “For eighteen long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said enough to the politics of the past . . . You have shown what history teaches us — that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.”

Raj Nahna during his time working with the Missouri Obama campaign.
Raj Nahna during his time working with the Missouri Obama campaign.

Twelve thousand kilometres away, Nahna heard that speech and decided that he would come, too. He quit his job, said goodbye to his family and bought a plane ticket to the United States.

There he found Michael Kadish — a Harvardeducated policy wonk who had spent a half-decade navigating the political complexities of New York and California. Kadish had just been appointed as one of the key staff members for the Obama campaign in Missouri. His role was to turn Obama’s sweeping promises into the kind of policy details which could win over a conservative audience.

Kadish doesn’t remember precisely how he discovered Nahna. “He must have been in some pool of volunteers or something.” But he needed a deputy and, as he fought a flood of applications from unseasoned recent graduates, “I was attracted to the idea of someone a little older and more experienced.” With just 68 days to go before the election, Kadish summoned Nahna from a New York bedsit to St Louis, Missouri.

Missouri is a state of extremes. To its north are rolling prairies, while south lie the vertiginous and heavily forested Ozark mountains. St Louis and Kansas City are among the most liberal cities in the country; the state’s agricultural lands rank among America’s most conservative regions. For decades, that mix made Missouri America’s most critical political bellwether: between 1904 and 2004, with just one exception, it voted for the winner of every presidential election.

Knowing that, the Obama campaign ploughed resources into the state. Dozens of campaign offices were opened, staffed by hundreds of volunteers and campaign employees. In a nondescript building in midtown St Louis they established a headquarters, which they decorated with American flags — an accidental d cor of balance balls and half-empty wine bottles developed as the campaign ground on.

There, Kadish and Nahna began pulling 14-to-16- hour days. “We worked on everything from briefing field organisers on talking points, to drafting op-eds and media statements, to assisting with all the policy groups, to briefing surrogates on behalf of the campaign,” recalls Kadish. As they combed through the nuances of ethanol tax credits and the latest rumblings about whether the local Anheuser-Busch brewery would move offshore, their workload was brutal.

Amid the chaos of the campaign, Nahna stood out. Justin Hamilton, the campaign’s press secretary, remembers walking in on his first day and seeing Nahna deep in conversation with Kadish in the headquarters’ central bullpen. “He had the sort of stylish, unkempt look of a rock star,” chuckles Hamilton. “I’ve seen lots of hard, grizzled, worn-out political operatives . . . he was definitely looking very fresh-faced.” More than Nahna’s appearance, though, Hamilton remembers his surprise at hearing where he had come from. “It drove its own kind of inspiration and momentum: the idea that people would come from all over the world to help us do this.”

They needed all the assistance they could get. As the Missouri campaign began, polling showed Obama lagging 10 points behind his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain. In large part, the problem was agricultural. On Missouri’s vast farms, workers didn’t trust a city slicker from Chicago to put them first.

Facing that breakdown of trust, says Hamilton, the campaign decided “we needed to bring the message of Obama to every home in the state. So, we outfitted a mobile home, had it wrapped with Obama branding . . . and we drove that RV to every city in the state.

“In each place, we essentially stopped and were giving speeches explaining: ‘This is what we’re going to do about corn prices; this is what we’re going to do for pork manufacturers; this is how we’re going to address issues around Monsanto and the seed police and farming.’

“Almost every single one of those positions, those ideas, those papers — the things that I was put out there to sell to voters — was in large part Raj’s work,” laughs Hamilton. “Raj, the guy from New Zealand, was one of the key people in charge of coming up with the policy and the policy positions that would persuade red America to embrace Barack Obama. Talk about a tall order.”

It worked. Hamilton remembered one stop on the Heartland Tour in the state’s extreme southwest — “the part which is more Arkansas than Missouri” — where they had organised a community meeting in a rickety wooden barn.

Inside, a sea of white faces from the surrounding farms stood amid parked tractors and hay bales, cautiously watching the four campaign staffers who had arrived to sell the idea of America’s first black president. Cautiously, too, the staffers began laying out their pitch: from stronger protections for family smallholdings against the predations of corporate giants, to better support for corn farmers struggling with falling prices.

“The visual litmus test that we were beginning to break through was when we started to see the slow nods around the room. First, it’s just one person. Then you see other people looking to make sure it’s okay, and they start nodding too. Then you get a room full of nods,” marvels Hamilton. “That’s when I thought: I think we can do this.”

As the Obama campaign began to close the gap with McCain in Missouri, divisions within the state began to grow.

Kadish recalls at one point driving down a highway and seeing a billboard of Obama grinning in a turban, emblazoned with the words, “Barack ‘Hussein’ Obama equals more abortions, same sex marriages, taxes, gun regulations”. Debbie Mesloh — the state campaign’s communications director — remembers a field organiser explaining in a morning meeting that there had been cross burnings in their area.

“Part of the political apparatus on the other side was pushing rumours that Obama was a Muslim, pushing the birth certificate trope,” says Hamilton. “[They were] essentially appealing to racial hatred and racial animosity. It was a tense time. It feels like many of the fires that burned the brightest during the Trump years had their fuses lit in places like Missouri that year.”

By the final weeks of the race, Obama staffers in the state were buffeted by both hope and fear. The Global Financial Crisis had brought America’s economy to its knees; voters were suddenly more open to an outsider candidate promising transformational change and more suspicious of a Washington veteran who continued to insist that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong”. Seizing upon McCain’s growing weakness, Obama started campaigning almost exclusively in deeply conservative parts of America.

But as Obama’s political ambitions grew, his staffers feared he might be putting himself in danger. On 1 November — just three days before the election — he arrived in Springfield, Missouri: a small city perched on the edge of the deeply conservative Ozarks. Staffers worried not only that Obama wouldn’t be welcome, but that he might be attacked.

“That’s the area where we had the cross burnings and other things. And he came out there the last week of the campaign,” recalls Mesloh. “I was really nervous about that rally.” Late in the evening at Parkview High School, in a football stadium which normally seated 5000 attendees, 35,000 people jammed themselves so tightly together that there was hardly room to move. Casting her eyes anxiously across the sea of people packed into the stadium — inauspiciously named after John F Kennedy — Mesloh tried to pick out any sign of something amiss. Then, suddenly, the crowd exploded.

Mesloh turned to see Obama, joined by his wife Michelle and their two young daughters, stride on to the stage. Amid the crowd, surprising signs began to wave frantically. “Rednecks for Obama”, “Gun Owners for Obama”. She laughs. “It ended up being this really cool rally . . . there were all these [counterintuitive] groups, and he met with all of them.”

Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama with Nahna.
Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama with Nahna. All US photos courtesy Justin Hamilton.

Nahna couldn’t help but be caught up in these great tides of emotion. Hamilton shares a photo he took in the campaign headquarters as the team watched the final presidential debate on 15 October. Another staffer has lost attention and is staring down at a table, but Nahna is gripped by the figure promising change on the small screen in front of him. He is so absorbed that he doesn’t notice the camera clicking just metres away.

On 4 November — election day — there was nothing more to be gained from policy briefs or memoranda, so Nahna left the office and began touring St Louis polling booths. In majority-black precincts across the city, administrators had systematically under-resourced the election effort; a lack of voting booths was causing extremely long queues to cast ballots. Polls showed that Obama and McCain were deadlocked and a few hundred votes could make all the difference.

So, recalls Hamilton, Nahna and others began “going out and asking the voters, ‘Do you need water? Do you need food?’ There were jugglers, there were entertainers, there was anything we could do to create this community moment, keep people in good spirits and ensure they’re willing to stay in line to cast that vote. Raj was helping to lead the charge to make sure that every last vote was counted.”

When polls closed at 7pm, Nahna dragged himself to the campaign’s victory party in the ballroom of an art deco hotel in the centre of St Louis. TVs had been jerry-rigged to the walls so that election forecasts could be displayed live. Dozens of staffers and volunteers killed three hours with idle chitchat while keeping an eye fixed on the screens looming above.

Then, suddenly, it was happening. A countdown appeared on the screen showing CNN’s broadcast. The anchor, Wolf Blitzer, noted, “This is a moment a lot of people have been waiting for.” As the clock struck zero, he turned to the camera and announced, “CNN can now project that Barack Obama, 47 years old, will become president-elect.”

The room erupted. “People were crying and shouting and dancing,” says Kadish. “It was like VJ Day or those pictures from the war of Times Square,” adds Hamilton. “Everybody’s jumping and hugging and just going crazy. People were doing cartwheels. It was kind of sheer insanity. Just unbridled joy. We were just brought to tears.”

In this haze of delight and alcohol, however, many missed the fact that Missouri itself had not been called. The final result was too close for any election forecaster to be confident of the result. For two weeks, as the Obama staffers packed up their lives and moved out of their temporary homes in the houses of volunteers across Missouri, they lived in a state of suspense. While they had won the overall war, they were desperate to know the result of their individual battle.

Finally, on 19 November, the Associated Press called it: Missouri for McCain, by 3632 votes out of 2.9 million cast — the smallest margin of any state in the country. Obama, who was already deep into planning his new presidency, declined to request a recount.

“We won and we lost, if that made sense,” says Hamilton. “But the power of winning far outweighed the pain of losing. I think we all knew that while we wanted to win that place, we were a bit of a rearguard action. We kept McCain and Palin occupied defending a place which they had to win at all costs. That prevented them from competing in places that we had to win. We knew that what we had done was important. And I think [the sting] was far outweighed by the sheer joy of having won what was one of the toughest battles, but most meaningful campaigns, in any of our lifetimes.”

Hamilton and Nahna during the Obama rally.
Hamilton and Nahna during the Obama rally.

Nahna flirted with the idea of pursuing a job in the United States, but eventually decided to come home to New Zealand, where his girlfriend — now wife — was waiting. As other staffers moved to Washington, DC, to lobby colleagues for a role in the new administration, Nahna packed up and moved back in time for summer.

He found himself in demand. While Obama had won, back home Helen Clark had lost. The Labour Party were casting about for new talent as they shifted into opposition for the first time in almost a decade. Nahna was an obvious choice to join the ranks of advisers.

“[His time in the States] showed a level of interest and commitment to progressive politics that people were looking for,” says the senior Beehive source. “It also gave him a head start in the kind of campaign techniques which we were starting to pick up from the Obama campaign and the Australian Labor Party.”

He was hired as a policy adviser and began a rapid climb upwards, halted only by the bitter factionalism which pervaded the party during David Cunliffe’s leadership in the mid-2010s, during which time he left to work as a lobbyist for New Zealand Rugby. In 2017, after Jacindamania and a surprising deal with Peters’ NZ First allowed Labour to form a government, Nahna returned to the Beehive to help ease the transition.

By early 2018, as the prime minister’s team took on a semblance of certainty, Nahna had become the deputy chief of staff under Munro, a veteran political operative who had previously worked as Helen Clark’s chief press secretary.

It’s difficult to get much insight into Nahna’s progression through Labour, since the people who know it best are the ones least willing to talk. Questions to veteran Labour strategists are typically met with silence.

But he was clearly seen as a steady pair of hands, despite not having held a senior role within Labour offices previously. “He had all the attributes for it,” says Munro. “He had good political antennae, he was a good analyst, he had a good background as a research adviser. His legal background probably served well in that regard.” Munro remembers talking to veteran MPs such as Trevor Mallard and Annette King, who without hesitation endorsed him as “a good catch” for a senior staff role.

By the time Munro took leave at the start of March 2019, Nahna seemed to Ardern to be the best choice to fill in. The senior Beehive source recalls that, “There were probably one or two people who wondered whether Raj was up to it, because he obviously didn’t have Mike’s level of experience. But my memory of it is that [Ardern] just had complete confidence that Raj could do it.”

Ardern is masterful in a crisis. Her clear communication and intense work ethic have carried New Zealanders through the Christchurch shooting, the Whakaari eruption and the outbreak of Covid-19. Much less recognised is Nahna, who since his elevation to the top job has had to be across each of these issues and more, capable of providing thoughtful recommendations, and ready to deliver policy advice at an almost-impossible pace.

“Raj is the one orchestrating the whole government to move at a speed they normally would not move at,” says the senior Beehive source. “No one should underestimate what a big job it is to get the ship of state to move at anything other than its normal, steady pace.”

No disaster better exemplifies that crucial role than the Christchurch shooting. On 15 March, as news from Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre streamed in and Tory Whanau rushed back from her planned weekend away, the Beehive was transformed. Police took up visible positions around the building to dissuade copycat attacks. Some advisers sat in silent shock, while others bustled around the building working fruitlessly to get updates on the situation. Senior government officials perched at vacant desks and frantically called their staff to figure out what to tell the prime minister.

Ardern herself had been in New Plymouth for the day. She flew into Wellington at 6pm on a quickly organised Defence Force plane and was hustled to Parliament under the watchful eye of armed bodyguards.

In a 7:25pm press conference, she promised to ask police how the shooter obtained his weapons. At 8pm, she told police commissioner Mike Bush that she would be pursuing major reforms to the country’s gun laws. At 10pm, police minister Stuart Nash handed her a copy of the latest report from the police about the Arms Act’s major loopholes and weaknesses. And at 8am the next morning, in a briefing with Nahna and senior officials from police and the intelligence agencies among others, Ardern set a deadline. By Monday morning she expected them to report to Cabinet on how to fix the Arms Act, improve information sharing without other countries about terror threats, and strengthen border controls.

In a subsequent press conference, Ardern promised the country, “I can tell you right now, our gun laws will change. Now is the time for change.”

Winston Peters had signalled the night before that NZ First would support any changes to the Arms Act deemed necessary. But the task was still gargantuan. Nahna — who had only been acting as chief of staff for a fortnight — was given the role of leading a handful of other staffers, including Nash’s senior advisor Barbara Edmonds (now an MP) and a secondee from the police, to complete in two days a review which would normally take two years.

In retrospect, Nahna’s new responsibility seems apt: his grandfather had been subjected to New Zealand’s deeply rooted white supremacism, then forced from India by the rumblings of ethno-religious massacre. Now Nahna was charged with overhauling a system which had been murderously exploited by a bigot who dreamed of race war.

In the moment, however, there would have been little time for Nahna to reflect on that resonance. As Ardern flew to Christchurch to grieve with the survivors, Nahna and his group got to work. Drawing on the police’s existing reviews of the Arms Act, they began strengthening and revising the proposals into a form where they could go before Cabinet. Parliament’s caf  was closed and the Beehive end of Wellington had shut down for the weekend, meaning there was nowhere to get food; the New Zealand Herald reported that Finance Minister Grant Robertson had to provide meals in the form of Griffin’s Sampler biscuits, chocolate, plums and apricots. They worked deep into the night on Saturday and Sunday; at one point, Nahna — the last to leave — switched off the lights at 2am.

When Cabinet met on Monday, a scant three days after the shooting, ministers voted in favour of progressing the proposed reforms — many of which were still being finalised. Yet at 5pm that evening, Ardern was able to tell the media that while Australia had taken 12 days after its Port Arthur massacre to decide on whether to pursue gun law reforms, “We have taken 72 hours.”

The work didn’t stop, of course; the list of tasks required to actually implement the reforms was endless. But eventually enough got done. On Thursday, 21 March, the prime minister could announce that the government would ban military-style semi-automatic rifles through regulatory manoeuvres and rapid legislation.

Nahna’s performance during this “hellish period”, as Munro put it, won him further respect within the Beehive. If there had previously been lingering doubts about whether he could handle the chief of staff role, they had now been eliminated. When Munro resigned in June, Nahna was permanently elevated to the top spot.

According to Munro, “I don’t think there was anybody else at the time who was really seen as a serious contender. It was a fairly easy decision for the prime minister to invite Raj to step up and take on the role.”

But on 21 March, that was all yet to come. That night, having finished his work, Nahna found himself with a few spare moments. He wandered out of his office and took the lift down to the Beehive bar, where a handful of ministers and officials had gathered. He sidled in, unnoticed by most, and took the chance to decompress. It was only later, when he stood to leave the bar, that he was suddenly noticed by a staffer across the room. They started to clap. Quickly, the rest of the room joined in as well.

The man who had spent his life avoiding the spotlight was finally recognised.

Pete McKenzie is a journalist based in Wellington, where he focuses on politics, foreign affairs and legal issues.

This story appeared in the July 2022 issue of North & South.