By Sheela Reddy OUTLOOK | Sunday, 13 April 2008
Would his bio rub people the wrong way? Like with l’affaire Jinnah, Advani didn't care.
WHATEVER I was expecting, it was certainly not the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate looking diffident, at a slight loss for words. By his own admission, Lal Krishna Advani is hopeless at small talk, and to make it worse, the usual chai-pani conversation-breaker had already taken place, because of time constraints, in his private secretary Deepak Chopra’s adjoining office. Now he leads me silently to the sofa, and after a feeble attempt to break the ice, leans back, eyes closed, hands gripping the armrest, as if it was a dentist’s chair, and says, “Go ahead.”
I ask him what’s on top of everyone’s mind: why did he choose to write his autobiography now, when he’s poised to lead the NDA in the general elections? “When I started writing it, I wasn’t the prime ministerial candidate,” he points out. “In fact, I’d almost completed my book by the time the announcement came in November-December 2007.” Some of his colleagues were a little alarmed, he says, when they “came to know that I am writing my autobiography”. “Don’t write,” they said, “god knows what you’ll write.” Their fear was that he’d step into another minefield like his now-infamous remark on Jinnah’s “secular” speech. “They told me, ‘Just when things have settled down, and the party has accepted you, why take a risk. Something or the other will erupt’.” But Advani has always believed in that big leap into the unknown, especially in his formidable political career of over 50 years. “I told them: I don’t care, let them erupt. I was prepared to take the risk.”
He seems glad that his memoir is finally done and out. “It was mainly because of my wife and daughter. They kept on saying, ‘Why don’t you write. After all, you have gone through so many varied experiences’.” It’s been something of a family enterprise, not just this book whose title was provided by daughter Pratibha, but transforming the shy, austere RSS pracharak who once washed his own clothes, walked 45 km in the rain to reach a meeting, braved tapeworms and snakes to spread the RSS message in remote towns in Rajasthan, lived sometimes only on a glass of milk and a gajak, with such acute stage-fright that he had to be bullied into accepting his party’s presidentship for the first time, into this man who is now brimming with such self-confidence that he doesn’t even notice the slip of tongue in calling himself the “unofficial prime minister”. For the best part of his political career, he has been content to live in the shadow of his flamboyant party colleague Atal Behari Vajpayee, the smouldering “poet who had drifted into politics”, who overawed him with his wit and humour and ability to “hold tens of thousands of people literally spellbound”. In his memoir, he gives the secret of their successful relationship— “unparalleled in independent India’s political history for two political personalities to have worked together in the same organisation for so long”—he was always ready to play second fiddle to Vajpayee, the reticent backroom boy, diligent provider of research, ideas, strategy, an expert memorandum drafter, invariably deferring to his senior colleague’s views and silently accepting his role as hardliner to Vajpayee’s liberal image. “I developed a complex after accompanying Vajpayee for such a long period,” he now admits candidly. “I cannot be a public orator in the same way as he can.”
Things changed to some extent, he says, with his rath yatra to Ayodhya in 1990, which he calls “the most decisive, transformational event of my political journey”. His plan originally was something far more modest—a journey by foot through villages of a few states to meet people and “explain to them the significance of the Ayodhya movement”. But when he confided his plan to Pramod Mahajan, he came up with the rath yatra—a converted Toyota truck. Advani was torn between the potential for a mass campaign and his own diffidence. “It was too theatrical. I felt it did not suit my temperament.” It was his temperament, as it turned out, which was about to change to suit the moment. “I didn’t expect the kind of response we got,” he says now. He began by doubting if people would turn up at the unearthly hours when the make-believe rath arrived at their village or town. He poked gentle fun at Mahajan’s stagey speeches. “I used to tell Pramod, ‘This is no rath of Ram’s, this is only a Toyota.’ But everyone asked me not to play it down like that. ‘People believe it,’ they said.” He was overwhelmed by the people’s response. The most touching moments were in remote hamlets in tribal areas where they waved their puja plate at the rath, greeted him and walked away. “They couldn’t rest until they touched the rath. When it left, they touched the ground on which it had driven on.” It was during this yatra, he says now, that he first understood the truth of what Swami Vivekananda said over and over again: religion is the soul of India.
"I developed a complex after accompanying Vajpayee for so long. I can’t be the public orator that he is."
And then you found you were riding a tiger? “Absolutely not. What happened after that? Nothing happened, there was no problem from Somnath to Ayodhya. The problem was the deliberate delay in the judgement, not the rath yatra.” He leaps up—with surprising agility for an 80-year-old—to retrieve from his Great Wall of books a slim volume nestling between Quips and Quotes and the collected works of Savarkar. He brings back to the sofa one of the two volumes of Belgian historian Koenraad Elst, The Saffron Swastika, flipping easily through the heavily marked book for the right quote: it was the Indian English language media, according to Elst, who “managed to turn an entirely peaceful procession, an island of orderliness in a riot-torn country, into a proverbial bloody event...every riot in India in the second half of 1990 was blamed on him (Advani).” He has used his reading to the same disconcerting effect in his memoirs, quoting Gandhi and Nehru back to adversaries who have probably not read them as well as Advani has, carefully marking the volumes as arsenal for his arguments. In the 67 years since Advani woke up to his political mission, his convictions seem to have hardly changed; it’s only his arguments that have got more refined and erudite. And you weren’t responsible, I persist, in setting Hindus and Muslims on a confrontational path? “That confrontation,” he says with the air of someone who has already settled the argument, “started with the Partition and it was continued by the Congress promoting minorityism. It’s all absurd (to blame it on him or the BJP).” It’s with the same fierce loyalty, whether it’s to his ideas or colleagues, that Advani puts up a spirited defence of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, “more sinned against than sinner”, according to him. I remind him about Ashis Nandy’s remark on Modi, that the most frightening—and impolitic—aspect of Modi was the ideologue in him. For someone who has worked so hard throughout his long memoir to demolish the image of himself as a hardliner, Advani doesn’t hesitate to say now: “I am as pure an RSS man as anyone can be.” He is not ashamed, he says, of what he is. “I am what I am. It’s there in the book; it’s there in all my life.”
He was always something of a loner, he confesses. As a young boy, crowds made him uneasy, even if it was a family function or a wedding. “I am inclined to be a reserved type,” he says. At school in Karachi, apart from cricket and watching films with his uncle, he was happiest when he could bury his head in a book. He was never late for school, always topped his class, never played a prank, not even at home. At the height of the Quit India movement, he spent his days in the college library, devouring books by Jules Verne, Alexander Dumas and Charles Dickens.
"I used to tell Pramod, ‘This is no rath of Ram’s, this is only a Toyota.’ But they told me, don’t play it down..."
"I was until then ‘the perfect wog’, raised in a Catholic school, learning Latin, speaking broken Hindi...."
"My uncle was with the Congress, and I was in touch with him. But he didn’t inspire me like the RSS pracharaks."
And then, as he puts it in his memoir, there was that one moment “when the door opens and lets the future in”. He was playing tennis with a friend, who suddenly stopped mid-game to announce he had to go for an RSS drill or shakha, and invited Lal to go with him. The shakha, conducted illicitly on the terrace of a bungalow, offered the motherless young boy everything that was missing in his own life: discipline, mentors who introduced him to both Dale Carnegie and V.D. Savarkar (he bought Savarkar’s banned 1857-The War of Independence from an underground bookstore by saving up his pocket money), and patriotism. He was the ideal recruit—fiercely loyal, hard-working (at the age of 17 he became a school teacher only to recruit volunteers for the RSS), idealistic and naive. He did wonder, for example, what the RSS strategy for gaining freedom was, considering his mentors criticised both the Congress as well as the revolutionaries. But they told him to focus on creating a large force of volunteers “willing to sacrifice everything for the liberation of Bharat Mata”, and leave the rest to time. “To my young mind,” Advani confesses, “this explanation was convincing enough.”
Within the next six years, he had turned into a full-time RSS pracharak, with little time or inclination for the affluent and westernised family of the Amil Sindhi businessmen he had been born into. “Those years from 14 to 20 were the years of my transformation,” he recalls. “One of the biggest shocks in my family was when I started wearing a dhoti and kurta at the age of 19 or 20 when I became a pracharak.” Until then, he says somewhat gleefully, “I was what a friend once described as ‘the perfect wog’—raised in a Catholic school (St Patrick’s in Karachi), learning Latin instead of Sanskrit, speaking broken Hindi, watching films like The Three Musketeers and playing tennis and cricket.” But what if he’d met Gandhi or one of his committed followers at this vulnerable time of his life instead of his RSS mentors—would he perhaps have been a Congressman today? He lets the idea slowly sink in: “It’s true for everyone— ideology is something that comes to you out of associations. I don’t know what would have happened if I had associated with the Congress at that time. My mama (uncle) was a Congressman, and I was in touch with him. But he didn’t inspire me in the same way as the RSS pracharaks. Besides, he was elderly, I was a youngster, and it was another youngster playing tennis with me who led me into the RSS.” As I leave, Advani succumbs to that query no author can resist: did you like my book? Only, he’s more discreet: “Did you find it readable?” I seize the moment to ask something that had intrigued me—why did he dismiss his mother’s death, surely a traumatic event for a young boy, in half a sentence? As he looks up from the book he is inscribing, I see an Advani no one has told me of before. “I was only 12 then,” he says, “and not even there when it happened. I was with my uncle in Hyderabad (Pakistan). It was very...” his voice chokes, his eyes moisten, “painful.” And then, shaking his hands over his face as if it was a fly bothering him, he sends me off.