REVIEWS

Candidly, Advani
Saturday, 12 April 2008 | Chandan Mitra Agenda (Sunday Pioneer)

It is a bit late in the day to review LK Advani's magnum opus, My Country My Life, since at least 100 others have done so already. But having taken more than three weeks to actually read it, I am convinced that the reviewers, both in the print and electronic media, did no more than desperate rapid reading, culling out "juicy" parts with the primary intent of sensationalising its apparent flaws. So far, we have heard primarily about the alleged goof-ups, such as the "untenable" claim (made on TV, not in the book) of not knowing about Jaswant Singh's visit to Kandahar in December 1999, appropriating "credit" for all the good done during the NDA years, thereby implying that all the bad was attributable to Atal Bihari Vajpayee (as interpreted by the Congress), a mix-up about Bhagat Singh and Richard Celeste, and so on.

I suspect that the reviewers, mostly journalists, have approached the book with an eye to grab headlines rather than seriously assess the intrinsic worth of a memoir that records independent India's evolution as a mature democracy, albeit through the prism of the Jana Sangh/BJP.

Arguably, the book falls short of a philosophical discourse; we do not get an articulated notion of India as envisioned by one of its towering political personalities -- as academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta rightly pointed out in his review in the Indian Express. Admittedly, the Page 3 hoopla that accompanied its release and subsequent publicity would have distressed those who have always seen the author in a different light. But to the book's serious reader it is a remarkable document comparable only to Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India. It is a magnificent record of the way India has evolved since Partition, made more poignant by the fact that the author was among the victims of the greatest mass migration in human history.

"It also takes courage for a practising politician, especially someone as high profile as Advani, who fundamentally altered the defining parameters of Indian politics through the Ayodhya movement and his exposition on pseudo-secularism, to candidly reveal his side of the story. That he has been able to do so without generating fury or antagonising too many people is truly remarkable."

I have no hesitation in suggesting that Advani must consider publishing an abridged version in paperback for Generation Next to get a non-Marxist, non-Congress perspective of contemporary history. So far, they have only S Gopal's hagiography of Jawaharlal Nehru and Bipin Chandra's doctrinaire Marxist interpretation to go by. Ramachandra Guha's recent textbook is so blatantlybiased against the robust nationalist viewpoint that even a graduate student of history is certain to be hopelessly brainwashed by sustained Leftist propaganda. In fact, there is not a single authoritative exposition of an alternative view of post-Independence India written with elegance and sincerity. It is difficult for me to be altogether dispassionate while assessing a work that some have dubbed as an effort to win a "lifetime achievement award" rather than a faithful autobiography. I totally disagree with such flippant assessments. My problem arises more from the fact that I have known the author intimately starting 1989, making it particularly challenging to be objective. However, I found myself occasionally disagreeing with some of his formulations particularly on the subject of secularism, on which he has expounded at length at various stages in the narrative.

Advani is extremely sensitive to his media image as a hardline champion of Hindutva and goes to great lengths in this book to try and disabuse the notion. He expresses pain at the way the media deliberately overlooked the nuances of the BJP's and his own expositions on the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Insisting that there is nothing remotely communal in his philosophical understanding of the Indian nation and, despite the savagery accompanying Partition that uprooted him from his native Sindh, he has never borne ill will towards Muslims or Pakistan, Advani makes a full-throated attempt to project himself as "genuinely secular" as opposed to his "pseudo-secular" critics.

Those like me who have interacted with him for years would vouch for that. In the nearly two decades of association I have not heard him even casually slip into anything that can remotely be termed anti-Muslim. Accompanying him through eastern Uttar Pradesh to Ayodhya in that fateful first week of December 1992, I repeatedly heard him appeal to the Muslim leadership to be considerate towards the deep-seated Hindu belief that Bhagwan Ram was born at the place where "a dilapidated, disputed structure now stands". He would fervently assert that if only the Muslim leaders would relent, BJP volunteers would respectfully relocate the Babri Masjid to a nearby site and construct a Ram Mandir that existed on the spot where Babar's general, Mir Baqi, constructed a mosque.

I was present, along with Swapan Dasgupta and a few other journalists, on the terrace of Ram Katha Kunj where the BJP-VHP leadership was assembled on December 6, 1992, appealing to unruly kar sevaks to descend from the structure's domes.

I vividly recall meeting Advani in the evening after the structure had been demolished. He sat alone in a ground floor room with only a flickering candle for company. Characteristically wringing his hands in despair he bid farewell to us, urging we exercised caution on the return journey to Lucknow. By then, news of the Kalyan Singh Government's dismissal had arrived and the leader of the most spectacular mass mobilisation India has witnessed since Independence was anticipating arrest. "This is the saddest day in my life," he told us, admonishing someone who suggested that the "deed" could politically benefit the BJP.

I recall driving back to Delhi next day, stopped on the way by exultant crowds shouting "Jai Shri Ram" and "Saugandh Ram ki khaatey hain, Mandir wahin banayenge". On December 7 evening, I wrote a report titled "Control room that had no control" in the Hindustan Times, whose Associate Editor I then was. To date, I insist it was the only faithful report of what the BJP-VHP leadership did in trying to avert the denouement, without success. But that article marked the beginning of my own vilification by a section of media colleagues belonging mainly to the Leftist persuasion.

If, however, I were Advani I would not have bent backwards to answer this vilification campaign and the canards spread to demonise him as a closet Fascist. At many points in the book, I got the impression that, deeply stung by this unfair portrayal of his persona by sections of the media and academia, Advani tries a little too hard to put the record straight.

As he himself explains in earlier chapters of the monograph, Sardar Patel was similarly lampooned "mainly by Communists" for his resolute championship of the nationalist perspective and for frequently cautioning Nehru who pursued hopelessly faulty policies over Kashmir and China. But that misconception about Patel has not changed even 55 years after his death: Communist historians are an incorrigible lot.

Advani skillfully brings out the visceral hatred Nehru had of the RSS and Jana Sangh, which conflicted with Gandhiji's overt appreciation of the RSS's patriotic role. Advani points out that Gandhiji addressed an RSS gathering a few days before his heinous murder. The Mahatma even blessed Syama Prasad Mookerjee, insisting on his induction into Nehru's first Cabinet and telling Mookerjee, "Patel is a Hindu-minded person in the Congress and you are a Congress-minded person in the Hindu Sabha."

Indeed, the initial chapters of the book make fascinating reading because of Advani's extraordinarily sharp memory, which enables him to recall minute details of national events and the trying circumstances in which the Jana Sangh functioned in its early years. He has faithfully recounted remarkable anecdotes relating to his childhood and early youth in once-tranquil Karachi, his travails (and long travels on camelback in Rajasthan as RSS pracharak) as a Sangh activist and later, as assistant to Vajpayee.

He also details events and dialogues that shaped his own intellectual understanding of India through interactions with Guruji Golwalkar and more significantly Deendayal Upadhyay -- men whose contribution to the making of modern India has been so cruelly distorted by Communist and fellow-traveller pro-Congress commentators.

I need not go into his description of life in jail during the Emergency and circumstances leading to the rise and fall of the Janata Party -- an unwieldy experiment that, in hindsight, was predestined to fail. Advani has also harshly recalled the next, equally short-lived, Janata experiment under VP Singh, whom he does not hesitate to categorise as a hypocrite. These narratives have particular relevance to understanding how and why the Congress monolith gradually crumbled, eventually leading to the formation of the first viable non-Congress alternative in the form of the BJP-led NDA.

I was particularly struck by his recollection of the Jana Sangh's first foray into alliance politics with (hold your breath!) the Communists. In the Delhi Municipal Corporation elections of 1958, the Congress won 27 seats, Jana Sangh 25 and CPI 8. The CPI agreed to back the Congress in the House of 80 if Aruna Asaf Ali was made Mayor. This happened, but the alliance collapsed in a year and the Jana Sangh entered into a deal with the CPI, agreeing to share the Mayor's post on a one-year rotational basis (we thought the Mayawati experiment of 1997 was the first rotational arrangement!). The CPI-Jana Sangh alliance stood the test of time, Kidar Nath Sahni succeeding Aruna Asaf Ali as Mayor after the first year of the deal.

Of course, the CPI also joined various Samyukta Vidhayak Dal Governments in several States, some headed by Jana Sangh leaders, after the Congress's rout in North India in 1967. And later, it is well known that the CPI, CPI(M) and BJP supported the VP Singh regime from outside, sharing a fortnightly dinner with Janata Dal leaders by way of an informal coordinating committee meeting.

Advani uses these examples to highlight his party's political flexibility, pointing out that the BJP has grown because from its Jana Sangh days it never fell into the "untouchability" trap. Every such alliance only helped the party expand further, eventually resulting in its emergence as the alternative pole of Indian politics and the country's second-biggest political party.

"My Country My Life is not just a great addition to the celebrated list of political autobiographies, but a fascinating record of post-Independence Indian politics. I recommend it wholeheartedly to every caring, conscientious and enlightened Indian.""

The story of Advani's life thus far would not be complete without reference to its most recent highlight -- his controversial Pakistan visit in May-June 2005. This needs to be viewed in continuum with his role at the disastrous Agra summit for whose failure Pervez Musharraf squarely blamed him. Even in his recently published autobiography, the Pakistani General claims he told Vajpayee on the eve of his departure from Agra "It seems there is someone above us who can over-rule us", meaning the then Home Minister. Advani dismisses the charge insisting that it was the General's dogmatic refusal to condemn cross-border terrorism that convinced all Indian leaders that he was being two-faced and could not be trusted.

As for the Pakistan visit in 2005, Advani was obviously bearing the cross of Agra and wanted to amend his hawkish image in that country, apart from reaching out to people on both sides to urge them to live as good neighbours. Advani stoutly defends his recalling Jinnah's Constituent Assembly speech of August 11, 1947, in which the Muslim League leader appealed for Pakistan to be a secular state.

The author also insists that the tribute he paid at Jinnah's mausoleum was interpreted wrongly even by his own party colleagues, and that at no point had he described the founder of Pakistan as "secular". Advani attributes the incorrect understanding of his comments on Jinnah to the media's (particularly TV's) resort to shorthand.

It will be difficult for BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate to live down the huge controversy the visit sparked. Although he has made a valiant attempt to put the record straight, quoting extensively from his speeches in Pakistan, the views of Swami Ranganathananda from whom he learnt of Jinnah's exhortation and so on, I am afraid perceptions take long to get erased. But Advani must be complimented for his courage of conviction in restating in an agreeable way what he set out to do through that visit and for admitting that deep misapprehensions even in his own party persist on the issue.

It also takes courage for a practising politician, especially someone as high profile as Advani, who fundamentally altered the defining parameters of Indian politics through the Ayodhya movement and his exposition on pseudo-secularism, to candidly reveal his side of the story. That he has been able to do so without generating fury or antagonising too many people is truly remarkable. My Country My Life is not just a great addition to the celebrated list of political autobiographies, but a fascinating record of post-Independence Indian politics. I recommend it wholeheartedly to every caring, conscientious and enlightened Indian.