In the running
Friday, 11 April 2008 | Ashish Sharma LiveMint

L.K. Advani's self-portrait highlights contradictions between his ideals and the BJP

Lal Krishna Advani has long been revered, and equally reviled, as a truer representative of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) than Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Ever since he led the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in 1990, he has symbolized the party’s core beliefs, while Vajpayee played the malleable mascot suitable for latter-day coalition politics. Now, after Vajpayee’s retreat and his ascent as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, along comes My Country, My Life, a self-portrait that presents him as Vajpayee’s natural successor.

The book — tracing the journey of a 19-year-old worker of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who migrated from his birthplace, Karachi, to the newly-partitioned India in 1947 and rose to become the country’s deputy prime minister—is fascinating in parts. He recounts the triumphs and trials in his long political innings anchored in patriotism and probity.

When he became home minister in 1998, Advani restored dignity to a ministry that, with the notable exception of the Communist Party of India’s Indrajit Gupta, had long been held by the most pliable of political lightweights.

Even as the memoirs have raked up some old controversies, his motivation is clearly not to spill the beans on former colleagues. It appears rather to set the record straight on several issues that might spoil his chances of acquiring new coalition partners and becoming the prime minister.

There’s the rub. Thanks to careful omissions and emphases, he often ends up raising uncomfortable questions without answering them.

Take his avowed (and he insists the RSS’ as well) admiration for Mahatma Gandhi. Even as the RSS may not have had anything to do with the Mahatma’s assassination, as he is at pains to remind us, he refrains from pointing out the Sangh’s fundamental differences with the Mahatma. Read in conjunction with his defence of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in the aftermath of the 2002 communal riots in the state, his admiration for Gandhi rings quite hollow.

Or, take internal security. While his government agreed to exchange three dreaded terrorists for hostages of the hijacked IC-814 Indian Airlines plane, he is severely critical of the V.P. Singh government’s decision to release militants in exchange for the then Union home minister’s kidnapped daughter.

While he denounces the communist parties for their history of a series of anti-national decisions, he presents his party’s, and its predecessor Jana Sangh’s, decision to align with them, and just about every other party in a bid to keep the dominant Congress party out of power, as an example of political flexibility, not opportunism.

Again, while nationalism is the recurrent motif in his memoirs, he lauds the BJP’s alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab and chooses to stay silent on the Dal-backed Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee’s decision to install a portrait of the leader of the separatist Khalistan movement, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, in the Golden Temple complex.

Even in the case of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, his passion for the restoration of Hindu pride, in the form of a suitable Ram Mandir at Ayodhya in place of the demolished Babri Masjid, gave way to political pragmatism when his party came to power. While pragmatism came naturally to him and his party, nobody cared to tell the thousands of kar sevaks, scores of whom lost their lives in the process, that the urgency over the building of Ram Mandir was so negotiable.

If Advani valiantly struggled to match his promise with performance as home minister, his memoirs reveal that his political instincts have often struggled to stay in step with his self-professed ideals.

Only if you discount the timing, and therefore the probable purpose, of this book — surely, the book couldn’t have been written in the run-up to the 2004 polls, when the BJP was extremely confident of a victory — can you appreciate it as a welcome addition to the political writings on contemporary India. Despite a few factual mistakes and indifferent proofreading, it is recommended reading, if only because the other end of the ideological spectrum has almost monopolized mainstream writings on Indian politics.