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The untold Advani story

In the end, the Agra summit failed. LK Advani and Ashraf Qazi's best efforts were in vain, but the bond they formed did not snap, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:09 IST

Perhaps, this is self-indulgence, but I’m going to elaborate on a little footnote in history. Now that L. K. Advani has mentioned it in his memoirs and spoken of it in interviews, I feel I can tell the full story. LKA was not “the hidden hand” that sabotaged the Agra Summit of 2001. He was its architect. How do I know? I helped set it up, although I wasn’t “the intermediary” Advani generously calls me.

The story goes back to 1998. At the time, Ashraf Qazi was Pakistan’s high commissioner and a close friend. Eager to establish a personal rapport with the NDA government, he asked if I would help. George Fernandes was my initial choice and I set up a few meetings, usually over quiet dinners at my home. They worked magnificently. Fernandes and Qazi became friends and learnt to trust each other.

“I’d like to meet Mr. Advani,” Ashraf announced one day in early 2000. George Fernandes arranged the meeting and I was asked to drive Ashraf to Advani’s Pandara Road residence. It was fixed for 10:00 p.m. No one else was informed.

Ashraf had no idea how long the meeting would last. “Don’t go far,” he warned. “I’ll ring your mobile as soon as it’s over.” I sat outside in the car expecting him in half an hour. He stayed 90 minutes.

Over the next year, there were perhaps twenty such clandestine meetings. The vast majority were at night. I was the chauffeur and the guards at Pandara Road were only given my name. Soon, a routine was established. The two As would disappear into Advani’s study. I would sit with Mrs. Advani and Pratibha. When their conversation was over, they’d join us for a cup of tea.

The only person who stumbled upon this — but I don’t think he worked it out — was Sudheendra Kulkarni. In those days, he was Vajpayee’s speech writer. His association with Advani was yet to begin. At the very first meeting, he walked in, unannounced, to deliver papers, but fortunately, didn’t stay. Two weeks later, when the second meeting was underway and I’d parked under a streetlight in Khan Market, Sudheendra, emerging from a Chinese restaurant, recognised me.

“I’m a little early to collect a friend who’s dining at the Ambassador,” I lied. “So I thought I’d wait here.” Amazingly, Sudheendra believed this but thereafter, Pratibha insisted I wait with them.

Late in May 2001, India announced it had invited Musharraf. At 6:30 the next morning, Advani rang. I was asleep. “I’m sorry for calling so early but I want you to tell our common friend that he shares the credit for this development. Our meetings were a big help.”

Their last meeting was during the Musharraf visit. It happened after the Rashtrapati Bhawan banquet, close to 11:00 p.m. Ashraf rapidly changed from his achkan into casual clothes so no one would recognise him. Advani still had on the grey trousers of his bandgala suit. Agra was the next morning. There was hope in the air.

In the end, the summit failed. Ashraf’s and Advani’s best efforts were in vain, but the bond they formed did not snap. There were two further memorable meetings. The day after the attack on Parliament, at The Pioneer’s 10th anniversary dinner, Mrs. Advani insisted Ashraf meet her husband. He was hesitant to do so. He felt it would be embarrassing. But when he did, Advani grasped his hand and greeted him warmly. “What an amazing man,” Ashraf said afterwards.

Six months later, after the terrorist attack at Kaluchak, Ashraf was asked to leave. The government gave him a week. On his penultimate evening, the Advanis invited him for a personal farewell. It was my last duty as chauffeur.

Neither Ashraf nor Advani were embarrassed by the circumstances. They took it in their stride. Events had worked out very differently to their intentions but they had done their best. When it was time to leave, Ashraf started to shake hands.

“Galle lago,” Mrs. Advani intervened. She ensured the two embraced. Tears welled up in Advani’s eyes.