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LK before he leaps

Advani’s strengths and weaknesses are captured in his new book, My Country, My Life. It is a readable, rewarding and often racy account of his political career. Vir Sanghvi elaborates.

india Updated: Mar 25, 2008 22:50 IST

Anybody who has ever interviewed LK Advani will know that he is an unusual Indian politician in the sense that he does not shy away from discussing issues. He is unusual also in that he is comfortable with ideas and happy to conduct an intellectual argument. If he has faults, they lie in his sensitive nature. He is remarkably thin-skinned for a politician, will often take needless offence and equally, will be easily and tearfully overwhelmed. Plus, he is reluctant to cause hurt. Rarely will he say anything bad about any of his colleagues even when the truth might do him more good than the evasions he sometimes resorts to.

Advani’s strengths and weaknesses are captured in his new book, My Country, My Life, (Rupa). It is a readable, rewarding and often racy account of his political career. Written from the heart, it is part-memoir and part-manifesto. But he pulls his punches. And so, his account of his time at the head of his party is only half-complete. Many of the mysteries of the last ten years are not solved and, frequently, we can only guess at the truth by what is left unsaid.

Even so, this is a better and more honest book than any recent political memoir, far better certainly than Jaswant Singh’s that covers some of the same ground. Advani may not be able to bring himself to always tell the whole story, but there are no lies here, only a few evasions.

So, while Advani is unwilling to go into details, we get some insight into the two relationships that have shaped the BJP over the last decade: the friendship (or not) between Advani and his old mentor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the relationship between the BJP and its spiritual parent, the RSS or, simply, ‘the Sangh’, as Advani calls it.

No matter how much the BJP’s leaders may try and break free of the stranglehold of the Sangh when it comes to the crunch, they all fall in line. This was demonstrated most clearly within a few days of the BJP’s victory in 1998. Vajpayee had decided to make Jaswant Singh his Finance Minister. The RSS disapproved of the choice. K.S. Sudarshan, its leader, called on Vajpayee and told him that the Sangh would not accept Singh. Though Jaswant was then Vajpayee’s closest ally in the party, Sudarshan’s view held sway and Singh was not included in the Cabinet.

Tellingly, Advani does not include this episode in his book and the RSS remains a shadowy player, lurking somewhere in the mists. Only once do we find evidence of its direct intervention. In June 2005, Advani visited Pakistan and controversially described M.A. Jinnah as ‘secular’. When his remarks set off a storm in India, he offered to resign. The BJP officially declined to accept his resignation. But in October that year, Advani resigned anyway.

Why did he quit? Here’s Advani’s version: “One day, in the middle of 2005, I was told that I should step down from the presidentship of the BJP by the year-end...” Who told him this? Who has the authority to ask the BJP president to quit after his colleagues have passed a resolution supporting him?

The answer is self-evident.

Advani also records two instances that indicate the Sangh’s lack of enthusiasm for Vajpayee. The first is that in 1995, when he announced that Vajpayee would be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, “some people in the party and the Sangh had chided me for making the announcement”.

The second dates to 2002 when the BJP was looking for a candidate to replace K.R. Narayanan as President of India. According to Advani, Rajju Bhaiyya, the RSS’s sarsanghchalak, asked Vajpayee to take the job on the grounds that it would be less taxing to his health. And, of course, it would get him out of the PMO.

The relationship between Vajpayee and Advani is much more complicated. Clearly, Vajpayee resented his former protégé’s rise and did not approve of all his policies. Advani concedes that Vajpayee “had some reservations about the BJP getting directly associated with the Ayodhya movement”, but argues that “Atalji accepted the collective decision of the party”. He is unwilling, however, to admit that Vajpayee resented his rise in any way. Most people believe that Vajpayee felt slighted when the BJP chose Advani over him to be Leader of the Opposition in 1991, and Advani has conceded, in private conversation, that, in retrospect, he should have insisted that Vajpayee take the job. In the book, he says, “I felt that Atalji should rightfully perform that role. But he too insisted that I assume the responsibility.” Which is true enough — Vajpayee was gracious in his public statements — but is hardly the full story.

About the BJP’s time in office, Advani glosses over the open rift between the PMO and the Home Ministry. He admits that he wanted Brajesh Mishra to give up one of his two jobs: National Security Advisor (NSA) and Principal Secretary to the PM. But he does not mention how divided the security establishment was between the NSA’s people and his own (IB Director K.P. Singh whom the PMO regarded as an Advani stooge and his deputy Ajit Doval, whom Advani lavishes with praise in the book). And Mishra, a key figure in the NDA government and in many of the events described in the book, hardly features.

On the big stories, we must assume that silence is confirmation. For instance, it was widely believed at the time that only Vajpayee, George Fernandes and Mishra knew about the decision to order the nuclear tests. Advani and senior members of the Cabinet were informed only on the eve of the actual tests. Advani does not admit this but, in a 986-page book, does not give any account of the decision to go nuclear. His narrative sticks to ideological arguments and to the day of the tests themselves. Why would he exclude the details of the run-up to one of the BJP government’s single biggest decisions if he was an active participant?

Similarly, Advani loyalists have long claimed that he was unhappy with the decision to release terrorists in exchange for the hostages on IC-814. I was editor of the HT at the time. On the day of the release, we were about to carry a story to this effect leaked by the Advani camp when, late in the night, news agencies carried Advani’s denial of the reports. We gathered later that Vajpayee had phoned Advani and asked him to issue the denial.

In the book, Advani says that he was “initially” against the release but later states that “the government most reluctantly took the option to minimise the losses”. Nowhere does he say that he changed his mind. Instead, he indicates that he went along with the principle of collective responsibility. In his recent interviews, he has suggested that he continued to be opposed to the release.

Despite this disagreement with Vajpayee and the admission of other differences — over sacking Narendra Modi and the timing of the election — the book sticks to the party line that Vajpayee was the boss and Advani his loyal deputy. There is hardly anything about Advani’s elevation to Deputy Prime Minister, about why it was done and why Vajpayee kept it secret from those close to him. Nor is there much about Pramod Mahajan who appears in the book as a rath yatri and then vanishes. We never learn why Advani fell out so completely with him or how he turned up as a key figure in the early Vajpayee PMO. Even when Advani criticises the BJP’s general election campaign (India Shining was a mistake, he admits as was his own phrase: “Feel good”), he is careful not to attack Mahajan’s hi-tech campaign which Vajpayee himself later criticised.

But then, that’s Advani’s style. He may spill the beans about his opponents (he confirms the rumour that Mulayam Singh Yadav did a secret deal with the BJP in 1999 to prevent a secular government from being formed), but when it comes to the BJP, the Sangh and to his own colleagues, he is the ultimate party man. He may be hurt, he may be upset — but he will never let the story go out of the Sangh Parivar.