Whenever I look at LK Advani on my television screen, the Hindi adage sau chuhe khake billi Haj ko chali (sinner pretending to be a saint) automatically pops into my head.
My apologies to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate but it is my interaction with him over the years that has led me almost subconsciously to conclude that he is a holier-than-thou humbug who hopes to get away with whatever he says on the sheer, well, hope that no one will question or challenge his statements. When they do, he is either hurt (as he is now that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is challenging every word he says) or angry and intractable.
The best example of this was in 1996 when the BJP was gung-ho about coming to power at the approaching elections. They were holding a party executive meeting in Bombay and by then I was no longer unsure about the fundamentals of both India and my own self but was still a little wary of challenging anyone as senior as Advani on basic truths.
As his press conference unfolded, I was appalled to find that barely five years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, he was laying claim to secularism. And I got blown out of my mind when he upheld the example of Mahatma Gandhi as the reason why he was “not worried that the BJP would before long be seen as a secular party not just in India but the rest of the world as well”.
“Mahatma Gandhi was known as a Hindu leader during the freedom struggle. But today everybody swears by his secularism,” Advani pontificated. “So I am sure in a few years from now, every one will recognise how secular we ourselves are.”
Strangely, there was no challenge to this absolute travesty of the truth by any of the senior journalists he had brought along with him from New Delhi. I waited a while before urging a fellow journalist from Bombay to stand up and take on Advani over the misappropriation of Mahatma Gandhi by the BJP. But he was too young and got duly snubbed by the then BJP president.
So I sprang to my feet and asked, rather incoherently, “Tell me, Mr Advani, because these were events before my birth, so I would like to know from you personally. History books have told us that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse who was a member of the Sangh Parivar. So does your party believe in killing your own leaders? And how do you reconcile the demolition of the Babri Masjid with your secular image?”
“That was just a structure,” Advani snapped back (notice, he didn’t say anything about Gandhiji).
I wouldn’t let go. “If it was anything but a mosque — even a school, college, hospital, temple or any other public utility, you would never have demolished that ‘structure’!” I insisted.
“Read our white paper on that,” said Advani.
“I want your answer now,” I insisted.
“I do not have to answer any of your questions,” a by now very angry Advani retaliated and stormed off.
The BJP’s press managers were immediately on to me. It was the era before 24x7 television but they were video-graphing the event and moved to quickly cut the recording.
“Why are you insisting on bringing our skeletons out of the cupboard?” one of the local BJP polticos asked me.
“You said it,” I quipped. “I did not mention any skeletons!”
Next day, I was not welcome at that meeting and although the newspapers reported that argument as having been won by Advani — he snubbed the reporter, they said — I was happy I had made my point. My editor had the capacity to recognise the exchange for what it was and made me rewrite my routine story about the meeting with the focus on this hot exchange of words. “Leave the rest to me,” he assured and the BJP could do little to stop it from being carried by other editions as well.
Of course, the party’s press managers made it amply clear to me after that that I was not welcome again at any of Advani’s meetings hence forward. Frankly speaking, I thought I would miss nothing — because more of the same would have been absolutely unpalatable.
I see the same approach now in Advani’s reaction to the Prime Minister’s decision to challenge him on his obfuscations about himself. I would say that Advani has brought it upon himself by unnecessarily needling Dr Singh as the weakest Prime Minister ever. And although the Prime Minister has never been known to be anything but soft-spoken and polite, it was about time someone held a mirror up to Advani and showed him up for what he really is.
I noticed he was not talking to Dr Manmohan Singh, cold shouldering him at the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in New Delhi on Tuesday. Obviously this time he has chosen to retire, “hurt”.