They say first meetings can leave an indelible impression. That’s certainly the case with my introduction to L. K. Advani. It was in December 1990 and he was Leader of the Opposition. I had just returned to India and I was an unknown journalist. The story that follows captures an essential quality of the man, that makes him both special and different.
It happened in a long forgotten age before television news started to dominate our lives. Video magazines were the medium of independent news and analysis. Eyewitness was the one I produced. Mr. Advani was the big guest for our year-end special. The interview passed of amicably but three weeks later, when I met him, he seemed curt if not upset.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I’m told that interview was a travesty,” he replied. L. K. Advani never evades a direct question. His answers tend to be frank and to the point.
“But you were happy with it at the time. What’s changed since then?”
“I haven’t seen it,” he admitted. “But some people who have, tell me it’s a hatchet job.” And with that, he walked away.
Perplexed, I decided to send him a VHS of the interview so he could see and judge for himself. I did so the same afternoon, but weeks went by, even months, yet I got no response. Eventually, I dismissed the matter and decided to forget about it. Then, one evening, the phone rang.
“It’s Lal Krishna Advani,” the voice on the other side began. “I’ve seen the interview. You were right and I was wrong. I was misled but I should not have let that happen. I have no excuse to offer. I apologise.”
You could have knocked me down with a feather. This is not what I had expected. Over the years that followed, I did many more interviews with Mr. Advani. In fact during the six year spell of Hardtalk India, I did a total of eight. Consequently, there were several further occasions when I annoyed him. I discovered that he’s often quick to anger but he’s even faster to cool down. More importantly, he never fails to make up. In fact, if necessary, he never hesitates to apologise.
In 1998, during the election campaign of that year, I interviewed him about the new face the BJP was presenting to the country. “Apne rakshas ke seeng ukadhke munh pe muskurahat dal di he magar aur kuch nahi badla,” I said, attempting a fluency in Hindi I altogether lack. At the time he smiled but ignored the comment. However during the commercial break he removed his mike and got up. He was terminating the interview.
“What’s the problem?” I asked. I had no idea my language was so offensive he would actually leave. It was only meant to be tongue-in-cheek.
Mr. Advani said nothing. He started to walk away. I asked him to reconsider. He ignored me. I started to plead. This time I guess the panic in my voice was obvious. Suddenly, he stopped and returned. The interview continued but it was a close run thing.
“Thank you, Mr. Advani,” I said when it was over.
“No,” he replied, “I owe all of you an apology. I shouldn’t have got angry.” And turning to the crew, he ensured that they were included in the apology he had made. It made an enormous impression on all of us.
I know of very few other men of importance who have the bigness of heart and humility to apologise. By coincidence, our prime minister is one of them. But most others become too proud or too aloof to accept they could be wrong. When they are, they insist on pinning the blame on you!
If it turns out that L. K. Advani and Manmohan Singh will be the principal contenders for the prime ministership at the next polls I, for one, will feel reassured. However, I wish they got on better with each other. They seem to be locked in a lingering feud. I guess one of them owes the other an apology. But which one?