How LK Advani’s secret meeting paved way for Agra summit: Excerpt from Karan Thapar’s book
I have no doubt that the BJP politician I’ve got to know best–– and through him his family as well –– is Lal Krishna Advani…
Our relationship began –– and matured into friendship –– because of the many interviews I did with him.
…My first interview with Advani was in 1990, when he was leader of the opposition and I an unknown journalist recently returned to India. It was intended for the inaugural episode of Eyewitness. In those days, Doordarshan did not accept programmes from independent producers and there were no privately owned satellite-linked television news channels. But at the time Eyewitness was an unknown entity and I wasn’t sure if Advani would accept. Fortunately, he did.
The interview took place on a pleasant December afternoon at his Pandara Park residence. It wasn’t very long, probably ten or twelve minutes. It appeared in March 1991 when the first episode of Eyewitness was launched.
A short time later, when I next met him, I asked him what he’d thought of the interview. He tersely replied that he had been told it was a travesty. Then he abruptly turned and walked away.
Stunned by this behaviour, I sent him a VHS of the interview and asked him to see it for himself. ..
Weeks, actually months, went by without any response. In fact, I gave up expecting one. Then suddenly, late one summer evening, the phone rang. It was L.K. Advani.
‘Karan, I’ve just seen the interview and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. I was clearly misinformed. However, I’m too old to make that excuse and I’m afraid I behaved badly when we last met. I’m ringing to apologize.’
This unhesitating willingness to accept a mistake is perhaps his greatest quality and immediately attracted me to him. Over the years that followed, I’ve seen it on many occasions. The one that stands out was February 1998, when, as president of the BJP, he was campaigning for the elections. During one of his halts in Delhi he agreed to an interview with me.
On that occasion, my intention was to question the sincerity of the new, genial and appealing image the BJP was projecting. Was this the true character of the party or just a facade to dupe the electorate?
Halfway into the interview and just before we paused for the commercial break, I said to Advani: ‘Aapne rakshas ke seengh ukhaad ke munh pe muskarahat dal di hai. Lekin ye dikhava hai ya asliyat? (You have changed your image from demonic to genial. Is this an act or for real?)’ I’m not sure why I asked this question in Hindi – the interview was, of course, in English. It just came out that way.
At the time Advani did not react adversely. However, a few minutes later when we took the break, he got up, saying that he didn’t want to continue. The crew and I were stunned. When I asked what the problem was, he replied with a question of his own: ‘Why do you want to interview a man you consider a rakshas?’ I realized I had hurt him, which was not my intention.
Moments later, Advani left the room. But then, within a flash, he walked back in. He had barely been out for a minute. Resuming his seat and looking at the crew, he apologized for what he had just done. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that. You have come all the way to interview me and the least I can do is finish the interview. Let’s continue.’
…It was, however, a strange turn of events that took our relationship from politician and journalist to something approaching friendship, which also included his family. It had nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with the fact that the Pakistani high commissioner in India, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, was a dear friend of mine and determined to make a serious effort to alter the fraught relationship between our two countries.
Eager to establish a personal rapport with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, Ashraf asked if I could help. George Fernandes was my initial choice and I set up a few meetings for them, usually over quiet dinners at my home. That worked magnificently. Fernandes and Ashraf became friends and learnt to trust each other. But Fernandes, Ashraf quickly realized, could not influence the government on the tricky issue of Pakistan. That could only be done by a BJP leader who, additionally, was trusted by Prime Minister Vajpayee.
‘I’d like to meet Mr Advani,’ Ashraf announced one day in early 2000. George Fernandes, who recognized and accepted the need, arranged the meeting and I was asked to drive Ashraf to Advani’s Pandara Park residence. It was fixed for 10 p.m. No one else was informed.
Ashraf had no idea how long the meeting would last. ‘Don’t go far,’ he warned me. ‘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 for ninety minutes.
Over the next eighteen months, there were perhaps twenty or thirty such clandestine meetings. The vast majority took place at night. I would be the chauffeur and the guards at Pandara Park were only given my name. The whole thing felt like a cloak-and-dagger game in a B-grade Bollywood film.
The only person who stumbled upon this –– but I don’t think he worked out what exactly was happening ––was Sudheendra Kulkarni. In those days, he was Vajpayee’s speech writer. His association with Advani was yet to begin. At the first meeting between Ashraf and Advani, he walked in unannounced to deliver papers and caught all of us having a chat after the formal meeting was over. Fortunately, Sudheendra didn’t linger. Nor did he suspect anything.
Two weeks later, when the second meeting was underway and I’d parked under a street light in Khan Market, Sudheendra, emerging from a Chinese restaurant, saw me and walked up to ask what I was doing.
‘I’m a little early to collect a friend who’s dining at the Ambassador Hotel,’ I lied. ‘So I thought I’d wait here.’ Amazingly, Sudheendra believed this but it was a close thing.
I had been lucky on two consecutive occasions, but everyone involved knew I couldn’t risk a third. Pratibha and Mrs Advani insisted that, hereafter, I wait with them while Advani and Ashraf talked in the former’s study.
Soon a routine was established. The two As would disappear into Advani’s study. I would sit with Mrs Advani and Pratibha. When the meeting was over the other two would join us for a cup of tea.
Late in May 2001, India announced that it had invited General Pervez Musharraf for a summit in Agra. 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 took place during the Musharraf visit. It happened after the Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet, close to 11 p.m. Ashraf rapidly changed from his achkan into casual clothes so that no one would recognize him. Advani still had on the grey trousers of his bandgala suit. The Agra summit was due 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. It lasted through the difficult months of the attack on Parliament in December 2001 and the Kaluchak terror attack in 2002, which led to Ashraf being asked to leave. Though no longer a go-between, I continued to witness the amazing relationship between Advani and Ashraf that few, if any, knew about.
…The last time they would meet while the former was the country’s high commissioner... happened... just days after the terrible terrorist attack at Kaluchak in Jammu in May 2002. Leaving thirty-one dead and forty-seven wounded, this was one attack too many for the Indian government. The Indian high commissioner had been withdrawn from Pakistan several months earlier, but the Pakistanis had not asked Ashraf to return and the Indians had not pressed for his departure. But now the Vajpayee government asked for Ashraf to be withdrawn and gave him a week to leave the country.
Long before the Kaluchak attack, Ashraf had sensed that his time in Delhi was coming to an end. He had wanted to make a difference and, at first, his relationship with Advani suggested that that might just happen. But after the failure of the Agra summit and the attack on Parliament he knew that wasn’t going to be the case.
As the seven days given to him ticked by, I got a call from Mrs Advani asking if I would bring Ashraf and his wife, Abidah, for tea on their penultimate evening. The Advanis wanted to meet the Qazis and personally bid farewell. This was an amazing gesture by the deputy prime minister of a government that had just chosen to declare Ashraf persona non grata. Of course, this wasn’t publicized. That would have embarrassed the Advanis. But they went ahead, knowing the story could leak out.
This was also one of my last duties as Ashraf’s chauffeur. I drove the Qazis to the new Advani home –– they had recently moved from Pandara Park to Prithviraj Road. We had tea in the study. It was just the Advanis and Pratibha and, of course, Ashraf, Abidah and me.
I can’t remember the conversation but there was, no doubt, a strain in the air. After all, both parties were aware of the circumstances that were bringing their relationship to an end. After half an hour, the Qazis got up to leave but unbeknownst to them there was one touching surprise still in store. It happened when Ashraf approached Advani to shake hands.
‘Galey lago,’ Mrs Advani intervened. Both men were taken aback. They stared at her. ‘Galey lago,’ she repeated. And then, almost as if this was what they both wanted, Advani and Ashraf embraced.
I was standing behind Ashraf, so I could clearly see Advani’s face. Tears had welled up in his eyes.
…It’s hard to say how much of the credit goes to Ashraf –– though some certainly does –– but Advani’s attitude to Pakistan started to change after meeting him…
However, the first concrete proof that Advani’s outlook on Pakistan had changed came when the Pakistani foreign minister of the time, Khurshid Kasuri, visited Delhi in 2005. Advani was leader of the opposition and also president of the BJP. It was in that capacity that Kasuri called on him. During their conversation the Pakistani minister extended an invitation to the Advani family to visit his country.
Coincidentally, I had scheduled an interview with Kasuri for 10 p.m. the same night he called on Advani. Around 4 or 5 that afternoon, I received a call asking if I could meet Advani in the early part of the evening. I wasn’t told what he had to say and I had no idea what to expect.
When I met him, Advani told me about the meeting and the invitation to visit Pakistan. He wanted me to convey his answer. I’m not sure why he chose me and didn’t respond more formally. He did not explain and I didn’t ask.
Advani said that he would be delighted to visit Pakistan and would like to do so with his wife, daughter, son and daughter-in-law. I passed on the message when I met Kasuri that night. I’m not sure if he had expected such a swift reply, but he immediately called for paper and asked me to write down the names of Advani’s children. I did so.
The foreign minister seemed pleased. His intention was to take one of the most hard-line BJP leaders to Pakistan in the hope that exposure to the country and its legendary hospitality would change Advani’s attitude and soften his politics. He could not have known that, in fact, this had already been happening.
Things moved pretty swiftly hereafter. A formal invitation was issued to the Advani family, which they accepted, and the visit happened a few weeks later.
On the day of his departure, I sent Advani a short personal letter to wish him good luck. I ended by pointing out that I’ve always believed there is a little bit of India in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistan in every Indian. This sentiment clearly struck a chord because the Pakistani papers reported that Advani said something very similar during his visit to the Katas Raj Temple complex outside Lahore.
Unfortunately, Advani’s Pakistan visit led directly to the loss of his BJP presidency. It happened because of what he wrote in the visitors’ book at the Jinnah mausoleum in Karachi.
‘There are many people who leave an inerasable stamp on history,’ he wrote in the register. ‘But there are very few who actually create history. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was one such rare individual.’
In his early years, Sarojini Naidu, a leading luminary of India’s freedom struggle, described Mr Jinnah as an ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’. His address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, is really a classic, a forceful espousal of a secular state in which, while every citizen would be free to practice his own religion, the state shall make no distinction between one citizen and another on grounds of faith. My respectful homage to this great man.
His words were unexceptional but the BJP and, more importantly, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) could not accept his calling Jinnah secular. It went against their grain. I’m not sure if they were anyway looking for an opportunity to move him out but this certainly gave them the excuse to do so.
However, Advani’s inscription reminded me of my own view of him. I’ve always believed that he’s a liberal and secular man who uses religion for political or strategic purposes. Ironically, Jinnah was similar. Neither man was prejudiced against people of other faiths. Indeed, Jinnah wasn’t particularly religious and I’m not sure if Advani is either. No doubt he’s a believer, but the rituals and practices of Hinduism play little part in his behaviour and outlook.
Although losing the BJP presidency may have hurt, it didn’t change Advani’s attitude towards Pakistan. The gentler, softer outlook continued. He also never recanted or withdrew the words he wrote in the visitors’ book. Whenever we spoke about it, he always maintained he’d written the truth.
Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India.