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Advani's book exposes his pettiness

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Last updated on: April 15, 2008 15:28 IST
So powerful is the spin machine that certain political leaders command that the media becomes a willful accomplice in lionising them. Take P V Narasimha Rao. This cynical advocate of defeatism, in the face of Hindutva and globalisation, was glorified as both a scholar extraordinary who knew 14 languages, and a Chanakya or master-tactician.

Reality was more prosaic. Rao was no great linguist. He allowed the Babri Masjid to be razed through 'masterly' inaction. And he accelerated the Congress's decline after losing the 1996 election.

Now, the media is building up L K Advani as a leader destined to be our next prime minister -- exactly the way Atal Bihari Vajpayee was promoted in 1998 as 'the man India awaits'. Advani, we're also told, is an erudite person, with sharp analytical faculties and a gentle, humane, side.

Those who have followed Advani's career will doubt the validity of this description. His autobiography My Country, My Life should confirm their worst assessments. The reader may disagree with Vajpayee's foreword about the author, which says that he is an 'outstanding leader whose best is yet to come.'

Advani emerges as a leader whose time has already passed. His ideology and politics have no relevance for today's Indian, who wants an open, tolerant and just society, who longs to be emancipated from poverty, and who is yet to enjoy real, substantive democracy.

Advani's 986-page book is tediously descriptive. It narrates numerous anecdotes, some interesting, but most without insights into events or personalities. One doesn't expect full, candid disclosures about the past from practicing politicians because that would limit their future options. But one can legitimately hope for some analysis, honest reflection, new information, and a little self-doubt.

Advani doesn't rise to the mark. He doesn't maintain enough distance from events and chooses not to look at them critically. The book is a self-justificatory apology for his role in them. It also reveals a series of obsessions and clichés: 'Hindu India's' centuries-long story of victimisation, prejudice against efforts (Gandhi's) to forge a citizen-based identity independent of religion, deep suspicion of liberal, consensual Nehru-style politics, blind faith in aggressive nationalism as the key to India's emergence as a Great Power'.

Even in the book's best part, pertaining to the Emergency, Advani doesn't rise above petty, person-centric polemics. He shows no understanding of the deeper causes of the structural crisis of governance in that period. He condemns Indira Gandhi for saying that 'the nation is more important than democracy' and for invoking 'the foreign hand' to violate civil liberties. He also accuses her of having 'explored the possibility of installing a presidential system of government' in place of the parliamentary system.

But Advani forgets that his own party is distinguished by the primacy it accords to the nation and to a strong Centre, over and above democracy and fundamental rights. As home minister, he was himself guilty of attributing to the foreign hand (Pakistan) during the Kashmir unrest. As for the presidential system, it is the National Democratic Alliance which established the Commission to Review the Constitution -- expressly, but unsuccessfully, to promote presidential government.

Advani closely observed or played a role in some momentous events -- the Emergency, the Ayodhya mobilisation, the 1998 nuclear tests, India's strategic embrace of the United States. His government was in power at the Centre during India's worst State-sponsored violence in Gujarat. But he offers no analytical insights or self-critical reflection into these. Totally missing is the larger social-political context which made these events possible -- including the historic decline of the Congress, rise of identity politics, the consequences of neo-liberal policies, and spread of chauvinistic nationalism.

The book doesn't even describe through what process the Bharatiya Janata Party put together the NDA coalition government. Nor does it once mention the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's interference in its day-to-day governance, which became starkly visible when it vetoed Jaswant Singh's appointment as finance minister.

Advani hides the rationale of the 1998 nuclear blasts and doesn't explain why the RSS-BJP didn't hold the promised 'strategic defence review' before ordering them. He presents the decision as a straightforward corollary of the Jana Sangh's 1964 resolution calling for an Indian nuclear bomb -- skipping the three-decade gap!

Advani's entire discourse on national security is banal, and his understanding of terrorism is pathetic and driven by a Pakistan obsession -- as if the Kashmir militancy never had indigenous roots in popular discontent and Indian policies. Terrorism must be, can only be, smashed with force; there's no need for addressing its root causes. This thinking befits a small-town thanedar, not India's home minister.

Advani foams at the mouth at threats from Pakistan and the need for a matching answer. But he doesn't explain why India's 10 month-long mobilisation of 700,000-strong troops, post-December 2001, was no answer. Nor does he explain why Vajpayee extended 'the hand of peace' to Pakistan in April 2003, barely a week after he had ruled this out, and how he himself suddenly became a votary of peace with Pakistan.

Advani held 20 secret meetings with then Pakistan high commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, but doesn't explain why they produced no results at Agra or later.

The book contains some outright lies too. During Advani's US trip in June 2003, India all but agreed -- subject to clarifications -- to send troops in aid of the Iraq occupation. In his book, he writes: 'Right from the beginning... Atalji and I were firmly of the view that sending troops... was out of the question. It wasn't in India's national interests to support the unjust invasion.'

However, it was officially reported that India agreed in principle to send troops. A June 8 statement by the Indian embassy in Washington states that Advani told then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld: 'The matter is under consideration of the government'.

Aaj Tak quoted the then home minister as saying that those opposed to sending troops were 'uninformed and had a one-sided opinion'.

Advani merely repeats his 2005 remarks on Jinnah's secularism in Pakistan, based on his August 11, 1947 speech, which he interprets as defending 'equality of all citizens in the eyes of the State'.

But Jinnah created a State on the basis of religion, although he may have regretted its limitations. Advani believes it's legitimate to use religion to come to power, and then build a nominally non-denominational State. This fully conforms to the BJP's profoundly anti-secular use of religious identities as tools for political mobilisation.

Advani is silent about who pressed for his resignation after these remarks, but it's known they included his own proteges (Arun Jaitley). Yet, he recalls: 'One day, I was told that I should step down from the post of the BJP president'. He calls this profoundly agonising, but doesn't gather the courage to say it was the RSS that issued the directive!

Advani's account of the Kandahar episode is a classic white lie. He repeatedly claims that the BJP would never compromise with terrorists -- when it actually exchanged hostages with them. He ludicrously says he was unaware that Jaswant Singh was asked by the Cabinet Committee on Security to go to Kandahar and carry out the exchange. This is contradicted by every available account, including that of then defence minister George Fernandes.

This gravely damages Advani's credibility, and his USP as Loh Purush (Iron Man). If he was unaware of Singh's brief, he was unfit to be the home minister. And if he was party to the CCS decision, then it demolishes his claimed resolve to fight terrorism in the style of Sardar Patel. Either way, Advani loses.

Advani's idea of secularism is grotesque. He never rises above the religion-based 'us' and 'them' identities. He condemns Graham Staines' killing, and repeats the cliché, 'some of my best friends are Christians', but reverts to crass Hindutva on the issue of religious conversion, terming it 'a threat both to Hindu society and national integration'. He adds, 'Hindu organisations cannot be blamed for protesting against it'.

The most nauseating part of the book pertains to the Gujarat riots. Advani rejects the settled truth that the post-Godhra violence was State-sponsored. As proof, he narrates two instances in which he interceded with Modi and prevented Muslims from being killed. But for every such example, there are probably 10 instances of premeditated murder, including the gruesome dismembering of former member of Parliament Ehsan Jafri, which Advani failed to prevent.

Advani ends up lionising Narendra Modi as 'the most viciously, consistently and persistently maligned leader, both nationally and internationally'. Modi logically emerges as his successor -- a shameful comment on the BJP's evolution.

Advani wanted to use the book as a launching pad for the next election and put the Congress in a spot. To score a PR point, he even presented a copy to Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Holi. But all the book succeeds in doing is expose his pettiness.

Praful Bidwai