After I had finished reading L.K .Advani's autobiography, I was reminded of Tennyson's Ulysses:
"Much have I seen and known; cities of men/And manners, climates, councils, governments,/Myself not least, but honored of them all'
Advani's 1000-page journey of My Country My Life (MCML) begins with him as an awkward teenager in Sindh (then in India,) and ends with an accomplished 80-year old Indian Prime Minister-in-waiting. Like the ektaara that plays only one note, the one note that Advani plays repeatedly is his over-riding concern for the welfare of India. Denying any space to petty, selfish concerns, Advani demonstrates that his path of Hindutva, Indianness or Bhartiyata always translated for him along the lines of 'sab jaati mahaan, sab jaati samman' (all castes are great, all castes are equal).
The media reports that copies of L.K.Advani's autobiography will, in less than a month of its release cross the 100,000 mark, and I am not surprised. At least until 1977, India was ruled by a government, which muzzled the Press. It was only in 1979, when the Janata Party took the reins that the real right to free expression found space.
This is why Advani uninterrupted or misinterpreted by the Press, needs to be heard, since voices from the other side offer us a holistic picture of what really happened. Actions of powerful persons need scrutiny, Indians should know their leaders through their deeds, not words. Mysteries surrounding their persona might not translate into votes, since access to the public is the mainstay of a politician's life. Neither Sonia Gandhi nor Advani can afford to be mysteries.
Thus, we might well ask, who is Advani? How does he think? What drives him to continue working even at 80? Is he really a communalist pretending to be a secular human being or is he indeed grossly misunderstood, while being a secular human being who is the favorite whipping-boy of the Left and the Congress? What drove him to undertake a Rath Yatra to Ayodhya? Is it defensible? Is his respect for Abdul Kalam a pretense, vote-bank politics? Is his speech in Karachi lauding Jinnah's words another charade? Is he anything more than a fake, a past master at devious simulation?
Through MCML, the Indian public gets a ringside view of the man who would be the next Indian king. Thus, it is his critics and enemies more than his friends and Sangh loyalists for whom the book is essential reading. Getting answers straight from the horse's mouth, detailed and non-evasive explanations at that, is something serious intellectuals demand, and they are all to be found here, and in ample measure.
Advani has followed in the footsteps of J.P. Kripalani whose 1000 paged autobiography My Times, also came from the mind of a politician (albeit a Congressman), a Sindhi Hindu refugee. However, because of and despite Nehru's scant regard for both of them, their autobiographies are important since they shed light on high-level politicking. However, Kripalani penned his book after there was little chance of his being in the forefront of Indian politics, while Advani's musings have seen print surprisingly when he has been selected as the BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate for the 2009 national elections. Advani probably felt, when he commenced on the book that his own show was similarly over, only to find that, far from being put out to pasture, he was asked to take the lead. That things went full circle would, least of all, surprise Advani who remarks fortuitously, 'I have (also) found that, sometimes, failure transforms itself into success, and what initially comes as a disappointment often ushers in long-term favorable results.' (Chapter 9, Phase 5, pg 694).
What are the drawbacks of the book? Despite some excellent photographs, like the before and after pictures of Vajpayee, Advani and Shekhawat, the book is needlessly lengthy. The book could have done without the 5 lengthy appendixes (pgs 902-942) as well as detailed speeches and detailed events scattered through the book; sometimes the main body of the book sagged under the weight of these asides which would have been better placed in small print, as footnotes. The central thread of the autobiography must be preserved, without distractions, to make the book a crisp and speedy manageable 700 odd pages.
Of course, the Ayodhya mosque, the Modi role in Gujarat, Shah Bano, the Karachi speech on Jinnah, his own recommendations on electoral reforms, etc, all these make for fascinating reading, but there are other smaller matters that make the book a delicious read.
The fly-leaf of the book which depicts the tastefully done Mohenjo-Daro statue in sepia tones, draws our attention to Advani's birth in a region now no longer belonging to India. Then a full-page photograph of Bharat Mata follows, as if offering visual proof of Advani's primary concern, his country, India or Bharat Mata. In fact, one wonders why the book has a missing verb in its title, would it not be more apt to name the book, 'My Country is my life'?
The Vajpayee foreword sets the tone for the book with the appropriate sentiment, 'But those who have worked or interacted with him closely know him as a man who has never compromised on his core belief in nationalism, and yet has displayed flexibility in political responses whenever it was demanded by the situation. Above all, he has an open mind that always absorbs new ideas from diverse sources''
That the two erstwhile Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of India, shared a Ram-Laxman relationship would be to state the obvious; at several places in the volume, Advani walks us through situations when although the two were not in agreement, they concurred with Advani taking second lead, and bending to Vajpayee's saner counsel. To dispel any controversy about their relationship, Advani dedicates a full 14-paged chapter to Vajpayee (Phase 5, chapter 16, pp 833-847).
It is here that the iron man's loving portrait of his leader is drawn, with, one suspects, a tear in the eye, since Vajpayee is no longer in active politics. Despite several vicissitudes, the two never lost their vision and focus, never allowing their egos to get the better of them. He says, 'The relationship between Atalji and me was never competitive, much less combative. I do not imply that we never had any difference of opinion' however, what lent depth to our relationship were three factors. We both were strongly moored in the ideology, ideals and ethos of the Jana Sangh and the BJP, which commanded all its members to put Nation first, Party next, and Self last. We never allowed differences to undermine mutual trust and respect. But there was a third and very important factor: I always implicitly and unquestioningly accepted Atalji to be my senior and my leader'Atalji is the mukhiya of our family.'
If one needed evidence of Advani's patriotism, one gets it in adequate measure right from the prologue where he confesses his own hurt and pain when India fails to meet basic standards: 'My moment of greatest agony, each year, is when I see two reports: Transparency International's annual report which ranks countries on the basis of corruption index, in which India is always ranked high; and the United Nations' annual report on the Human Development Index which ranks India low amongst the most unsatisfactory performers'We have been unable to provide clean drinking water to hundreds of millions of our citizens; more than half of our population, both in urban as well as rural areas, is deprived of something as basic as a clean toilet; hunger still stalks the bodies of many of our brethren in rural and remote areas' what can be more shaming than to read that many infants in our tribal areas die of malnutrition?... the lost childhood of millions of our children who are forced to toil when they ought to be playing and studying, saddens my heart. The squalor of our urban slums and the desolate look of many of our villages convince me' that something has gone seriously wrong with our development process' the entire country is not growing at 9 percent, while a small section of urban India might be growing at 20 percent or even more, the majority of India is still stuck at low digits, it is even growing at all''
The book begins with Phase one 'Sindh and India, An unbreakable Bond 1927-1947' which is the shortest phase, a mere 50 pages in all. This portion deals with the beginning of his life in Sindhi and the 'terrible calamity' of the Partition. For Indians at least, a little known fact is brought into sharp focus when he states, 'But while Bengal and Punjab were divided and so provided a natural home to the uprooted Hindus from these two provinces, Sindh became a part of Pakistan in its entirety. There were districts in Sindhi contiguous to Rajasthan, like Tharparkar, which had a Hindu majority. A more assertive leadership could perhaps have succeeded in bringing these districts to India, in which case India's western boundary could have stretched right upto the sacred Sindhu River. Sadly, this did not happen.'
One wonders how many Indian governments have spoken for the reclamation of Tharparkar (a Hindu dominated region) to Pakistan every time they have claimed Kashmir and talked of 'self-determination' on grounds of religion. Today, Sindhi Hindus roam as nomads, wondering what will be the status of Sindhis once regionalism a la Raj Thackeray raises its ugly head. To no part of India do the Sindhi Hindus have a right, nowhere in India is Sindhi a compulsory language, with the result that Sindhi as both a language and culture is on the wane, threatening to perish in the next 25 years on this side of the border.
Also, Advani shares with us a tragic result of Gandhiji's assassination: 'On the last day of his life, January 30, 1948, Gandhiji received a Sindhi delegation, led by Dr. Chioithram. After listening to the tales of killing and looting of the refugees, he said, 'If there can be war for Kashmir, there can also be war for the rights of Sindhi Hindus in Pakistan.' Malkani tells us in his book that his brother met the Mahatma only an hour before he was shot dead. 'He had just been appointed by the Indian government as Additional Deputy High Commissioner in Karachi to organize orderly migration from Sindh. Gandhiji gave him his blessings and advice:' Take out everybody. See that you are the last to come out. And tell Khuhro I want to visit Sindh to re-establish peace. Let him consult Jinnah and inform me telegraphically.' When Malkani told him how the Hindus in Sindh had to wear a 'Jinnah cap' and carry around an Urdu paper or Dawn to pass off as Muslims, for security reasons, he said he would mention it in his prayer meeting that evening. Alas, he died before he could visit Sindh ' or expose the excesses there!'
Thus Advani ends this narration with 'From a civilisational perspective, neither can Sindh be separated from India nor can India forget Sindh?'
Because he lost his mother when he was only 13 years of age, one suspects he transferred his affection for his mother to the nation, and replaced the motherland in her stead. However, one misses any interesting vignettes between mother and son, and at best, his relationship with his mother remains unknown. However, his interactions with his father find space and it is through his father that he learnt that the original Sindhi script was not Arabic but Devnagiri, much to his own surprise.
Dale Carnegie has had a profound influence on him, 'Once you have made your point and your friend doesn't agree, what's the point in stretching the argument? It will only create a rift in your friendship because he will resent your triumph. If you cannot convince him, simply keep quiet. If your friend creates a doubt in your mind about your information, go back to the source and check it out for yourself. But don't argue unnecessarily.'
Another important limerick that Advani reminds himself of is, 'A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.' The power of silence of this sort and the other kind of silence, the mystical kind, came to him from the example of Shri Ramana Maharshi, from whom he learnt, 'Ramana's devotees felt elevated merely being in his holy presence.'
Later in the chapter he describes his meetings with Veer Savarkar in 1947 with his 'magnetic presence' and then at the Ramakrishna Mission in Karachi Swami Ranganathananda ' one of the brightest spiritual lights that shone upon India' who came to play an important role much later in his life when he re-visited Pakistan for the second time and delivered his Jinnah speech.. He talks movingly about the impact of the Gita on his own life and then Jinnah's own words on the Gita after hearing Swamiji's lecture on it 'Swamiji, so far I had believed that I am a real Muslim. After listening to your speech, I understand that I am not. But with your blessings, I will try to become a real Muslim.'
Advani then goes on to remark that once Pakistan was created Jinnah was not in full control of it and in his last days, Dr Ajeet Jawed remarked, 'He (Jinnah) was a sad and sick man, he cried in agony, ' I have committed the biggest blunder in creating Pakistan and would like to go to Delhi and tell Nehru to forget the follies of the past and become friends again.'
Chapter 4 in this first phase is an excellent analysis of who was really to blame for the Partition and whether it could have been avoided. He comments towards the end of the chapter, 'I also feel that a nation is better served if its people and leaders acquire a better understanding of history and forge stronger unity and thereby, a greater ability to shape its destiny. ... We should know where we as a nation have come from, and where we ought to go. We should know, too, the fundamental basis of India's unity so that we appreciate the basic absurdity of India's Partition."
Advani migrated from Sindh on September 12, 1947 and found himself pretty soon in Rajasthan. Times were tough and Advani was equal to the task. At one point, he even walks a full 45 kms to reach Sikri in time for a function! The walk of ten hours was not the most grueling in this phase, he even describes his fear of the tapeworm, and how he would fearfully wonder, 'What if I too get nerwa(tapeworm)?' Another rather eerie story involves his stay in Chittor district where water was in acute shortage and he was made to bathe in a waterhole or bawdi. His host told him, 'Don't worry, just jump and you'll enjoy it. ' Advani adds, 'I did so, flapping my hands and legs as much as I could in the water, and after a while came back to the top. As I glanced back at the well, I was shocked by what I saw. On the surface, there were literally hundreds of snakes, which must have been resting against the walls, but had obviously been disturbed by my swimming. As I rushed back, my bemused host said to me, 'Nothing to be scared of. These are harmless water snakes!'
This chapter is followed by his views on Gandhiji's 'tragic assassination', by a person who he condemns as having committed a 'sinful act'. He takes great pains to inform the readers that not only did he himself have the highest respect for Gandhiji, so did Shri Guruji. To expose the lie, he shares with us the fact that the latter sent a telegram to all the units of the Sangh to observe a 13 day mourning at the 'sad death of revered Mahatmaji'. However, the RSS was banned, its leaders were jailed, and Advani was also jailed for three months because the Congress yielded to the Left's demand that the RSS be held in jail for the crime. The ban was lifted in July 1949 since the RSS was cleared, no convictions were made. A.G. Kher is quoted as saying, 'Calling them fascists, abusing and insulting them, and again and again repeating old charges does not serve any purpose, nor is it a Gandhian method.'
Unfortunately, Advani adds, 'Nehru could never overcome his personal prejudice against the RSS. And after Sardar Patel passed away on December 15, 1950, there was no one left in the Congress Party to counterbalance Nehru's negative views on various important issues.'
Phase 3 covers 20 years from 1957 to 1977 when Advani enters national politics. As a journalist with The Organiser, he received the princely sum of Rs.350 per month for his outpourings. He comments on how the Chinese aggression exposed 'dangerous flaws in India's foreign and defense policies. It also uncovered the extra-territorial loyalty of Indian communists who supported China both during the war and after India's defeat.' He also remarks that 'Nehru's greatest failures were his flawed handling of the war with Pakistan in 1948 and the war with China in 1962. Had he remained firm and uncompromising when Pakistan made its first audacious attempt to capture Kashmir, the issue could have been settled once and for all, and India would have been spared the enormous pain and loss that it has suffered in subsequent decades. Had Nehru been less 'starry-eyed' in his policy towards China, India could have evolved its relations with Beijing on a more realistic basis.'
Then he moves forward to 1965 when he marries Kamla and has two children. But his warm words for his wife show the iron man has a soft heart after all: 'With the passage of years and decades, I have been repeatedly surprised by her quietly courageous personality, her almost limitless capacity for hard work, her meticulous handling of family finances, and, above all, her boundless love and care for me and our children'Pratibha and I call Kamla Annapurna, since one of her greatest sources of happiness is to make guests happy with meals cooked by herself'
An amazing section here is the one devoted to Eknath Ranade and his achievements. It makes the book a must-read, for one to know how tirelessly and patriotically, so many unknown people work towards the good of the country. To him goes the entire credit for the Vivekananda Rock Memorial at Kanyakumari and the story about how the funds were generated for this project make one proud of this fellow-Indian. Advani remarks, 'How this grand monument, a tribute to one of the greatest saints of modern India, came to be built is a truly inspiring saga. I feel privileged and humbled that I could play a small role in this national effort.' This tribute is followed by a detailed account of his mentor, Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, a man of excellent qualities of leadership and vision.
There are moments in the book when Advani's wisdom takes centre stage, and one of those times is in Chapter 6 in this phase where he reflects, 'In my childhood in Karachi, the change of seasons was a source of limitless amazement for me. Often I used to wonder how the same ocean that retreated into its silent ebb in one part of the day would be roaring with wild waves in another. It was also a source of awe to me. As I grew up, I realized that ups and downs, victory and defeat, loss and renewal, are all a way of life in politics. One should be prepared to take everything in one's stride. This taught me the virtue of equanimity. When difficulties mount or when tragedy strikes'and it can befall any time and in the most unimaginable of forms'I learnt that it helps not to give in to despair. For, as the wheel of change rotates, it can bring in its wake better days. The important thing is to develop patience, courage and self-belief, and continue doing one's work. I have experienced in my own life how a situation of utter gloom inevitably comes to an end, and with time ushers in light and hope.' Well said indeed, and how true in his own life, when the Hawala scandal, the Ayodhya storming, the defeat in the last elections, and the speech on Jinnah in Karachi and its consequences.
An analysis of Indira Gandhi by him is scathing, 'She consciously placed her own personal interests above those of the organization. The process of undermining democratic consultation and decision making within the Congress had begun with Nehru himself. He often defied the party's decisions'it was also Nehru who had planted the seeds of dynasticism in the party by consciously grooming his daughter as his successor' she triumphed in her battle against her adversaries, but, in the process, she wrote the epitaph of democracy inside the Congress Party. Thereafter, dissent within the party, which is the spirit of democracy, was not welcome. And the position and authority of the party's supreme leader would not be challenged by anybody. Sycophancy and the cult of personality generally seen in dictatorial regimes, had infested the Congress organization.'
Of great importance is Advani's damning section which deals with the Shimla agreement and the lessons of the 1971 war. The respect and admiration that Advani feels for Jayaprakash Narayan. It is the latter's open-mindedness and honesty that are brought to the fore by Advani through various incidents. How he changed his opinion of the RSS once he had first-hand knowledge of the cadre-based party, is an interesting expose of how leaders think and what makes leaders admirable. From being wary of the Sangh, he finally stands tall to say, 'If Jana Sangh is fascist, I am also a fascist!' and then he added, 'the sun of fascism is rising somewhere else.'
The Emergency follows here and the dirty tricks of the Congress Party are laid bare. From one dictatorial act to another, Indira Gandhi stooped and stopped at nothing to retain power, corrupting both herself and the nation with her ambition and lust for power. Pages 194-226 make for fascinating reading and often sends a chill up one's spine.
The book moves on to the current day, about power lost, regained and lost again, about the Ayodhya movement which follows after the Shah Bano verdict. Also the NDA's 'India shining' campaign and the Gujarat riots, amongst several other ups and downs in the nation's life.
However, in the chapter titled, 'Reminiscences and Reflections' he asks a serious question and offers the response to it as well:' Can we make poverty history in India? Yes, we can. According to me the key to success in this endeavor is not so much well-designated policies and programmes, which are no doubt important, but good governance. True, we must have policies that promote entrepreneurship and people's initiatives in a fairly regulated competitive environment; we must build good physical and social infrastructure'' he goes on to offer various areas where India can focus and get itself out of poverty once and for all. However, he adds, 'we must not only achieve holistic development but also holistic security' I have come to the firm conclusion that the present and future challenges before India can be effectively met only by re-orienting our polity on the basis of three imperatives: Good governance, development and security'' But for this he adds, 'For the BJP and the Congress to adopt a stance of consensus on critical national issues, it is essential for each to not look at the other as an 'enemy'. As far as the BJP is concerned, we view the Congress as an adversary, and not as an 'enemy'. Indeed the very concept of 'enemy' in a democracy is unhealthy. Unfortunately, the Congress Party's attitude to the BJP is far from healthy. The Congress leadership thinks the BJP is evil.' I earnestly appeal to Congress leaders to shun such an approach.'
To know and understand Advani, one must go through the best chapter in the book, which is Chapter 18, in the last phase, which tells us what drives Advani and what he is at heart, titled,' In Pursuit of Meaning and Happiness in Life'. He shares with us his respect and admiration for Ratan Tata and Narayan Murthy, about his favorite books, about journalists he respects, about music and plays and movies (including Amitabh Bachchan who he remarks' his versatility and almost limitless talent have never ceased to amaze me.', about spiritual seers and masters who have influenced him on a continuing basis, which include Mother Teresa and Maulana Wahiduddin Khan.
One may or may not agree with the BJP's view of the direction that India should take in the future, but there are no two opinions, after reading the autobiography, that there are very few in Indian politics with the mettle and character of Advani. Perhaps this book will serve as an inspiration to many who are deeply for the nation but don't know the high cost and also the high value of power.