L.K. Advani seeks a change of image through his autobiography
 
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Essence of the Man

L.K. Advani seeks a change of image through his autobiography

Ghazala Wahab
 
Perhaps, it was only to be expected that the BJP leader and now the prime minister-aspirant Lal Krishna Advani should have resorted to the final argument of the politicians — Patriotism — to justify his beliefs and actions in his memoirs. If the word does not appear on every page, it does appear in every alternate page in some permutation; to describe Advani and his mentors, friends and colleagues in what is collectively called the Sangh Parivar. And when Advani exhausts all mechanisms of using the word in a self-descriptive way, he introduces new characters, for instance, Jai Prakash Narayan among others, who then use it to describe Messrs Advani and company. Yet, this irony perhaps escaped the author’s note that there is hardly any incident mentioned in the book that would reflect this abstract word. So instead of proving through example, he proves through the use of direct adjective.

My Country My Life Here’s a case in point. Advani writes in the early chapters: I should point out that, just as the RSS seniors used to criticise the Congress strategy for gaining freedom, they also disapproved of the path chosen by great revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh saying that the angrez are not going to go away if some patriotic individuals confront them with guns in their hands…

The question that troubled me was: ‘How can the angrez be made to leave India?’ There was no direct answer forthcoming from RSS seniors. ‘Our first task right now is to organise shakhas like this one all over the country, so that we can create a large voluntary force of patriotic, idealistic, disciplined and selfless Indians willing to sacrifice everything for the liberation of Bharat Mata. What this force will exactly do, and when, to achieve India’s freedom are not questions to be answered now… To my young mind, this explanation was convincing enough.

There is a reason why Advani felt it important to emphasise upon not only his nationalism but that of the RSS. While there have always been doubts about the RSS’ role during the freedom struggle, some even suggest that it played an anti-national role in the last decade of the Raj, tattling about the freedom fighters to the British, after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi the organisation was banned as his assassin Nathuram Godse was the member of RSS. Hence, today, when the Bharatiya Janata Party, the political face of the RSS has emerged as the second largest political party in India, it is time to repay the debt to the parent organisation. Even as Advani — a better example of what an RSS pracharak (preacher) should be than his colleague Atal Behari Vajpayee who is known for his love for the good things in life — projects himself as the next Prime Minister, he perhaps feels duty-bound to bring the RSS out of the shadows for greater acceptability and respectability among the people. Hence, he asserts that even though RSS didn’t care much about the freedom struggle, it had enormous respect for both Gandhi and Bhagat Singh. It is another matter that people with sharper and longer memory may dispute this, but then this is not their memoirs.

Patriotism is not the only theme that Advani plays in his autobiography My Country My Life. Secularists, rest easy. Advani establishes his secular credentials right in the beginning, when he talks of his growing up years in Sind, now in Pakistan. According to him, he grew up in an atmosphere where Sindhis revered Hindu, Muslim and Sikh saints. Visiting temples, dargahs and gurudwaras was part of the Sindhi culture, so there was no question of any animosity on the basis on religion. Coming from such a background, Advani certainly travelled a long distance to 1990-91 when he mobilised thousands through his war-cry of throwing out, ‘Babur ki Aulad’ from India. Anyway, these days, even the RSS is not an anti-Muslim organisation. It is only opposed to those Muslims who are not patriotic, writes Advani. See, that word again. Doesn’t it send a frisson of fear up your spine?

It has been a while since this book came out. Reviewers of various persuasions have hailed or nit-picked it on factual errors. So this review will not rub salt in the Kandahar wounds; neither will it respond to Advani’s description of Operation Parakaram as ‘the largest peace-time deployment of troops in the country’s history’; nor will it allude to the factual mistakes like taking living for dead or talking to the wrong US ambassador in India. Because all this and much more has already been the toast of the mainstream media, with more and more people crawling out of the woodwork alleging misrepresentation in the book. This review will focus on something much more fundamental: Why write a memoir?

Important people write their autobiography because they feel that there is something in their lives which may be of use to posterity. Either they have made history or have witnessed it being made from very close quarters. Both ways, it is important to know what exactly happened, how it happened and what they thought about it as candidly as possible. Since most memoirs are written when the writers feel that they have already lived their lives, they are well removed from the events they mention. Therefore, it is possible to judge them with the benefit of hindsight, which adds to their value. Another equally important aspect of memoirs is that for a large number of readers they have inspirational and instructional value. Writers talk about their early years, their struggles and triumphs, their inspirations, their value system and the experiences that shaped their personality. Because memoirs cover a vast canvas and leaders tend to be vain thinking every bit of their life is important, they very wisely get a ghost writer to do the actual writing so that the tome of their lives does not burden the reader too much.

On all these scores, My Country My Life falls way too short. After ploughing through 900 pages, what does one get to know about Lal Krishna Advani? He has always been a deeply religious person (even as a child), vegetarian, fond of reading and watching films and maybe had the inclination of his future rise. (Perhaps, he had planned writing his memoirs some 30 years back and had made a mental note of the kind of photographs that would go in them. Spread over two pages is a collection of Advani’s photographs with his family taken in 1973. In one, he is sitting in the garden with his two children and wife, in another he is helping his kids with their homework, third, he is taking out a book from a shelf in his study and fourth, he and his wife are smiling at one another in what looks like a kitchen garden. The photographs were taken not only on the same day but probably at the same time because all of them are wearing same clothes in the pictures. Clearly, it was a deliberate photo-session perhaps for some magazine at that time. This certainly is a peep into Advani’s life).

On his childhood, he writes there was an atmosphere of pavitrata (piousness) at home. How and why, we don’t know, because this has been dismissed in one line. Similarly, one sentence completes the role of his mother in his life, who loved him a lot but after she died he got all the love and affection from his father. He mentions his younger sister, but again apart from the use of adjective love, there is no exploration of the siblings’ relationship. The most amazing omission is his father’s opinion on Advani joining the RSS. He writes that he joined the RSS at the age of 14, when his friend and tennis partner motivated him to do so. With this simple statement he moves on to his life as RSS pracharak. How did his businessman father feel about his 14 year old only son joining the RSS? Was there a showdown at home or was the father proud? Didn’t he want his son to join the family business? Even at the moment as crucial as Partition when families were getting separated, Advani only writes about his flight to India with a fellow RSS man. What happened to his father and younger sister? How did they escape the rioters in Sind? The following 300 pages or so only mention his life as a RSS preacher in various parts of India and his synthesising Hindutva belief. On this count, one cannot fault him. Among other things, he writes why he opposed Urdu-isation of Hindi and favoured Sanskritisation instead.

In this vein, the book plods, tracing the creation of the Jana Sangh, Advani’s stellar role in it, his stint as a journalist and a film critic (that explains why he felt confident that he didn’t need a ghost writer), the coming together of anti-Indira forces, the collapse of the experiment and the creation of Bharatiya Janata Party. For those who thought that Advani would become more reflective about the contemporary issues would be sorely disappointed as he follows the similar course of evasiveness on issues which others would think important and waste reams on peripheral subjects. He goes in great length describing the course of his famous Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, and completely ignores the events that unfolded because of it. He dismisses as calumny reports of riots, inflammatory speeches that he and his colleagues made during the course of the yatra. There is not even a whiff about the frenetic pace at which audio cassettes of his speeches were distributed, how the benign greeting of ‘Ram Ram’ was replaced by the aggressive ‘Jai Shri Ram’ which also became a war cry during the riots. He does not pause to reflect on the creation of a deep rift between the Hindus and Muslims, into which he and his friends on the yatra, chiefly Sadhvi Ritambhara (who was pushed under the carpet after the BJP came to power) poured venom to make the wounds permanent.

Though he writes that very early in life he realised that Indians were a deeply religious people, he does not dwell upon why he thought that in the 1990s, Ayodhya could catapult them to power in Delhi. He asserts that when thousands of kar sevaks collected at the small town of Ayodhya on 6 December 1992, he did not expect them to run amuck or climb on the domes of the mosque to pull it down. Then why was Uma Bharti chanting, ‘Ek Dhakka Aur Do, Babri Masjid Tod Do,’ (give one more push and pull the mosque down) along with the thousands who were clambering on to the disputed structure. Since it is his autobiography, he has the right to chose what he wants to put out, but he cannot expect the readers to have as short a memory as he has because unfortunately for him the entire sequence of the demolition was aired live on BBC, where the world saw Advani and others watching the first dome come down even as Uma Bharti threw her arms around Murli Manohar Joshi in jubilation. And to absolve his party of any responsibility for the violence that followed, he uses the most convenient excuse: the state chief minister belonging to his party had resigned the day before.

However, despite Advani’s evasiveness on several crucial issues, he did have a good idea of doing short profiles through the book on people who influenced him in some way. So, even though you learn a little about him, you also get a perspective on people who have been part of India’s contemporary history.

My Country My Life
L.K. Advani
Rupa & Co
Pg 986

 
 


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