India is not blessed with a book culture; nor do Hindus
(as the Arab traveller Alberuni complained a thousand years
ago) have an evolved sense of history. Given these inherent
limitations, it was audacious of a serving politician like
LK Advani to try and break the mould with his autobiography,
My Country, My Life.
Of course, public figures who are still at the crease cannot
be expected to tell all. Mahatma Gandhi's The Story of My
Experiments with Truth and Jawaharlal Nehru's Autobiography,
both written and published well before their authors were
anywhere near completing their innings, combined reminiscences
with political statements. This meant that the stories of
very interesting lives were tempered with measured candidness.
Gandhiji, for example, never spelt out the acrimonious debates
in the Congress over his rise to the top. Instead, in the
final chapter on the India of the early-1920s, he fell back
on the assertion that "My life from this point onward
has been so public that there is hardly anything about it
that people do not know..."
Compared to the Mahatma's masterly evasion, Advani has been
remarkably forthcoming. He may have not told the entire
story of his political life but he has narrated enough for
future historians to pick up the threads. More important,
Advani has given a very clear sense of his feelings at the
time. An autobiography is not a diary that records life
on a daily basis. It is made up of broad brush strokes that
highlights features considered important and relevant by
the author at the time of written. As someone who has interacted
with him very closely since the Ram rathyatra of 1990, I
can honestly say that Advani has faithfully narrated the
course of politics as he perceived it. There may have been
omissions of detail but there have been no distortions.
Advani is one of those rare politicians who is naturally
transparent about his thoughts and feelings, and this transparency
comes through in the 900 pages of narrative. His shrewdness
as a political strategist has never been at the cost of
his innate intellectual honesty.
Given the temperament of the author, it was only natural
that the autobiography was guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers.
The past fortnight has proved a bonanza for the media in
terms of the controversies the book has generated. Initially,
I imagined that passions would be aroused by what is arguably
the most contentious period of his political career -- the
Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the 1990s. Curiously, the Ayodhya
years have occasioned little interest -- something that
validates Alberuni's observation.
Nor has there been too much fuss about Advani's account
of his controversial trip to Pakistan in the summer of 2005.
Regardless of the passions he aroused at the time, it is
now generally accepted that Advani was totally sincere in
wanting to find a way for India and Pakistan to bury the
It is a different matter that he could have considered the
other implications of honing in on Mohammed Ali Jinnah as
the instrument of reconciliation. Yet, the fact that Advani
has stuck to his guns and not done an intellectual summersault
has only increased my admiration of him. Advani, as his
autobiography bring out, has never been afraid of original
thinking. He is not afraid of swimming against the tide
when convinced of its necessity.
This is why the kerfuffle over the Kandahar hijack that
has dominated the media space for the past week needs dissection.
That Advani was unhappy at the way the Government responded
to the hijack, particularly the decision to exchange Maulana
Masud Azhar and two other terrorists for the innocent passengers,
was known at the time of the incident. Whether he was party
to the decision to send the then External Affairs Minister
Jaswant Singh to Kandahar in the same aircraft as the terrorists
or learnt about it subsequently is an interesting piece
of trivia. However, it is only an incidental detail of a
larger question that needs to be addressed: How should India
have reacted and how should it respond to a similar situation
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the country
now believes that the Government erred grievously in succumbing
to the terrorists.
However, at that time, this clarity wasn't so apparent.
Both the Congress (then in opposition) and the liberal media
were clear that the safety of the passengers was paramount.
Despite the fact the hijack took place immediately after
the Kargil War and a General Election victory, the Government
lacked the nerve to prepare the country to face all the
consequences of standing up to terrorism unflinchingly.
Under the circumstances, capitulation became the only viable
Yet, the context in which this decision was taken to swap
terrorists for passengers has been forgotten. What remains
is the shame and ignominy of Kandahar. It will haunt India
and it will haunt the BJP. The UPA Government has tacitly
taken refuge behind the shield of Kandahar to avoid carrying
out the Supreme Court judgment on Afzal Guru.
Advani has taken an important step in distancing himself
from the shameful capitulation in Kandahar. That, unfortunately,
isn't enough. It is necessary for him to take advantage
of the renewed interest in the subject to propose a policy
that will make it impossible for another Kandahar to recur.
In short, the BJP as a whole must admit that it erred in
1999 and assure the nation that no Government in future
will repeat that mistake. A counter-terrorism code which
identifies a bottom line for dealing with a hostage crisis
is not only necessary but imperative if India is to profit
from a post-mortem of the Kandahar hijack.
Unless India learns from its own history, it is condemned
to repeat it.