The literary genre of Historical Autobiography has rich and varied legacy to itself. Originating from antiquity in the form of ‘Apologia’ implying as much self-justification, as self-documentation, Autobiography as a form of literature was used as a medium to express and convey the internal and external experiences of the author to the audience. Appearing today in the form of ‘Memoirs’ it is the genre of books that is most accepted and appreciated by the current audience, especially those that have a larger social connotations, over and above individual experiences.
Eminent sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel in his book ‘Social Mindscapes’ (1997) makes the famous observation - “There are no mnemonic Robinson Crusoes”. According to him, “Individual memories does not happen in social vacuums, but instead, through a process of mnemonic socialization, we acquire new memories when we enter social environments; our communities are communities of thought, comprising a fund of social knowledge and a body of social memory. As members of mnemonic communities, we remember things we never experienced, and come to identify, as group members, with a collective past.”
According to critics, “History is the activity that transforms individual consciousness into cultural identity”. These critics go on to find social significance in the study of History. “Since cultural identity frames individual consciousness, the study of history reveals the individual's socialized position to himself. Thus, the study of history is self-revealing to us, that is the principal motivation for its pursuit.”
A literary work combining individual memory with national narrative
‘My Country, My Life’ is a literary work that fulfills both these objectives. On the one hand it elevates the individual memory of the author to find organic relation with the social memory of the ‘collective past’. And on the other hand the historical aspect of this book, especially involving a first-party account of being an active participant in some of the most significant and critical events of contemporary Indian history, helps us in appreciating our present social realities, and placing our individual identity better vis-a-vis our cultural identity.
The book begins with a mood of pathos, narrating visually the life and times of Sindh before the Partition. The accounts of culturally and socially varied and yet symbiotic and harmonious social fabric of Sindh, the school-days experiences in St. Patrick’s School, nascent stages of proposition for Partition, eventually the very cruel and painful reality of Partition, and the consequent separation from place of birth, has been emotively portrayed.
Two significant and decisive factors during Advaniji’s life in Sindh stand tall above the rest, influencing him perpetually thereafter. The first was his initiation into the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “There is always one moment in childhood, it is said, ‘when the door opens and lets the future in’. In my case, that moment of stepping into the future came, unexpectedly at a playful moment, when I joined the RSS.” Advaniji writes - “If anyone were to ask me about the greatest influences in my life, I would unhesitatingly name, besides my parents, two persons – Rajpal Puri and, after I migrated to this part of India, Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, the philosopher, guide, and leader of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh which later became the Bharatiya Janata Party.” These associations with the RSS, and its leaders, sowed the seeds of the predominant rhetoric of Cultural Nationalism that became the ideological foundation of his political views.
The second “life-transforming influence” was the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram, Swami Ranganathananda, and his weekly discourses on the Bhagavad Gita. “In no time, his dedicated, mission-oriented, and intellectually towering personality began to hold great attraction for me. ‘I should develop these qualities,’ I told myself.” He began to see Gita not merely as a religious book, but as a book of “intense practicality”. The motto of ‘God-ward passion transmuted into man-ward love’ appealed to him and instead of seeing Hinduism as a ‘ritualistic’ religion, Advaniji saw in Gita “a philosophy that can help us build a new welfare society, based on human dignity, freedom and equality.” And this moulded the foundations of the concept of ‘Secularism’ as “Sarva Dharma Samabhava” rather than Nehruvian stance of “Dharma Nirapekshata” i.e. in other words, seeing ‘Secularism’ as belief in ‘inherent unity of all religions’ rather than seeing it as an imperative for being ‘equidistant, or even insulated from all religions’.
Perhaps few people are as qualified as the author to describe the travails of Partition. Being a victim himself, it is interesting how he perceives the historical context and the still continuing consequences of Partition, in his capacity as India’s former Union Home Minister. The wounds of Partition have not yet healed and are manifesting in various forms – through cross-border terrorism, separatist movement in Kashmir, increasingly distorting social demographics through illegal immigration from Bangladesh, ever- escalating Defense expenditure in the sub-continent etc. The psyche soaked in the milieu of pre-Partition Sindh, believing in Pan-Indian Cultural Nationalism of the sub-continent, gives vent to itself decades later, during the historic visit to Karachi in 2005.
Nothing could have been more symbolic of this Pan-Indian bonding than in being invited to lay the foundation stone for restoration of the ancient Hindu temples at Katas Raj near Lahore in June, 2005, and for a person who actually ‘believes’ in what he believes, it was natural to appeal to the ‘collective-subconscious of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ to re-read and realize the views of a mature and experienced Jinnah, rather than his impulsive and myopic younger self. He was only appealing to the psyche of Pakistanis to recognise and respect Jinnah’s appeal in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947 regarding equality of people of all religions in Pakistan - “...no matter what is his colour, caste, or creed, is first, second and last, a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges and obligations…” It is an irony that the ideologues of ‘Akhand Bharat’ themselves took objection to it and attacked the author. If at all somebody had to take objection to the statement, it should have been the Islamic Fundamentalists of Pakistan.
Evolution of a political personality
The narrative then takes a swift pace and covers decades of political tribulations, its agonies and anguishes, its transient exhilarations and persistent exasperations. The contributions of two persons tower above the rest towards the formation and strengthening of the Party, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. The author’s experiences with electoral politics, brief responsibility in Delhi Metropolitan Council, shifting towards national politics in Delhi, and his subsequent association with Atal Behari Vajpayee has been portrayed succinctly. The author completes a Circle from “Kanpur to Kanpur”, and from thenceforth becomes not just a witness to the developments around him, but also one of its active contributors.
The sufferings of the darkest days of Democratic India were portrayed in detail, with little more to ask for. The supreme institutions like the Office of President of India, the Union Cabinet and the Supreme Court of India miserably failed to rise to the occasion. Even amidst the cloudy skies, a few stars shined across the firmament, M.C. Chagla, Justice H.R. Khanna, Nani Palkhiwala, to name a few. Jayaprakash Narayan emerges as the father-figure of all those who were opposed to the means and ends of Indira Gandhi. The ‘Supremest’ of the Courts, for once, gave their verdict in admonition of denying democracy to itself. The first non- Congress government under the Prime Ministership of Morarji Desai takes charge. The author himself relishes some very fulfilling experiences during the stint as Minister for Information and Broadcasting. Apart from undoing the damages of the censorship regime during Emergency, what once again emerges as a recurrent ethos is the underlying passionate yearning for the birth-place Karachi, which he visits after a gap of over 30 years.
The Janata Government soon proves to be more of a pack of cards with more of Kings than the followers. The book amply portrays how the overpowering personal ambitions of a few leaders grossly undermined the peremptory national interest. Such is the breed that lived and thrived in the exalted corridors of power; and in prospect, there is hardly any change for better since then. With two consecutive governments failing to survive, elections soon ensued.
For perhaps the first time, the TINA factor in electoral politics worked. People realized that, at least for now, There Is No Alternative to Indira. On this side of the fence, a new Party was born – the Bharatiya Janata Party. The narrative now depicts the gradual but remarkable rise and growth of the Party. Rajiv Gandhi succeeded after the tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi. The massacre of Sikhs in Delhi had few parallels in any democratic countries. Successive issues like the alleged Bofors Scandal, IPKF adventurism, and the gross mishandling of the Shah Bano Case rattled the Rajiv Government. And in the elections that followed, BJP made remarkable progress, emerging as the King-maker in Central politics. History repeated itself as men repeated their mistakes. Two successive governments failed to survive. The electorate once again faced the TINA crisis; this time amplified by a sympathy wave following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
Cultural Nationalism: From Somnath to Ayodhya
The author now moves to delve deep into the issue with which he is perhaps most associated and metaphorically identified - the Ayodhya Movement. Advaniji writes “I consider Ayodhya movement as the most decisive transformational event of my political journey.” It had not just a political value to him; it was rather a fulfilling experience for his inner self. “Destiny made me perform a certain pivotal duty in this movement, in the form of the Ram Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in 1990. I performed the duty with conviction, sincerity, and to the best of my abilities and, in doing so, discovered India anew while rediscovering myself. The Ayodhya mission for me was thus both a time of intense action and intense inner reflection.”
Drawing parallels between the destruction and resurrection of Somnath with the Ayodhya movement, the author brings in eminent personalities like Sardar Patel, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and K.M. Munshi and even Swami Vivekananda into this debate of Cultural Nationalism and the call for Cultural Renaissance and Restoration of Nationalistic Honour. Quoting Munshi’s letter to Nehru – “I can assure you that the ‘Collective Subconscious’ of India today is happier with the scheme of reconstruction of Somnath sponsored by the Government of India than with many other things that we have done or are doing”, Advaniji tries to establish a larger intellectual credibility to this ideological debate. One can have varying views as to whether it served its purpose. But I for one feels and strongly so, that the exchanges between Nehru on one side, and K.M. Munshi, Sardar Patel, and Dr. Rajendra Prasad on the other side successfully exposes the ever prevalent diatribe on the concept of Secularism in India. Dr. Rajendra Prasad’s willingness to be part of inauguration of newly constructed Somnath temple, and his justification that – “This is the core of Indian secularism. Our state is neither irreligious, nor anti-religious” elucidates the “sarva dharma samabhava” stance of BJP vis-a-vis Secularism.
Advaniji writes that it was more of his personal conviction than political compulsion that led him to embark upon the Ram Rath Yatra. “I was fully convinced that this movement was not only about building a temple in Ayodhya. It was not merely about reclaiming a holy Hindu site from the onslaught of a bigoted foreign invader in the past. It was equally about reclaiming the true meaning of secularism from the onslaught of pseudo-secularism. It was about reasserting our cultural heritage as the defining source of India’s national identity.”
The inception of Ayodhya Movement, BJP’s own decision to become the champion of this movement, and the manner in which the author led the famous Ram Rath Yatra from Somnath in 1990 is given in detail. In hardly any other section, save in the final Jinnah episode, had the author taken so much pains to justify the cause and the means. Perhaps the autobiography takes the form of an ‘Apologie’ in self-defence and self-justification in these chapters. Employing all literary skills of ethos, pathos and logos, deftly balancing the emotional, passionate and logical aspects of this issue, the author leaves no stones unturned to emphatically establish his arguments in this historical dialectic.
A lot of detailing is done on various attempts made at resolving the issue peacefully with mutual consent. The author laments the failure of these efforts. The chapter ends with the fateful day of December 6, 1992. Though care has been taken to avoid naming “Babri Masjid” as the structure that was demolished, the author expresses in no uncertain terms that “It was the saddest day in my life. I have seldom felt as dejected and downcast as that day.” And then he goes on to clarify that “My sadness did not stem from any disenchantment with the Ayodhya movement or with the path the party has chosen for itself. In fact the post-demolition developments have fully vindicated our misgivings about the opponents of this movement. I felt that a meticulously drawn up plan of action, where-under the UP government was steadily marching forwards towards discharging its mandate regarding temple construction without violating any law or disregarding any court order has gone awry.” The author laments that - “As a result, the credibility of the entire movement was undermined by those who took the law in their own hands on 6 December. It is in this sense that I felt, and I continue to feel so, that our entire movement suffered a setback on that day.”
If anybody presumed that Advaniji concludes with an apologetic tone, the developments of December 6, 1992, there is still to read. “I cannot in all honesty deny that 6 December represented an epoch-making day in the life of India and also of Hindus. It was the clearest signal in modern India’s history that the Hindu community would not for ever tolerate the denial of and disrespect towards its legitimate sentiments. Those who took Hindu concerns and aspirations for granted, and tried to thwart them through an endless process of political machinisations and judicial delays, got an answer which they will hopefully not forget”. I am left wondering how an emphatic statement of this nature did not provoke the kind of reactions it usually triggers. Or was it that the author succeeded in hitting the nail into the head, without even the head realizing about it? And the chapter ends with - “I, therefore, fervently hope that the Ayodhya mission will be completed through the joint efforts of Hindus and Muslims, thereby writing a new chapter in the mutual reconciliation and national integration.”
The author goes on to describe the tragic developments of secessionism and terrorism in Punjab, turbulent years of Narasimha Rao regime, and the subsequent political instabilities of late 1990-s leading to change of 4 governments in three years; with brevity and pace. Perhaps the only portion of the book where the narrative slows down to reduce the effect of sustained interest is the one on Swarna Jayanti Rath Yatra. Perhaps this portion required more pruning.
Advani in the Vajpayee Government
And then comes the pinnacle of the Party’s political journey - the six year rule of NDA under the leadership of Vajpayeeji, and the author’s own supportive role as Union Home Minister, and later on as Deputy Prime Minister. Every single issue dealt with, and especially issues like Pokharan Blast, Vajpayeeji’s bus yatra to Lahore, the fall of NDA government with a margin of a single vote and the Kargil war that followed, has been dealt with ‘deftly’, I repeat ‘deftly’. Just as the poet said “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”, much significant facts have been elaborated, but some of those not elaborated are even more significant. The author chose to remain selectively silent on issues like his own role in the planning of Pokhran blast, futility of bus yatra to Lahore, compromise-formula for release of Hijack hostages, failure of intelligence agencies under him to detect the infiltrations for long, and the considerable loss of lives in the war, and that too of young and fresh Army Officers. And of course the sane silence on Jayalalithaa’s role in destabilising and toppling the NDA government. No one could have forgiven the person whose overpowering ambition and abrasive arrogance had undone the hard-earned opportunity to govern. In fact the only occasion in this book where the author remembers “Dr. J. Jayalalithaa” is to welcome her opposition to Andhra Pradesh government’s decision to implement communal reservation. In these trying times to come, the apprehended cost of being indiscriminately vocal could be very dear, as against the possible benefits of being selectively silent. Though, this leaves us with a feeling of -“Yeh dil maange more.”
The next major issue dealt with in detail is that of internal security and cross-border terrorism. Even while zero-tolerance towards direct or indirect forms of terrorism was more preached than practised, the thrust of the government’s policy was clear. Revamping and revitalizing the National Security System, enactment of POTA, terrorist attack on Parliament, diplomatic success in convincing the US to recognize India’s problems of Cross-border Terrorism, menace of Naxalism, the genesis and dimensions of Kashmir dispute, and the issues pertaining to the North-East, and especially Assam, has been dealt with in a very captivating manner, the author himself being, in his capacity as Union Home Minister, an active participant in most of these issues.
The entire chapter on Agra Summit could be condensed in the very first two sentences of the chapter. “In life, not every well-intentioned action is rewarded with success. Failure is as much a part of man’s endeavours as success.” That brings in the Greek concept of ‘deus ex machina’ i.e. the “god out of a machine”, as an invisible and irrevocable force that guides and determines the course of our fortunes. And relevant to this statement is the one made by Musharraf, recollecting his parting observations to Vajpayeeji – “I told him bluntly that there seemed to be someone above the two of us who had the power to overrule us.” Was this the same ‘deus ex machina’ Musharraf was referring to, or was it some lesser, corporeal ‘machina’?
Advaniji’s mastery over persuasive discourse and fearlessly frank rhetoric is at its best in the chapter dealing with Communal violence in Gujarat in 2002. He counters the opponents by letting the facts speak for themselves. “The religion wise break-up of those killed was: Muslims 790 and Hindus 254…But can a tragic episode of this kind, in which the number of Hindus killed was by no means insignificant, be termed as ‘genocide’ of Muslims?” He then adds – “It is also worth emphasizing that over 200 rioters were killed in dozens of incidents of police firing…Nearly 10,000 rounds of bullets were fired by the police. In the initial days, the police made preventive arrests of nearly 18,000 Hindus, as against 3,800 Muslims. Does this speak of a stage-managed pogrom of Muslims, with the state’s security apparatus remaining inactive?”
Contrasting this with the role of Central government during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, he writes “I would like fair-minded people to contrast all that I have narrated above with the anti-Sikh carnage in Delhi…in the days following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. During the first three days of the mayhem, there was not a single policeman to be seen on Delhi roads. There was not even a single instance of lathi-charge.” And he adds on to this by citing earlier precedence of violence in Gujarat. “I would also like people with unprejudiced approach to contrast the conduct of the Central and state governments in 2002 with that of the Congress governments in New Delhi and Gandhinagar in the numerous previous instances of communal violence in Gujarat. The state has a long history of communal violence.”
He admits the differences within his own Party - “There was a strong and sustained pressure from certain quarters on Prime Minister Vajpayee, urging him to ask Modi to step down. I resisted this move, including at some very critical junctures.” Expressing his unflinching faith in Modi, he quotes his own speech in Rajya Sabha in 2002 - “We should look for a real solution to the situation in the state, and removing Chief Minister Modi is not a solution. There has been a sustained campaign against him, which is not correct…let us not forget that, in Modi’s government, the police force saved a large number of Muslims during the riots.”
Advaniji then goes on to assert how “my confidence in him has been fully vindicated by subsequent developments.” Showering accolades on Modi, he writes – “His Chief Ministership between 2002-07, was characterized by the fact that there was not a single communal riot in Gujarat, not a single incident of terrorism, and not a single hour of curfew imposed anywhere in the state in those five years. Gujarat made spectacular progress in many areas of social and economic progress during this period…and emerging as one of the most developed states in the country. But what has given me special satisfaction is that Modi has brought down political and bureaucratic corruption in a way that even his critics have applauded.” And then makes the politically potent statement – “I consider the outcome of the Gujarat polls significant for another reason. It showed how a leader with integrity, courage and competence could count on people’s support to beat back a personalised campaign of vilification. I cannot think of any other leader in Indian politics in the past sixty years who was as viciously, consistently and persistently maligned, both nationally and internationally, as Modi has been since 2002.”
In the end he just stops short of naming his “Lakshman”. “I have great faith in the young blood of my party. The question of ‘Who after Vajpayee?’ or ‘Who after Advani?’ never arises.” Is there still some room for doubt?
Man learns from mistakes. And very often when he learns it, the damage is done. Wisdom is at its best in retrospective. And the same reflects in the chapter that ruminates on the defeat of NDA in the General Elections in 2004. It would have gone without saying, and was yet said, that “...the results of the 2004 polls affected me more deeply than any other setback in the past”, mostly so because it had “gone completely against our expectations.” We join the author in hoping that the ‘anagnorisis’ that succeeded the ‘peripeteia’ would ensure a ‘wiser’ Party facing the General Elections in 2009.
Then comes the much talked-about Pakistan Yatra. For “the man of Yatras” this was a Yatra that would mean a lot, more than even the Ram Rath Yatra from Somnath. For Advaniji, journey to Karachi is a nostalgic journey into his ‘self’, a search to re-live the painfully separated life of innocence and youth, a poignant remembrance which would never leave his unconscious and sub-conscious mind, a journey to relive the ‘identity’ that made him feel somewhere deep within ‘incomplete’, ever since it eluded him, a journey which “struck a deep emotional chord in my family”. And this was an intensely personalised feeling. “Only refugee families can feel the pain of forced separation from their places of birth.” And definitely not the ones back home blindly believing and reacting to just whatever little they ‘hear’. And Advaniji brushed aside all controversies and its consequences relying on ‘Gita’ which he was familiarised due to Swami Ranganathananda, during his early days in Sindh – “The exhortation given by Krishna to Arjun, which is also the eternal mantra given by the Gita to anyone facing a challenge, is this: One must stand by one’s own convictions.”
More than being a topic of political or historical debate, the experiences and utterances of the author in Pakistan is a fittest case-study for a Freudian pyscho-analyst. One speaks more than what he speaks, and his speech tend to have an altogether new meaning, once it is re-heard from a very new psychological perspective. Freudian school believes that childhood memories determine adult personality. Advaniji writes, “Life becomes an age-defying blessing if one is able to keep one’s childhood alive. To me, my first twenty years in Karachi are an ever-living present.”
Relationship with Vajpayee
The book ends with very touching recollections of his long association with Vajpayeeji. Extending over five decades, this duo had roughed through the thick and thin of whatever life could offer, from imprisonment in jail to holding highest offices of the country. There could hardly be a more mutually complementary pair in Indian political history. Even when there were differences of opinion, the underlying mutual respect and the rich “emotional bank-balance”, to quote Stephen Covey, accumulated over the decades, would not separate the two. “Many political observers have noticed that it is not only rare but, indeed, unparalleled in independent India’s political history for two political personalities to have worked together in the same organisation for so long and with such a strong spirit of partnership.”
Even when he writes about instances of differences of opinion or even minor divergence in ideologies, the issue was presented in the book with due care. “The BJP’s subsequent trajectory of meteoric growth was due to the Ayodhya movement. It was the time when Atalji chose to remain relatively inactive.” This statement is heavily politically impregnated, but presented in a manner not even to appear remotely as a veiled attack on Vajpayeeji.
It was not just that both were “strongly moored in the ideology, ideals and the ethos of the Jana Sangh”, it was more because of a “very important factor: I always implicitly and unquestionably accepted Atalji to be my senior and my leader.” Advaniji’s incorrigible stand to withdraw from electoral politics till cleared of Hawala allegations, and his voluntary declaration of Vajpayeeji’s leadership are examples of political sagacity and self-less conviction unparalleled in contemporary political history. “What I have done is not an act of sacrifice. It is the outcome of a rational assessment of what is right and what is in the best interest of the party and the nation.” Very few Vajpayees in international politics would be fortunate enough to have this kind of Advanis, to stand with and second them.
There is a palpable ‘Sonia-phobia’ throughout the narrative, which perhaps called for better restraint. Certain passages verge on spitefulness and acrimony. It is more severe than those against Indira or Rajiv, or for that matter even Musharraf. Attacking an ideology or a decision is one thing; pointedly attacking an individual, especially one that has more ‘nominal’ than ‘real’ value, could have called for greater valor.
Twin ideals: Conviction and Credibility
‘My Country, My Live’ successfully unravels the much intertwined knot of the personal and the political. The book very emotively brings out the husband and father in him, and definitely a father with a softer corner for his very talented daughter. We see in the Advanis a representative Indian family with strong emotional bonding and mutual support. It goes without saying that the family’s sacrifices and contributions, through all the testing and trying times added on to make Advaniji what he is today.
The book qualifies to be one the most authoritative topical memoirs of contemporary political history. Mostly the style of writing is terse, spiced up with wit and humor aptly chosen wherever proper. History has not been diluted by histrionics. The author diligently gives due justice to the “Country” aspect of the book, while the “Life” aspect of the book largely centers around two basic tenets of Advaniji’s ideals –‘Conviction’ and ‘Credibility’. In a way the entire book is a narrative of a life-long process of achieving the latter, using the moral-authority of the former. Only a person with indomitable conviction can maintain that “I had no regrets and no disappointments”, even during the most trying times in life. When asked how he would like to be remembered, Advaniji answers “As a person who conscientiously strove to live up to his convictions.” Internalizing the message of Gita – “One must stand by one’s convictions.” And when asked which his favorite word is, he replies “Credibility.” And this underlying thrust on Conviction and Credibility as the fountain-heads of moral-authority of a Leader and a Statesman is the moral of this book.
To sum up, ‘My Country, My Life’ fulfills to a great extent both the purposes with which it was written. Firstly, for catering to the purely literary taste, and historical curiosity of the reader. Except for the apparently very poor proof-reading of the text, the book would definitely pass the aesthetic and authentic standards required of a good ‘memoir’.
But then there was a larger motive behind this book. I think that there's more to this memoir than remembering, knowing, and feeling: there's also the crucial element of ‘believing’. The book aims to act as a motivational force and ideological inspiration for his Party to move ahead and win back all that was dearly lost. To dispel misconceptions and to come out clear over several controversial issues with which his name was associated. To mend the strained relations with his own ideological family, for it is necessary for coherence and conformity within the Party. To dismiss the image of a ‘hardliner’ attributed to him, and thus emerge as a Statesman, having wider acceptability across larger spectrum of the society. In short, not just to document history; but rather an autobiography to create history.
Helped, it definitely has. But whether helped sufficiently, is yet to be seen. With perhaps the final and decisive lap of his life-long marathon Yatra round the corner, one can only join Vajpayeeji in his wishful prayers while hailing the book – “For mirrored in it is the remarkable journey of a sensitive human being and an outstanding leader whose best, I hope and pray, is yet to come.”