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|January 12, 1998||
The Rediff Interview/L K Advani
Advantage, AdvaniVarsha Bhosle
October 1997, New Delhi.
He lives in middling government quarters. In the twilight, the street looks deserted, there's no sign of the Black Cats. It's a simple house, unexpectedly middle class -- dunlop sofas, Ganpati icons, beaded torans... A wife, a son, a daughter: Chhota parivar, sukhi parivar. No, not *that* parivar. The son, a businessman, has never been to an RSS shaakha. Nor has the tele-journalist daughter. I'm astounded: I expect the entire family to be in khaki knickers.
Pratibha, didn't you undergo the discipline? "Dada never forced us into anything. I stay away from politics, for if I report on it, I'm bound to sound partisan. So I stick to cultural events." She strikes a chord: I avoided the arts and went politic.
Just then, Shri Lal Kishinchand Advani enters the drawing room. The dhoti, kurta, bandi are as I've seen in the photographs. What takes me by surprise is Advaniji's height: he's a tall man, and lean. Or perhaps his personality looms over everybody else's. The first word that comes to my mind is 'tej.' Shine, glow, luminescence... no, 'radiance' is what I mean. The other times I've come across it is in a few film stars: Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Arvind Swamy. Not the best comparisons with the wintry president of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But they all share that quality of looking as if they've just stepped out from an invigorating shower.
He stands stiff, almost at attention. I jump up. He joins his hands and beckons me to his study: Two much-used sofas, a huge desk, books, books, books... and a computer! Curiouser and curiouser: he's wired. This terminal-junkie is dying to check out if it's a swadeshi model laden with swadeshi software. Don't push it, girl, I quell myself.
I'm extremely uncomfortable. Seriously, I've no clue what to say. This definitely isn't like the Dev Anand parley. He senses it I think, for *he* begins to grill me. His Hindi is incredibly pure, the pronunciation velvet clean, it's a pleasure to hear him speak. It's all the more fascinating since he's taught himself higher Hindi: Advaniji is convent-school-educated -- what's often brushed off as 'Macaulite'. Perhaps he detects my capacity for the rashtrabhasha, for he soon shifts to English. I ramble on with inanities. I'm quite shattered, really: It's horribly obvious that he's never, ever, read me.
The wife arrives with paalak pakodas. Advaniji heaps a plate and hands it to me. This is the first time in at least two years that those despicable greens pass through my lips. I eat like I'm there with the specific mission of cleaning out their digs. It's one way to avoid answering.
Soon, a US-return nephew joins us, as does one of Pratibha's media colleagues. Politics begins; I sigh with relief. They talk about the North-East, Ladakh, Parliament, the ministry... I'm trying to file away his off-hand comments in my cluttered mind. Advaniji asks, "Do you know the statistics of railway disasters and accidents since Ram Vilas Paswan has taken over? It's the highest in these 50 years. What accountability are you talking about? Which newspaper has thought of questioning it?"
Nephew replies, "I agree the UF will conceal it. But it's not just a BJP issue! Hasn't it come to the attention of other Opposition parties?" Advaniji and I exclaim together, "WHAT OTHER OPPOSITION PARTIES?!" There's a roar of laughter. Thin cracks run through the ice...
The conversation scurries through Gujarat ("Shankarsinh was taken back after being expelled as the party didn't want Gujarat to become an election issue") and Punjab ("Almost all the Sikhs in the rest of India voted for the BJP. Since the Akalis feel that they represent the whole community, we were their natural ally in Punjab") and Maharashtra ("There are some differences in the styles of functioning, but largely, the alliance government has done well") and, finally, to one of my bete noires -- women's reservations.
I'm simply itching to get a word in edgeways and quiz Mr Advani. But, as through most of the evening, Nephew holds forth while Advaniji sits still, his fingers joined to a steeple, head slightly tilted down, and eyes squeezed to their characteristic cracks when that sardonic smile plays at the corner of his lips. Impatient now, I interject: Yes but... The man suddenly looks up, stabs his finger at me and says quite ominously, "I KNOW you are against reservations." I physically recoil, then think: Gotcha... you're familiar with me...
"I think there should be reservations for women. Why just the BJP, the whole country will benefit from more women in all sorts of occupations. In my personal experience, for instance in Parliament and the press, I've found that women are stauncher, less corrupt and more principled than their male counterparts. Though many will never agree to it, there is an undeniable case for women's reservations."
The press, eh? Clever, clever, clever. I sass him with, And now I know why you're the president of the BJP... He throws back his head and guffaws. The ice shatters. I'm ready to leave.
By a quirk in Delhi's traffic, I'm at 11 Ashok forty minutes before the appointed hour for the interview. The office hasn't quite woken up; the lethargy's evident in the karmachari who glares at me, glares pointedly at the clock and lets me sit. I'm resigned to a long wait. Minutes later, Mr Advani strides in, sees me, looks at the clock with one eyebrow cocked, and continues to his office. In seconds, the peon calls me in. Kreeeegaah...!
The office is as I'd expected: Spartan. Like yesterday, Advaniji has a look of controlled motion about him, like a tiger coiled to spring. It's damn unnerving. There's also an aura of impatience and impending doom about him today... I've a list of some 20 questions, but when he looks at me expectantly, I pledge half. Since I'm often told, 'It's the economy, stupid!' I begin with it:
It seems to me like the concept of Swadeshi is being used to protect the interests of our industrialists. Or why is the BJP hindering multinationals and globalisation?
The party isn't against multinationals at all. However, what is needed is a clear understanding that the country's interests are primary. Without a strong domestic industry, how can a country prosper? The West insists that we open up our market to imports of all sorts of goods. But why should India succumb to pressure if it isn't in her interest?
How did countries like Korea, Japan, Taiwan, etc, overtake India in just 50 years? Briefly, because India failed to initiate the dynamo of nationalism on the developmental front. Other countries encouraged native companies by allowing them to import technology, ensuring large domestic markets via supportive fiscal policies, and bolstering exports through incentives. But, till 1991, India's Nehruvian socialistic policies inhibited indigenous entrepreneurship. The BJP is totally dissatisfied with what has actually been achieved since then, but internal liberalisation is a policy we have been pleading for since decades! We have pledged to enhance the pace of liberalisation, welcome foreign investment in infrastructure and hi-tech sectors, and dismantle bureaucratic barriers created by the license-permit raj.
Our aim should be to modernise rapidly, but with as little westernisation as possible. 'Liberalise first, and globalise in stages,' said Japan's Okita. It is this point that goes ununderstood, and then, the BJP is accused of being obscurantist and growth-hindering.
Why did the BJP rake up the issue of the uniform civil code if it was going to wilt under the pressure from minorities and so- called secularists?
The uniform civil code is an issue cited in the Constitution -- the BJP did not pull it out of thin air. Every government is enjoined upon to take measures for the implementation of the proposal.
The question of our abandoning our manifesto does not arise: If Jinnah couldn't make Gandhiji renege on his basic beliefs in Ram Dhun, Ram Rajya, cow protection or Vande Mataram, the BJP need not worry about adhering to its position.
Our criminal law is secular and has nothing to do with the Shariat. And yet, it has readily been accepted by the minorities. I sincerely believe that if they're given an opportunity to think unhindered by the propaganda from vote-bank politicians, they will voluntarily embrace the UCC. So far, Muslims have been treated merely as dumb vote banks, whereas we consider them equal partners in building a new India. The UCC fosters equality and amalgamation.
I doubt if issues like the Ram Janmabhoomi can allay Muslims's fears.
Like the UCC, the Ayodhya movement, too, is part of our battle against vote bank politics. If not for the Babri Masjid Action Committee, formed soon after the Shah Banu case, and the overpowering support it received from the so-called secular parties, we may not have taken up these issues so firmly. The tragedy is that vote bank politics has distorted the people's perspective.
But you, too, have created a vote bank -- the Hindu one.
(Laughs) Is there such a thing? Let me ask you, would you support the BJP merely because its leadership is Hindu?
Well, in a sense, I do.
What is "in a sense"?
The Hindutva sense. You know, everyone must be equal before the law, no one community should have special benefits...
(Smiles) But isn't this what secularism ordains?
It's supposed to.
And did the BJP introduce that idea to you?
Not to me, no.
So would it be fair to say that we gave your needs a platform?
Excuse me, sir, but I'm interviewing you. The point is, some Hindus vote for you only because they are Hindu.
That percentage is very small. There was a lot of bitterness fomenting in the common man. It's possible that Hindu reaction would have been far worse if we hadn't channeled it into the political arena.
But hard-liners are unhappy about the BJP going soft on Ayodhya...
Hindutva, or cultural nationalism, is our way of thinking, and it echoes in all our decisions and campaigns. If there is a development immediately preceding an election which impinges on Hindutva, it becomes heightened. If there is none, it is not there.
There's no ambivalence. I believe that Ayodhya has been internalised by the nation. It is a reality. It's significant that no political party talks about restoring the mosque. A member of the UF government said the idols would be removed -- and he lost his job. However, it is important to remember that the BJP cannot be a one-issue party.
Even so, the BJP is politically isolated today.
I wouldn't say that at all. We have alliances with the Shiv Sena, the HVP, the Akalis and the Samata Party. The anti-BJP-ism that you see is not because of differences in ideology -- it is because of the growing strength of the BJP.
Do you deny that the erosion in internal discipline has played havoc with the party's image?
Soon after the developments in Gujarat and Rajasthan, our popularity was put to test at a number of by-elections. The fact that we easily won all those seats indicates that, despite the distress over the indiscipline in the ranks, support for the BJP still continues.
The press expects total discipline from us -- but not from the Janata Dal or the Congress. I tell my colleagues, that itself is a feather in our cap.
What do you suppose are the reasons for this expectation? Can you rise to it?
Most of the party leaders have an RSS background, and it's this that gives the BJP an image of a cadre-based party. But ours is a mass party where anybody who says that he believes in our ideology and programmes and agrees to abide by the party's codes, can become a member. This creates obstacles, but within our limitations, we will ensure that bad elements are removed.
What is the party's position on the dispossessed Kashmiri Pandits?
I've said it before and I'll say it again: It is a disgrace that even after 50 years of Independence, citizens of this country have been thrown out of their state. It is eight years since insurgency began in Kashmir, and the government has still done nothing about the victims. While great concern is shown for the human rights of insurgents, there's nothing but callousness towards Kashmiri Pandits. So also, for the large number of Partition refugees from Pakistan who went to J&K; three generations have been denied basic human rights, including the status of citizenship, right to own property and claim to a government job. Both groups are Hindu and Sikh refugees.
The BJP claims that it rejects caste politics. But in UP, it is mired in caste formulae.
The BJP is variously described as North Indian, Brahminical, bania, elitist, urban... We have disproved all such notions. But now that we have broken the party's upper caste image, there's bound to be vitriol. But I don't want to comment on UP just yet.
Just then, there's a knock, and a man hurtles into the room. Advaniji regards him coolly and says to me, "Ab aap mujhe kshama kijiye." Brilliant journalist that I am, I leave the premises.
En route to the airport, Aai has been invited to tea by Advaniji. Perhaps it's something to do with the old girl's naivete, for the entire three hours pass without a political idea advanced. What can be said after the mater looks totally blank at the mention of Prime Minister I K Gujral: "Yeh apne naye information- broadcast minister hain kya?" I quietly die. She goes a step further: "Aap ka sab-se pyaara gaana kaunsa hai?" OH GAWD, this is the BJP prez, Mom! But to my shock, Advaniji begins to look quite animated...
"Mujhe 'Jyoti kalsh chhalke' bahut pasand hai." And he starts to hum it. I can only gape. The mater unexpectedly shows a flash of this-world-ness: "Aapko Babuji pasand aayenge hi..." Babuji is the song's composer, Sudhir Phadke, an RSS veteran.
But the tone for the evening has been set. I get a glimpse of the man away from his rath... "I like ghazals. In jail during the Emergency, I used to listen to tapes of Mehdi Hasan." He talks about his love for the theatre: "I used to regularly watch the National School of Drama plays. Very fine actors, Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. I'm told that Marathi plays are very progressive, but I've seen only one, Ti Phulraani. Does Bhakti Barve still act?" But even though I consider myself a mild sort of fundie, ever ready to separate politics from art, I'm not prepared for: "I liked Smita Patil, over all. Now, my favourite is Shabana Azmi." Well! A pinko-Mosie-fanatic! Still, I've to admit, he has a good eye -- it's a Scorpio thing (November 8, him; 14th, me). We've deteriorated from filmi stars to astral ones.
To draw him back to his stomping grounds, I ask, How do film stars do in Parliament? "I must say, Nargis used to be quite active. Sometimes, Sunil Dutt spoke up. But I never heard a word from Rajesh Khanna." (If you remember, Mr Khanna had the misfortune to contest Mr Advani. The Congress has some very weird ideas about the Opposition.) And then, "Shabana has been nominated to the Rajya Sabha." Harrummph!
The BJP has a surfeit of good orators, like Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj, Sundar Singh, Uma Bharati -- does the RSS impart special training? "No, no. The only party which consciously did it was the DMK. When we were young (I was a journalist at the time), Atalji, even then, gave such extraordinary speeches that I developed a complex about public-speaking. I don't think I have gotten over it..." Just then, Pratibha reminds us of our flight. Talk about timing...
In Bombay the next day, I read the headlines and calculate: As he sat entertaining us, Advaniji had known about Mayawati's having pulled the plug on Kalyan Singh. And he'd known the rumble during the interview. I bang my head on the wall. I start to write... But, life interferes; I leave town for a month.
It's mid-December. Bombay seems unusually cool, but in my lot is heat -- radiated by a furious editor. I yell back, Elections are in two months; how will I pin him for an update, you nit? And then, luck shines down: The RSS has a puja in Bhayandar and Advaniji is in town. He doesn't have much time. I run through it like hell:
The Left has named the BJP as its "main target" in the elections. Which is the BJP's?
This is precisely the mindset I avoid. We will not take a negative approach. We'll focus on our strengths and present those to the public. Uske baad, jo ishwar ki ichchha...
Do you consider the UF a serious adversary?
The UF has no programme except keeping us at bay and it has no prime-ministerial material. The press is projecting Jyoti Basu, but how many people outside Bengal have seen or heard him? We have a candidate, Vajpayeeji, whom all the people know and respect. And it's the people who'll give the verdict.
At this point of time, is your proximity to the RSS wise?
The RSS, which is a body of dedicated public workers not directly in politics, is a source of great strength to us. Our relation is not a cloak-and-dagger affair. The BJP takes its own political decisions and the RSS's sage counsel is always invaluable. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee (founder of the Jan Sangh) was not an RSS member; nor was Shekhawat; in fact, quite a few of our MLAs and MPs are not.
Will Kashi and Mathura be on the election manifesto?
Even before the Places of Worship Act, we had declared that Kashi and Mathura are not on the BJP's agenda. We took up Ayodhya because a sessions court had declared it a de facto temple by issuing an injunction that the idols cannot be removed, and yet all other political parties, prompted by their so-called secularism, started campaigning that the mosque be restored.
Is the BJP going to dilute its Hindutva?
Hindutva will be alive and potent as long as pseudo-secularists will it to be -- it is up to them. Instability, corruption and the fall in ethical standards are the issues plaguing India today -- and those are the ones we will embrace.
Reports say you have reserved 5% of tickets for Muslims...
That is a typical lie from the press. We welcome Muslims to the BJP -- but we have reserved no chunk for any section of Indians. The community has realised that we are not anti-Muslim, and we don't need to lure them with appeasing tactics.
The BJP is accused of allying with dubious parties like the BSP in the quest for power.
Our alliance with the BSP was a caste-harmonising experiment that failed. Even so, it has helped erase the notion that the BJP is anti-Dalit. All our alliances will be pre-election.
The BJP is encouraging defections...
Why is it that when Vaghela splits from us, it's "an act of conscience," but when Agarwal supports Kalyan Singh, it's a defection?
What kind of a chance does the BJP have at winning?
Already, Laloo Yadav has split the UF; the Janata Dal is in pieces; Mulayam is teaming with the Congress; Kesri will lose Mamata Banerjee... (Grins) Aap dekhte rahiye ki Congress se hume kitni sahaayata milegi...
You mean, Congressmen will be joining BJP?!
Wait and watch... The public is not blind. What kind of stability can these fractured parties give India? The BJP-led alliance will be returned with a comfortable majority.
It's not easy to probe a trained journalist. And how does one question a symbol? I'm at a loss as I prepare to write my assessment of perhaps the most controversial politician in modern India. But for his ideology and some surface flashes, Advaniji does not reveal much. He's tightly closed, cool, very calm, and *always* in control. Then I recall a snatch...
"I studied in Karachi but my family is from Hyderabad, Sindh. In 1978, I went to Pakistan and visited my old school. In the old days, there used to be a stall selling paalak pakodas nearby -- I often ate there. As I walked down the road that day, I was amazed to find that the stall still existed. Earlier, it used to be run by a Gujarati Hindu; now it was run by a Gujarati Muslim..."
Sure, most of us reconcile and learn to forget our losses. But there always are people once bitten, twice alert. Those who fortify their gates. Those who won't play dead. Those who will, in fact, forestall further attacks -- on the integrity of India and her ancient culture. For, without the vigilance of soldiers, there cannot be candlelight vigils even at Civilisation's frontiers: The parallax view is at play again... I think Advaniji is someone that history will inevitably have to reassess.
The press has always been generous with Atalji, and merciless towards him. For he carries the stigmata of Babri. It's no accident that he likes to repeat, "I learnt a long time ago that it's very difficult to change an individual's mindset. I have accepted this as a fact of life." Accepted, yes. Surrendered, no. For even his critics cannot deny his activism -- one now honed by the pragmatism required to beat the system at its own game.
In the mystery that surrounds him, and will perhaps always surround him in my mind, only one thing seems clear to me -- he will never find what he is seeking. For it does not exist. It is an illusion called justice.
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