Lal Krishna Advani is known to be a disciplined man whose mental agility and physical stamina at the age of 81 is envied by his younger colleagues. Even then, to write his 996-page memoirs in less than eight months while continuing to be the Leader of the Opposition is no mean achievement.
The head of Rupa and Co., which published the just-released My Country My Life told the gathering at Delhi's Siri Fort on Wednesday that they had approached Advani only " seven to eight months ago" to write the book.
Advani himself said he had repeatedly been urged by his wife Kamla and daughter Pratibha to write his memoirs.
Clearly, Advani had been meticulous enough to have kept diaries and notes, and the book sustains reader interest, from his account of his days in Sindh, to being an RSS pracharak in Rajasthan, moving to national politics, the 19 months of prison during the Emergency, to the Ayodhya movement, as the home minister under Vajpayee, the Kargil war to his controversial visit to Pakistan.
Politicians in India do not usually pen their memoirs -- Jawaharlal Nehru was an exception -- and that Advani had chosen to do so has been described by Atal Bihari Vajpayee as "another accomplishment" of his colleague in the foreword to the book.
The timing of the book could not have been better. Whether or not it was billed that way, the book release turned out to be like an official launch of the NDA's prime ministerial-designate. Though Advani was officially declared as NDA's PM candidate on the eve of the Gujarat elections, he had chosen to keep a low profile, perhaps deliberately, to allow the dust to settle down inside the party and the Sangh Parivar, since controversies involving him had refused to die down.
Viewed through a political prism, the release function underscored three messages.
One, it laid to rest the ghost that haunted Advani, and racked the party and the RSS, ever since his 2005 visit to Pakistan where he had praised Jinnah-- a chapter which Advani describes in the book as "more distressing" than facing corruption charges in the Hawala episode.
Clearly, that is the most important chapter in the book, where the author contextualizes his remarks about Jinnah without in any way retracting them. He had gone to Pakistan, he writes, as a "messenger of peace" and to further the process of normalisation between the two countries. And his visit to Jinnah's mausoleum in Karachi and his approbatory references to the largely forgotten, August 11, 1947 speech of Jinnah were meant to remind the people of Pakistan about the vision their founder had of fashioning a non-theocratic state.
The release function left no one in doubt-- and doubts had persisted -- that the RSS now endorses the leadership of LK Advani. This was the upshot of the presence of RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat, who is running the Sangh for all practical purposes, and was pulled out of the Pratinidhi Sabha tocome and speak. The release function was put off for a day to enable Bhagwat to attend.
Admitting that he did not know Advani well at the personal level and there was a generational difference between them, Bhagwat dwelt on the common bond between the two, and that was of being `Swayamsevaks' subscribing to the same value system. Bhagwat's words restored the `swayamsevak' credentials of Advani, which had come under attack after his Pakistan visit, following which he had been charged of being a "deviant" and a betrayer of the cause of Hindutva.
Two, the message was that it bestowed on him the mantle of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The Bhishma Pitamah of Indian politics could not be present at the function, but his blessings were acknowledged through his foreword to the book and through the presence at the function of "Namita and Ranjan", Vajpayee's foster daughter and son-in-law. Both Advani and daughter Pratibha, in her warmly worded vote of thanks, referred to them by name.
Advani told the audience that he missed the presence of Vajpayee who had been there alongside him for 60 years, and that he had tried that morning once again to persuade Vajpayee to come. But that was not possible given his health.
Third, the book-release function was also a statement that Advani is the tallest leader in the party now. Though he was officially designated as the future prime minister of the National Democratic Alliance, there had been disquiet about the tri-polar leadership arrangement, with Rajnath Singh as the party chief and Vajpayee as the NDA chairman.
The function signalled the support of a wide cross-section, attended as it was by all the BJP chief ministers -- many of the NDA CMs like Parkash Singh Badal and Naveen Patnaik, and strange as it may sound the Jinnah episode had finally moderated Advani's image as nothing else had done.
Also present were those who are viewed as potential allies, like Sharad Pawar and Om Prakash Chautala, big names from industry, and media barons. Lending a personal touch, Advani made a point of going around the large auditorium meeting people and exchanging welcoming words with them.
While the function seemed to suggest that the parivar's doubts about Advani had been consigned to the dustbin of history, Advani struck a curious note the day after. In response to a question about who could be his successor, he took the name of Narendra Modi. It showed his lingering sense of worry about his Lok Sabha constituency in Gujarat; otherwise there was no need for him to single out one person as a successor, something that is not going to go down well with his other junior colleagues.