HUM HINDUSTANI: In a ‘sorry’ state —J Sri Raman - Friday, February 25, 2011

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Were Advani’s regrets somehow related to the Babri Masjid demolition case in the court? India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has recently moved the Supreme Court challenging an Allahabad High Court order that dropped charges of criminal conspiracy against BJP leaders including Advani in the case

There is nothing new about what may be named the politics of apology. Several politicians, in India as elsewhere, have said sorry to the public and even to their opponents as a matter of strategy. The expression of remorse, emanating from Lal Krishna Advani and exciting many a comment, however, falls in a category of its own.

Advani had, up to this point in his long and turbulent political career, never been caught in a contrite mood of this kind. The former deputy prime minister had always acted upon the axiom that to be a far-right leader was never having to say sorry.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader never said sorry for the Babri Masjid demolition of December 6, 1992, by a mob he had mobilised. He has repeatedly called it “the saddest day of my life”, impliedly holding others responsible for the crime. Nobody heard from him any word of regret about his role in the Kandahar hijacking episode of 1999. He preferred to deny any role as the then home minister — idolised as the Iron Man — in a militant-hostage swap. No mea culpa escaped his lips when his own party pulled him up for his praise — on Pakistan’s soil — of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, though he presided later over former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh’s expulsion from the BJP for committing exactly the same offence in a book.

But the self-same Advani has now tendered a nearly tearful apology, of all the people, to Sonia Gandhi. To the BJP, the president of the Congress party and the chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is, above all, a ‘foreigner’ and the current face of a certain political ‘family’, to be fought in both these capacities and kept, if not out of power, at least out of the prime minister’s office.

The apology followed Sonia’s letter of February 15 to Advani about a report titled ‘Indian black money abroad in secret banks and tax havens’ by a BJP-appointed task force. The four-member body comprised S Gurumurthy — the far right’s own financial expert — and Supreme Court lawyer Mahesh Jethmalani — son of Ram Jethmalani, the BJP’s occasional rebel — besides former Intelligence Bureau Director Ajit Doval and Professor R Vaidyanathan. The report said that Sonia and her husband, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, were among Indians who held Swiss bank accounts. It made allegations involving her mother as well. In her letter, Sonia expressed surprise at Advani presiding over the report’s release on February 1, “endorsing such scurrilous and malicious fabrications”.

Advani caused much more surprise with his reply on the very next day. “I deeply regret the distress caused to you,” he said, voicing happiness at her denial of “the reports relating to you and your family” mentioned in the report and wishing the denial had come early enough for the task force to take into account.

The most surprised, of course, were Advani’s colleagues in the party. BJP Spokesperson Prakash Javadekar told the nation that nothing more should be read into Advani’s unqualified apology than “a noble gesture”. The shocked members of the task force had more to say. The body, said Jethmalani, “stands by its report”. Advani’s statement represented only “his personal view”.

The more articulate Gurumurthy minced no words. In a sarcasm-spewing newspaper article titled ‘Distress and Regret’, he questioned Advani’s credentials on this count. “The task force has asserted that it is the author of the report. The BJP or NDA could accept or reject its report. But, they considered the report, accepted and released it.” For good measure, Gurumurthy added: “The task force is an independent body of domain specialists. It has castigated all political parties and all political leaders as lacking in credibility, thus not sparing the BJP, which had sought its views.”

The main questions raised by the entire episode are not about mysterious Swiss bank accounts, as Gurumurthy suggested, but about the meaning of the promptest of political apologies. Was it yet another instance of factional warfare in the party and the parivar — the far-right ‘family’ — that we were witnessing? Had former BJP President Advani provided fresh fuel to the campaign of a younger leadership to capture power in the party? Or was it a repeat case of strains between the party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), patriarch of the parivar, given the close and continued association of Gurumurthy with the latter?

Or, again, were Advani’s regrets somehow related to the Babri Masjid demolition case in the court? India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has recently moved the Supreme Court challenging an Allahabad High Court order that dropped charges of criminal conspiracy against BJP leaders including Advani in the case. Can the apology help soften the government-controlled CBI and thus avert a harsh verdict by the court, if not by history?

We must wait for the answers. Meanwhile, we can amuse ourselves with other past instances of the politics of apologies and non-apologies, in India and elsewhere.

International examples, including the hotly debated German apology for the Holocaust and the decades-long US non-apology on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are of no relevance to our case. In India, Sonia was the apology-maker, followed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, some years ago on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Critics have complained this belated contriteness has not helped bring the culprits to book. Narendra Modi played the non-apology game to perfection, when the Gujarat chief minister preferred to preside proudly over the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002. His communal constituency has had no cause to complain. He has now a fair chance of improving on his already impressive record of unrepentant fascism. On February 22, in its verdict on the case of Godhra train burning — used as a trigger for the Gujarat pogrom — a special court convicted 31 persons but also set free as many as 63. These innocents had endured imprisonment and intense agony for eight to nine long years. Modi is not going to waste tears over them — and lose his vote bank.

But will the ever-so-fair Advani, ‘noble’ enough to bend his knees before Sonia on the BJP’s behalf, say sorry to them and their families?

The writer is a journalist based in Chennai, India. A peace activist, he is also the author of a sheaf of poems titled At Gunpoint

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