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L.K. Advani: “Why can’t we have fixed-term   legislatures?”

March 28, 2011

Introduction: In the first of a series of bimonthly events – Face The Press – aimed at holding national leaders to account, L.K. Advani, chairman of the BJP Parliamentary Party, debated a wide range of issues with a panel of distinguished editors at the Press Club, Mumbai, on 28 March 2011. Face The Press is an initiative of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), GovernmentWatch (GW) and the Press Club, Mumbai. The panel of editors at the inaugural event: N.Ram, editor-in-chief, The Hindu; Uday Shankar, CEO, Star India; and Kumar Ketkar, Dainik Bhaskar group. The interaction was moderated by Minhaz Merchant, Group Editor-in-chief, Merchant Media Ltd., and Founder, GovernmentWatch, and Ajit Ranade, Co-Founder and Trustee, Association for Democratic Reforms. Ajit Ranade began by briefing the distinguished audience on the objective of the bimonthly initiative: placing an unrelenting focus on accountability and governance, the bedrock of a mature democracy. After Ajit Ranade’s opening remarks, L.K. Advani delivered a brief speech followed by a debate with the panel of editors and questions from the audience.

Edited excerpts: L. K. Advani: I have had the privilege and the good fortune of being an activist in politics since 1951 when Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee formed the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Dr. Mukherjee himself was a member of Pandit Nehru’s first cabinet. There were two members in that cabinet who were not Congressmen. They were included by Pandit Nehru in his cabinet on the advice of Mahatma Gandhi: Dr. Balasaheb Ambedkar and Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee.

I have tried, in my own way, to do my best for the country, for the country’s politics, for the party and for democracy. In that context, when I received this invitation from Minhaz Merchant, I felt really honoured that he said he would like me to be the first speaker in this series though I told him that it would have been more appropriate if the Prime Minister had been called for the inaugural Face The Press.

Minhaz Merchant: Thank you sir. May I now ask Mr. N. Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu, to commence the panel discussion with Advaniji.

N. Ram: May I ask you a big-picture question, Advaniji? Where would you situate the Indian polity today, looking at the correlation of forces, the major opposition parties and the government and its allies – and distancing yourself from it to be as objective as possible?

L. K. Advani: Let me confess to you that when the NDA government’s tenure was about to come to an end in 2004, I for one did not doubt that Vajpayeeji would get a renewed mandate. We were optimistic, but while we who worked in the government including Vajpayeeji were optimistic, in the party generally there was over-confidence.

The effort that you have started here in Face The Press to strengthen democracy, to renew or at least curb the governance deficit and the ethical deficit, that should be the focus of attention. Every country, including an old democracy like the UK, continues to try to improve governance. British Prime Minister David Cameron has been putting forward certain ideas which appeal to me and which I have myself discussed once with the Prime Minister and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. I told them: why cannot we also think of something similar about the tenure of a legislature? Why cannot we have a fixed-term legislature? Most democracies in Europe now have a fixed-term legislature.

Minhaz Merchant: May I, on the issue of corruption, bring in Kumar Ketkar. What are your views not only in the context of individual corruption, but institutionalized corruption because we have outstanding issues such as autonomy for the CBI, the new Lokpal Bill, police reforms — issues that need an institutional solution.

Kumar Ketkar: I think on the question of corruption Mr. Advani has adequately stated his position — how it is ruining our political establishment as well as the political atmosphere. Therefore I would rather focus on the question of tolerance and intolerance. India’s civilizational attribute is tolerance and that is why democracy has survived, but the party which he heads is known for its intolerance. In fact many people are afraid, many liberal people are afraid of the BJP and they turn away from the BJP. M. F. Husain’s paintings have been vandalized in most parts of the country and I do not think the BJP has condemned the vandalization. M. F. Husain himself has been forced to settle outside India and I do not think the BJP has protested against that.

Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and Dr. Manmohan Singh have apologized to the nation for the 1984 riots in Delhi and even went to Amritsar and apologized for whatever happened during 1984. But I have not seen the BJP apologizing for the riots that took place between 1990 and 1992. Actually under Advaniji’s rath yatra, when the country got communally divided, I do not remember in all my years in journalism, having also seen Partition, the psychological, mental, cultural and religious partition which I experienced after 1990 and which continues partly today. I do not think the BJP has ever apologized that they were responsible for this.

Minhaz Merchant: I think in all fairness that is a point Mr. Advani should address head-on and clarify his position.

L. K. Advani: I have no difficulty in responding to this because when I undertook my first rath yatra, which was from Somnath to Ayodhya, I remember that the rath yatra was described by some books as a bloody rath yatra. After the demolition in on December 6, 1992, in Ayodhya, there were disturbances in Mumbai itself and I am sure that most of you are aware that I felt so unhappy that day that I wrote an article in the Indian Express a fortnight later in which I said it was the saddest day of my life.

So far as my own reaction to the happenings of 1992 are concerned, it has been very consistent. A question was put to me by The Telegraph many years ago and the questioner asked me: you write in English, you write in Hindi, you speak in both these languages, which is the word that you like most? The word that I use very often and which I like is ‘credibility’ and I can say that whatever I have been able to contribute to the country is because of the credibility that I have earned in my life.

Minhaz Merchant: Kumar Ketkar’s point was that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and others have apologized for the 1984 Sikh pogrom. On the Godhra riots of 2002 there has been no apology forthcoming from the BJP.

L. K. Advani: It is the official position that riots cannot be justified under any circumstances.

Minhaz Merchant: But is there an apology that has been forthcoming?

L. K. Advani: I have apologized.

Minhaz Merchant: Mr. Advani has apologized and as a leader of the BJP, if he has done that, I think we should give him credit for that.

Kumar Ketkar: I do not want to repeat myself, but on M. F. Husain, what is the position of the BJP?

L. K. Advani: On the issue of M. F. Husain, I have not commented. I do not think the party has commented. But there should be tolerance, particularly in the field of art. Vandalism cannot be advocated. It cannot be justified.

Uday Shankar: There are many unanswered questions on the issue of tolerance from the BJP and Advaniji has just said that riots cannot be tolerated under any circumstances even though there was a very, very bad riot that happened in 2002 in Gujarat under the leadership of the BJP government.

Ajit Ranade: I want to bring back the focus on governance issues and accountability, because accountability and transparency are the bedrock of good governance. Mr. Advani has come here as a national leader, so can I ask him a question about criminality? In the current Lok Sabha 128 members of parliament have criminal charges against them and this is based on self-declared affidavits. The party which has the maximum number of such members is the BJP – 42. And 17 out of these 42 MPs actually have very serious charges against them like rape and murder. Can your party make a commitment that you will not give tickets to candidates who have a single criminal charge pending against them? We have four states and one union territory going to elections. If you can make a statement against criminality in politics, people who are in public life will be held accountable to a higher standard.

L. K. Advani: Very often violations of Section 144 are also an offence. In India this has become a pattern of protest – that you violate Section 144 and so this is the criminal charge against me.

Ajit Ranade: But the Indian penal code can be changed by parliament! We can make a distinction between criminal charges. Lawmakers can make such a distinction.

Kumar Ketkar: Even in the 1989 general election, you had said that the main issue before Indian politics and democracy was criminalization of politics and an all-out effort would be made to completely decriminalize politics and democracy in India. As Ajit Ranade was very correctly saying, you can always distinguish between people who are arrested under Section 144 or similar charges and those who are arrested for robbery, murder or rape.

L. K. Advani: You cannot impose it, particularly in a situation when so many serious cases are foisted against you by a hostile government, by a partisan government.

N. Ram: Moving to Pakistan and the dialogue…

L. K. Advani: I am not talking of a dialogue – many in this party disagree that terrorism and dialogue should be delinked. We said zero tolerance towards terrorism means that we will be willing to have a dialogue with Pakistan provided you totally dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism that you have built up.

N. Ram: On the question of engagement with Pakistan, in fact one of the first India cables which we reported through an arrangement with WikiLeaks had the headline that the Prime Minister is isolated on Pakistan in his inner circle and this information came, according to this source, from M. K. Narayanan. It is well known that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seems to be under pressure from public opinion. But what is the alternative to engagement with Pakistan, whatever be the problem, considering the fact that Atalji made that famous statement: “you can’t change your neighbours …"

L. K. Advani: What is happening at the moment – India and Pakistan playing a cricket match, inviting Gilani for the match. This is engagement, but engagement does not mean that you start a formal dialogue. It is the formal dialogue about which I say that the minimum requirement is the basic infrastructure for terrorism has to be dismantled.

N. Ram: On the subject of WikiLeaks, Hindutva is seen by the BJP not as a philosophy, but an opportunity. It is not Hindutva philosophy that matters but Hindutva opportunism that matters in politics.

L. K. Advani: Every WikiLeaks cable has three parts. One about the conversation or what are the facts narrated in that cable. Those facts we accept as true, but they are facts which are being conveyed to their own government without the fear of someone being able to read them. Therefore the facts should be accepted as true. The second is interpretation. The third is the advice on that basis given by the US diplomat.

My own view is that the facts should be accepted as true. Interpretation and advice that the diplomat gives is his own, you may agree with it, you may not agree with it. The political counsellor of the US embassy was taken to the residence of Satish Sharma and there he was shown two cases in which there were Rs. 50-60 crores. Why should we dispute this version, what enmity has that US political counsellor with Satish Sharma that he should be telling lies about this to his own government?

N. Ram: One WikiLeaks cable reveals that Mr. Blake – a very senior diplomat who went on to become US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and I think is in a high position in the State Department – said Hindu nationalism, according to Arun Jaitley, was an ‘opportunistic’ issue, that is the word used. Jaitley conceded that, “Yes, the meeting took place, all the rest is true, but these are not my words."

L. K. Advani: I will have to see the exact statement because I saw a statement made by Arun Jaitley that he had never used the word ‘opportunistic’ and a second statement by the party president (Nitin Gadkari) that this is an interpretation.

Whatever Arunji said, if he responds to that himself it is better. I do not want to say anything. I will only say, regarding the Prime Minister’s comment on me thinking of the Prime Ministership as my birthright, that in a democracy nobody has the birthright to be Prime Minister.

Ajit Ranade: This question has not come up yet – financial transparency. We at ADR have tried to get the income and expenditure statements from all political parties and we have had a lot of trouble, faced a lot of stonewalling. They said that a political party is not a public authority, you cannot ask us this question, this is fiducially private information, etc, etc. We had to struggle and finally we did get the information.

Mr. Advani, should not all political parties subject themselves to a law which requires them to publish financial information like any company or trust or a hospital or a temple does? Why cannot we have a simple regulation that, every year, parties will publish both income and expenditure statements to the citizens of India? Can you please support this?

L. K. Advani: Broadly, I would be in support of this particular law provided laws relating to black money are also developed in a manner as to curb the growth of black money in the country. There has to be a comprehensive approach to the problem. But I do agree fully that transparency in financial matters in politics has a lot to do with internal democracy within the party. And you require laws for that as well.

End of event.

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