Some two decades ago, the BBC released an audio collection of its Test Match Special. It contained John Arlott's memorable description of Don Bradman's final test innings at the Oval in 1948 ' the time when the crowd rose to greet England's deadly opponent and the fielding side resumed play after raising three cheers to the batsman.
Tragically, the clip is all too brief. Bradman blocked the first ball from leg spinner Hollis but misread the next googly completely. I still get goose pimples hearing Arlott's rolling voice exclaim 'and he is bowled!' Then, after a deathly pause, 'What can I say. Bradman bowled Hollis, nought.'
Journalists are meant to be hard-nosed and inhumanly detached, but last Wednesday in Mumbai I went through the same emotions as the most ardent Bradman fan 57 years ago. I was witnessing what is probably the last presidential address of L.K. Advani to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Advani will still be around in public life and, who knows, if the National Democratic Alliance returns to power in the foreseeable future, I might hear him in another, more lofty capacity. That day, however, I felt I was hearing him for the last time as a party functionary, before he joins Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the ranks of the elder statesmen.
As speeches go, it wasn't one of Advani's most outstanding. Always somewhat professorial, he satisfied the ideologically committed by restating the BJP's cherished beliefs of nationhood and dissatisfied the sloganeers by not providing enough talking points for the political Punch-and-Judy show. It wasn't exactly Bradman's final innings but it wasn't the triumphant last bow of a maestro either. Having delivered a competent working speech, Advani casually moved on to the next phase of his political life.
Yet, just as you can't judge Bradman by the 1948 Oval Test, it would be a travesty to pass a verdict on Advani on the strength of his last, and most troubled, stint at the crease. The image that flashed before my moist eyes that Wednesday morning was not the Advani of 2005, departing in controversial circumstances, but the Advani of 1990, the man who inspired a generation and the man whom history will recall as the most accomplished soldier of Hindu nationalism.
It was dusk in September 1990 as I drove from the Gujarat border, through the scenic ghats, en route to Udaipur. There were people lined up on both sides of the road but what caught my attention was a tiny adivasi hamlet in Salumber. There were nearly a dozen or so Bhil women in red saris clutching simple stainless steel thalis adorned with marigold garlands, coconuts smeared in red tilak and small oil lamps. They were eagerly awaiting the journey of Advani's Ram rath-yatra through their village.
To me, this was a defining moment in Indian politics. It was one thing for Udaipur to be lit up for an early Diwali celebration, with boisterous bikers heralding the passage of the chariot to Ayodhya. It was one thing for a two-hour long procession to wind its way through the pink colonnades of the Jaipur bazaar. The towns, after all, were the BJP's natural constituency. But the adivasi women in Salumber were different. Advani, like the Mahatma before him, had touched a chord in the soul of another India.
Advani was always the unlikely hero. Before his secularist detractors blessed him with horns and vicious eyebrows, he was the archetypal Common Man of the Laxman cartoons. A little self-effacing, shy to the point of awkwardness, exceptionally courteous and generously open-minded, he wasn't like any other politician I had ever encountered. He was raised in the sangh tradition but unlike the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of an earlier age, he spoke in an idiom that was refreshingly contemporary. He invoked Francis Fukuyama's 'end of history' in his Mumbai speech. I once even heard him mention Samuel Huntington's book on national identity to a bewildered rural audience in Orissa.
He had his failings too. Clarity in thought was his attribute but bluntness in speech was not. He was awkward in difficult situations and his hand-wringing was sometimes more than just a nervous twitch. I always felt that comparing him to Sardar Patel did him a grave injustice. Advani was not an Iron Man. He was temperamentally too generous, too much of a pessimist to be able to take very harsh decisions. He believed in conviction politics and the power of logic and argument. He was inspirational, not charismatic. He was always the grand strategist, the man who loved anticipating a trend. In the realms of partisan politics he was often a brilliant tactician but always an inept intriguer. Rarely could you equate wiliness with Advani. The charge, often levelled during the time the NDA was in government, that he was trying to upstage Vajpayee was simply outrageous. He was often in disagreement with Vajpayee ' mainly on points of detail, not anything involving principles ' but he knew the importance of having only one power centre in government. After all, it was he who unilaterally decided in early 1996 that Vajpayee was going to be the party's prime ministerial choice because that would fetch the BJP an incremental vote.
In the aftermath of the Ayodhya movement and particularly after December 6, 1992, Advani was often painted as a sectarian fanatic. He always had a robust sense of what constitutes Indian nationhood but intolerant he definitely was not. He was blessed with strong moral certitudes which many attributed to the Jesuit influence in his formative life. In perceiving things in black and white, and not upholding Hindu ambiguity, he was, perhaps, guided more by Judaeo-Christian assumptions. This forever landed him in controversy. He stood firm on the Ram temple issue. He was unwavering in his decision to not seek elected office till he was exonerated of the preposterous Jain hawala charges. And, equally, he refused to believe he had done anything wrong in upholding Mohammed Ali Jinnah's legacy in Pakistan. In the tussle between conviction and realpolitik, Advani was innately uncomfortable in tilting towards the latter, although in government he had to. His 'act of stupidity' speech in parliament last week was a strange aberration.
The question is often asked: is this the end of the road for Advani' It need not be so. Advani erred in attaching disproportionate importance to the presidency of the party. His influence in the BJP never stemmed from the post he held. It flowed from his moral authority. Unfortunately, it was that authority which was eroded after the Jinnah controversy and the spat with the RSS. He would, however, have recovered lost ground had he focussed on a viable succession plan for the organization. This did not happen because he went into a shell, ruing the unfairness of it all. His hand-picked second generation leaders, on the other hand, felt he was being unfair to them by converting a genuine disagreement into a loyalty test. Both sides felt aggrieved and the sense of hurt was compounded by a growing communication gap which, unfortunately, persists.
The gap may well narrow once the dust settles on the presidency. Advani remains and will remain the leader of the opposition. In this capacity he has the necessary detachment to position himself as the undisputed head of the NDA. If the pendulum of politics swings the other way in the next few years, before the BJP manages to create another mass leader with a pan-Indian appeal, we may see Advani returning to the crease for another last innings.