This isnt quite the time to ask Sudheendra Kulkarni when hes going to write the book in him. The man who spent six years with a Prime Minister, and several years before and after with a would-be Prime Minister, has a bestseller inside him thats waiting to explode. But writing a book, as he knows well, is not quite the safest of occupations these days in some political quarters. And certainly not in the party he has just bid goodbye to.
A few days after former minister Jaswant Singh was expelled from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for writing a book on Jinnah and praising him, former journalist Kulkarni a faithful aide of BJP strongmen Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee reluctantly walked out of his party of 13 years.
My leaving had nothing to do with Jaswant Singhjis expulsion, Kulkarni, 52, stresses. I had been thinking about it for a while. About three weeks ago I met Advaniji and communicated my decision to him. I came to this decision because I realised I cannot make any meaningful contribution to the party any more.
He is being interviewed in The Telegraph office in New Delhi, for Kulkarni no longer has an office to call his own. He has come in an autorickshaw, because the taxi that he had hired failed to turn up in the morning. But then the man with a receding hairline and mane of white, cotton-like hair has always been the quiet and modest voice of the party on television. In debates, when others foamed and frothed, Kulkarni never raised his voice, and seldom spoke in hyperboles. Even now, his thoughts are carefully masked, and he measures his words before he speaks.
I really dont want to leave the party by pointing fingers, he says. The party has given me so much. It is because of the party that I could do my little contribution to public life.
He is firm that he is not going to join any political party and laughs off rumours that he is edging towards the Nationalist Congress Party. No, I am not joining any party. But now that I am out of the BJP Ill work with people across the spectrum.
He is now on an expert committee set up by Trinamul leader and railway minister Mamata Banerjee on railway expansion and modernisation. I have been a great admirer of Mamata Banerjee. I worked closely with her when she was railway minister in Vajpayeejis government. So when she asked me to be a part of this committee, I said, yes.
His opponents in politics and there are quite a few, many in the BJP stress that its not difficult to think of him in another political outfit, for Kulkarni has veered sharply from the left to the right, and is seen within the BJP as someone who switched loyalties from Advani to Vajpayee, and back to Advani.
People often ask me, You were a communist once, and with the BJP later. And now I am out of the BJP. But I think at every point I have tried to be true to myself. I think there is still a communist in me, he says. I cannot disown my past.
The past, clearly, has been anything but monotonous. The son of an agriculturist, he grew up in a small town in north Karnataka, and then joined the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, in the mid seventies. But when his fellow students made plans for the future, Kulkarni flirted with the Left. When they left for the United States for jobs, he joined a science magazine. And later, when they went up the ladder, Kulkarni worked with the trade union wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Karnataka.
The first time he met CPI(M) politburo member Sitaram Yechury was at a Students Federation of India conference in Mumbai. Yechury was the SFI president, Kulkarni a volunteer. I also met Prakash Karat on a few occasions. I have great admiration for them. Sometimes I bump into them, he says.
But the two contemporary leaders he respects the most are Advani and Vajpayee. Advani influenced him into embracing the party in 1996, but Vajpayee persuaded him to join the Prime Ministers Office when he became the Prime Minister in 1998.
Atalji said, you have to be in the PMO. I replied, but Advaniji has asked me to work with him in the ministry. Atalji said, Ill talk to him, but you have to work here. So he spoke to him, and I worked there.
That surprised quite a few, for Advani and Vajpayee are seen as representatives of two vastly different and often bickering camps. But Kulkarni believes that while the two had differences, they complemented each other. Neither believed in forming camps. And thats why they worked together for so long, he says, and suggests, with words that peter out, that others in the party may have encouraged factionalism. It may have been possible that some people
It always happens. Power attracts people of various natures.
The two, he stresses, were different and had their differences. But thats natures architecture every human being is unique. The beauty is how they complemented each others strengths. And they knew how to resolve differences.
Kulkarni is out of the party, but the party, clearly, is not out of him yet. The former national secretary has a blueprint for the BJP, revolving around the two leaders he reveres. To begin with, he believes the party has to resurrect Advanis role that has diminished considerably in recent years. Restore the authority of Advaniji he alone can guide this party out of the crisis.
He also wants the party to go back to what he calls Vajpayeeism. Atalji had a very broad vision but his feet were on the ground. He was a great resolver of issues. His political vision embraced the diversity of India. The BJP must similarly embrace the diversity of India, must become an inclusive party
And there is another demand Jaswant Singhs expulsion must be revoked: He did no wrong. He has not deified Jinnah, nor demonised Sardar Patel.
Thats a tall order for a party thats seemingly on a hara kiri mission. But there is no other way for the party to overcome this crisis. The BJP has a high level of internal democracy but in the absence of a unified command this internal democracy can turn into its weakness, which it has today. It shows in the kind of drift that has taken place in the party, he says.
The drift, as he calls it, should upset Kulkarni, for he left the CPI(M) because he thought he could see communism crumble. A great supporter of Gorbachev he was in Russia in 1985 for a world youth conference inaugurated by the last Soviet leader he remembers the moment that shook the world. Kulkarni was in Uttarkashi, on a visit with his family to four pilgrimage spots in the Himalayas, called Char Dham, when Gorbachev was ousted, and the Soviet Union fell.
In Char Dham, there is something that seeps into you. Take the temple at Kedarnath. The priest is always a Malayali. The temple was established by the Shankaracharya. Someone from Kerala, so many hundred years ago, goes on a yatra from the south to the north. He goes to Kedarnath, sets up a temple; he goes to Dwarka, to Puri. This is how India was unified.
That was, for him, the turning point. You have to look within for answers, Kulkarni thought. The BJP was on the rise then, and he was drawn to it. And the one-time trade unionist and journalist (he was with The Daily in Mumbai and later the executive editor of Blitz) left journalism in a few years to move to Delhi. He was with Advani during his Swarna Jayanti Yatra on Indias 50th year of independence. He was in the BJPs 2004 election committee and with Advanis campaign group in 2009.
In retrospect I believe that the lessons of the 2004 defeat were not learnt, and this was one of the reasons for our subsequent defeat in 2009. And I am sure if Advanijis authority had not been undermined in 2005, the BJP would be in power today.
In 2005, Kulkarni accompanied Advani to Pakistan where the BJP president praised Jinnah leading to a loud outcry in his party which ended with Advanis resignation. Kulkarni who, as the two leaders speech writer, turned their thoughts into writings was blamed for the Jinnah episode. When many in the party started pointing fingers at me, I resigned. I didnt resume my membership of the party after that, but I continued as a full-time activist. I havent done anything other than party work for these 13 years.
Now Kulkarni hopes to build a consensus on national issues cutting across parties, and to focus on good governance. There are good people in all political parties, outside the political system we need greater dialogue, greater cooperation. And he wants to be part of an effort that promotes Hindu-Muslim unity.
Kulkarni looks like he is carrying a heavy burden on his shoulder. But he wont divulge the last straw that broke his back. I don't want to talk about it now, he says. For that, well have to wait for the book.