Letter and spirit of another era

Advani faced flak for something that was once natural

ajay

Ajay Singh | February 22, 2011



In the age of twitter, written words run the risk of getting distorted. Ask Shashi Tharoor how he faced flak for describing general category air passengers as “cattle class”. He was rapped on the knuckles by his boss – Sonia Gandhi. But the twitter generation is irrepressible in not only giving expression to its feelings through smart usage of words but also in misinterpreting words.

This is exactly what has happened with LK Advani’s letter to the Congress president Sonia Gandhi, which provoked a sharp opposition from within his party’s younger brigade. Sonia Gandhi wrote to Advani expressing her “distress” over the BJP task force report which alluded to the involvement of the Gandhi family in the monies stashed away abroad. Not only did Sonia Gandhi contradict the allegation but she also expressed her anguish over the manner in which Advani lent his weight behind the unsubstantiated allegations and insinuations.

This was a communication by the country’s most powerful leader to the veteran leader from a fading generation. The anguish and distress expressed in words through a conventional method of letter writing was genuine. It required a prompt and decent reply. Advani did exactly that. In his three-line letter, he appreciated Sonia Gandhi for having declared that she, her husband Rajiv Gandhi and her family members did not have any accounts alluded to in the task force report. Without elaborating on the authenticity of the task force report, Advani expressed “regret” over the distress caused to her. This was an example of a decent communication between two leaders who are mutually reciprocal in upholding norms of political dignity.

This perfectly fits into India’s tradition of letter-writing which has enriched political discourse. Mahatma Gandhi used to write a lot of letters to his colleagues, disciples and family members to educate them about public life. He never hesitated to air his differences with Jawahar Lal Nehru over the latter’s obsession with the socialism of USSR. The legendary verbal disagreement between Nehru and Patel expressed through letters on various issues has become a vital resource to unravel the minds of those who played key roles in building the post-independent India.

Indian politics would have been poorer if Indira Gandhi had not engaged her bête noire Morarji Desai, Jayaprakash Narayan and Jagjivan Ram through letters which were often commentaries on Indian politics. These written words now enable political analysts to study the minds of stalwarts who shaped the country’s politics in their own ways. That decency was intrinsic to public life was evident when Jayaprakash Narayan handed over a bunch of letters written to him and his wife Prabhavati by Kamla Nehru to Indira Gandhi before launching a campaign against her in the early 1970s.

That decency gradually withered away and allowed subterfuges to replace letter-writing. This was evident in a series of letters exchanged between prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and president Giani Zail Singh. Through a letter drafted by a group of journalists, Zail Singh even attempted to topple the Rajiv Gandhi government. On the other hand, Rajiv Gandhi’s backroom boys left nothing to chance to run down the president. The boundaries of dignity and decency reached breaking point in the latter part of 1980s.

This patently political and intellectual exercise of letter-writing was replaced in the 1990s by rhetoric and platitudes as Mandir-Mandal dominated the political discourse. This broke the chain of healthy, decent interaction among leaders of various hues through exchange of written words. Examples of senior leaders going out of their way to show extreme courtesy to their political rivals became increasingly rarer. For instance, Atal Bihari Vajpayee apologised to Somnath Chatterjee in parliament the next day as he had lost his cool and berated Chatterjee a day earlier during the PV Narasimha Rao regime. After a verbal spat with former prime minister Chandrashekhar in Lok Sabha, the Vajpyee-Advani duo asked Pramod Mahjan to make amends.

This is a tradition that the old generation still cherishes. Advani’s letter to Sonia Gandhi was nothing but a continuation of that tradition, which his younger colleagues were unable to fathom much less appreciate.

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