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Book Review: Vajpayee, Advani and The BJP That Was

by Tejas Nageshwaran
Published: Last Updated on 350 views

Spanning a little more than 450 pages, covering over eighty years, “Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi” chronicles the unlikely partnership between two contrasting personalities – Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani – one that is formative to the narrative of India today. Sitapati explores, through the lens of their relationship, its highs, lows, dynamics and nuances, and the political identity that brought and held them together – Hindu Nationalism. 

Born into a Brahmin family in Gwalior, then a princely state of the Marathas, Atal Bihari Vajpayee moulded himself as a ‘pocket edition’ of his father – affable, eloquent and poetic. Seventeen-year-old Vajpayee’s decision to join the RSS, Sitapati says, was one largely driven by his environment at Gwalior, a Marathi speaking state under a Hindu king. Young Vajpayee’s beginnings at the RSS would lead him to the Jana Sangh, and eventually, to form the Bharatiya Janta Party. 

Vajpayee’s entry into politics, orchestrated by Jana Sangh leader Deendayal Upadhyaya brought him to what would remain his haven for the rest of his life – the Parliament. Vajpayee’s knack for understanding the currents and pulse of the Parliament, and his earnestness to operate within that consensus, even if it meant going against the views of the Sangh, endeared him to all members alike. Prime Minister Nehru would introduce young Vajpayee to Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev as ‘one of our future prime ministers’ – hardly a year after he had set foot in the Parliament. 

Both in the Opposition and the seat of power, Vajpayee made every effort to project his party as a moderate, liberal one. This image was necessary in an India post the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, one that held the Hindu nationalist family as a contemptuous fringe. Vajpayee’s moderation would earn him the reputation of being a ‘mukhota’, or a liberal mask, to the aggressively Hindu BJP and Sangh. This reputation was one that would haunt him throughout his life. 

His policies as the most pro-Pakistan and pro-Kashmir Prime Minister, and the leader of a government that was continuously at loggerheads with the RSS, however, raised a question that many would continue to ask long after his demise. What if Vajpayee did not cover his Hindutva with a mask of liberalism? What if he was, in fact, a liberal, masquerading as a Hindu nationalist? While Sitapati doesn’t answer this question, he does lean towards the latter. Instances he cites include Vajpayee’s disagreements with Advani on the Ayodhya movement, his call for Narendra Modi to resign after the Gujarat riots, his own attempts to resign after the riots, and his association with Rajkumari Kaul, a confident liberal from Delhi, who would shape his politics behind the scenes.  

While Vajpayee played the instrument of the Parliament, he needed someone adept at playing that of the party, the cadre and the Sangh to complete his jugalbandi. Lal Krishna Advani was this silent mobiliser. Sitapati traces the less talked about beginnings of Advani, the son of wealthy Sindhi parents in Karachi, groomed in elite English schools. Tragedy soon strikes, when Advani loses his wealth, his home and his family to the blood and gore of partition. He flees to India, where the Sangh would quite literally become his new parivar. Here, he would meet his mentor, friend, and fellow movie buff – Vajpayee. 

If Vajpayee’s heart was in the Parliament, Advani’s was with the party cadre. Through much of the 1980s he tirelessly served as the link between an increasingly moderate Vajpayee and a frustrated Sangh. When he finally understood that Vajpayee’s liberalism was creating as much acrimony within the party as affability outside, he overruled Vajpayee the ideology, though he never abandoned Vajpayee the man.  

Taking the reins of the party into his own hands, he leads the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement – a move that Sitapati calls ‘naked political opportunism’ for a man whose personal life reflects not one ‘anti-muslim bone.’ Even here, however, Advani totters dangerously on the line, but never crosses it. He never advocates violence, he never denounces Muslims.  

Advani was riding a tiger he couldn’t tame, leading forces of the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena who didn’t report to him, or to anyone, for that matter. While officially, the RSS declared happiness when the mosque at Ayodhya was felled, within, there was a sense of defeat and a fear of having lost control. ‘This is what happens when sadhus, not pracharaks, take leadership,’ a senior RSS leader said in private. 

While not absolving him of all wrongdoing, Sitapati doesn’t subscribe to the notion that the Sindhi man from Karachi, who read the Guru Granth Sahib and tried persistently to mend Indo-Pak relations, was a hardliner. It spoke volumes on Advani’s character, he believes, that his response to the trauma of partition, that prompted many to take up unbridled violence, was quietism. 

In 1995, when India looked set to have her first Hindu nationalist Prime Minister in Advani, the man stepped aside, declaring Vajpayee the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate. In a political field of big men and bigger egos, Advani had the maturity to understand that to run a successful government, the BJP needed the support of coalition partners, parliamentarians, bureaucrats and the masses. The BJP needed Vajpayee, not him. This, Sitapati describes as his most glowing moment. 

Sitapati examines, in detail, the nuances of the relationship between the two men, as it becomes increasingly frayed during Vajpayee’s years in power. Arguably, what he doesn’t do justice to are many of the government’s successes and failures in those tumultuous six years. Notably, the victory at Kargil and the tests at Pokhran, some of the most defining moments of the Vajpayee years are reduced to brief paragraphs. 

Perhaps, this is because the subject of Sitapati’s fascination is neither Vajpayee nor Advani, as much as it is the umbrella that brought them together – the ideology of Hindu nationalism. Refreshingly, Sitapati examines the RSS as an organisation, rather than a contemptuous convict, keeping value judgements at minimum. He sees the Vajpayee-Advani relationship, one that put ideology and organisation first, as a capsule that explains the larger functioning of the RSS. 

The emphasis in the Sangh is on discipline, organisation, and most importantly, unity. The lack of unity among the Hindus he sees in his reading of Indian history is the chief preoccupation of the Hindu nationalist. While parties in politics split and merge at the drop of a hat, the Sangh and its daughter organisations remain united, however vitriolic the acrimony within. Sitapati likens this to the attitude of a family, where squabbles are kept within the four walls of the home, and often end in a hug. The doors are ruthlessly closed on transgressors who proclaim their frustration to the neighbourhood – the Balraj Madhoks and Subramaniam Swamys of the organisation. 

The need to relentlessly handle and resolve differences is what makes the role of managing the party so important to the Hindu nationalist jugalbandi – a role that would be performed by Deendayal Upadhyaya, LK Advani, and later, Amit Shah.  

Hindu nationalism is progressive on caste, but exclusionist on religion, holding Islam and Christianty as faiths that didn’t originate in India. Often, it was religious exclusion that helped the Sangh stitch together a base of Hindus that defied traditional caste barriers. This bigotry often made Hindu nationalism untouchable to other parties, as was seen after the Mahatma’s assasination, the Babri Masjid demolition and the Godhra riots. 

This necessitates the second instrument of the jugalbandi, one of moderation and acceptability. Under Vajpayee, this instrument would also direct government policy and legislation. It is telling that Modi, the Vajpayee to Shah’s Advani, doesn’t find the need to play the tune of moderation as frequently as his predecessor did. 

Organisational unity was what brought together a poor, provincial Gangetic Brahmin from an orthodox background, and a wealthy, anglicised Sindhi from a cosmopolitan, freewheeling household. Organisational unity was what held them together in spite of differences; it was what would allow them to shift roles not one, but two times – first with Vajpayee at the helm, then with Advani taking control, then once again, with Vajpayee becoming Prime Minister and principal leader. 

Sitapati brings his book to a close towards the final years of Vajpayee’s government. In 2002, post the Godhra riots, Vajpayee demanded that the then Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, resign. Advani disagreed, shielding his protégé (who seemed more popular than ever before). Advani would win this tussle, and Modi would continue. With it, however, the Vajpayee-Advani jugalbandi would reach its end. There wouldn’t be a need to pull together an encore. A shining BJP, much to everyone’s shock, would lose the national election of 2004, the sun setting on the careers of the duo, who for fifty long years had shaped the politics of the country, and the personalities of each other. 

It is noteworthy that Sitapati concludes his book with 2004, when Vajpayee begins to withdraw from politics. Advani’s exit would come much later, in 2013, when Narendra Modi is announced as the face of the party. Without the one, the other was incomplete. 

Often when the media examine the politician, they do so through the lens of their individual politics. Here, Sitapati does the reverse. He examines the politics of Vajpayee and Advani through the lens of their personalities. The results are refreshing, interesting and insightful. That said, Jugalbandi is as much about the ideology and the organisation as it is about the individuals, if not more. Perhaps there couldn’t have been a better way to understand two men who put their organisation above their personal interest, than understanding their organisation itself. 

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