Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi review – Two political journeys and an ideology

The Vajpayee-Advani partnership was an example of striking a golden mean between political pragmatism and ideological loyalty, in the process reflecting and shaping Hindu nationalism before Modi arrived on the national stage

Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi review – Two political journeys and an ideology
A file photo of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee with LK Advani and Narendra Modi (Photo: Reuters)

By Amitabh Ranjan

The Gujarat Assembly election 18 years ago, which gave the BJP its highest ever tally of 127 out of 182 seats in the state legislature, was a watershed in the rise of Hindu nationalism. Post-result surveys revealed a telling community, caste and class composition of the BJP voters: A majority of Hindus voted for Narendra Modi, Muslims did not; upper castes went for him but Dalits and Muslims voted for the Congress; and while the rich and wealthy supported Modi, the poor were divided between the BJP and the Congress. And, of course, there was a lingering effect of the post-Godhra riots.

The results not only put Modi firmly back into the CM seat, they also provided the BJP a new model to replicate nationwide. The RSS and its extended Parivar realised that Hindu nationalism could succeed in its twin objectives – winning elections and uniting Hindus – without “resorting to the playful competition that the jugalbandi of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani had resorted to: the moderate and the hardliner”. In the words of Pravin Togadia of the VHP, “You can say that December 2002 elections told us that with ideology you can win elections…you don’t need to dilute ideology…”

The elections also marked the beginning of the end of Vajpayee and Advani, or what the author of this book Vinay Sitapati says withering of Lotus’s first bloom. It heralded the rise of Modi, the second bloom.

The author of Half Lion, a biography of Narasimha Rao, offers a two-in-one in his second book, Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi. It is the Vajpayee-Advani partnership through six decades that he employs to weave a story around the birth of the RSS, its coming around to support the formation of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and its brief dalliance with power despite RSS chief MS Golwalkar’s pronounced dislike for politics and the coming of age of the BJP in the political mainstream – “from an ideology in the early 20th century, to a movement, then party, and finally government from 1998 to 2004.”

The story begins in 1924, the year when the senior of the two, Vajpayee, was born in Gwalior on Christmas. Three years later and more than a thousand kilometres apart, the other was born in Karachi on November 8. Not only in terms of geography but also in family backgrounds and social milieus, the two were worlds apart.

The book is about those two worlds and their dwellers coming together, forming one of the most enduring political friendships. Through anecdotes, interviews and tales of palace intrigues, all the while anchored firmly in facts, it tells you how the two navigated the path between the ideology they were baptised in and the realities of parliamentary democracy, complementing each other through a maze of issues but keeping their individuality intact.

In this sense, there were two jugalbandis — one between the protagonists and the other between them on the one side and their ideological fount, the RSS, on the other.

Sitapati makes it clear in the prologue that telling a tale through this relationship to analyse an ideology comes with blind spots. For one, the focus is on the electoral politics rather than social movements. For another, the emphasis is on the Centre rather than the states, for Vajpayee and Advani never held power outside of Delhi. But telling the tale through its parliamentary face and its party heart adds to several academic discussions – on what Hindu nationalism is; on whether power ‘moderated’ the BJP; on why it wins elections. For those who would be more interested in these debates, the author has a suggestion: first turn to the last chapter Scholarly Contribution before reading on.

The book is a gripping mélange of dramatis personae, their ambitions, events, twists, turns and inferences. Some of them readers would be familiar with, some they would be enlightened about probably for the first time. The diction is smart with a generous dose of literary tropes. As a whole, it is a rollercoaster tale the politically inclined will find hard to put down before reading the last page.

Currently in the midst of the second bloom, the author does try to answer two obvious questions – how is the Modi-Amit Shah era different from Vajpayee-Advani’s and how different are the two partnerships.

To the first, Sitapati says Modi’s better connect with the voter is the most telling difference. While Vajpayee was adept at divining the mood of parliamentarians and Advani of the party workers, both lacked contact with ordinary Indians. This is what Modi has worked on for decades. In that sense, neither Vajpayee nor Advani was a mass leader that Modi is.

As to the second, he says Vajpayee and Advani were large-hearted enough to upturn their internal hierarchies for the party. This happened twice — in 1995 Advani decided to sacrifice for the sake of Vajpayee when the latter was almost a relic in the party rather than a front-runner for the most important post in the country and Vajpayee stepping aside in 1986 to serve under Advani for the next decade. A similar swapping of roles by Modi and Shah is hard to imagine.

At least two events recently merit mention in the context of the book’s content. Addressing the centenary celebrations at Aligarh Muslim University on December 22, Modi emphasised on the need for inclusiveness, self-reliance, development and women’s empowerment, playing down the compulsions of ideological differences and narrow politics. Earlier, during his visit to West Bengal, Shah said the process of implementing the Citizenship Amendment Act had been put on hold. This is certainly an unexpected script from the BJP leadership of today. Amid an economic crisis, LAC standoff, farmers’ protest and under international glare over human rights and freedom of speech, does it seek to take a leaf out of the Vajpayee-Advani book? Only time will tell. And whether it does or not, a corollary will be eagerly awaited.

A former journalist, Amitabh Ranjan teaches at Patna Women’s College

JUGALBANDI: The BJP before Modi
Vinay Sitapati
PenguinRandomhouse India
Rs 799 Pp 424

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