In Jugalbandi, Vinay Sitapati unravels the relationship between Advani and Vajpayee, examining BJP before Modi

Jugalbandi has a strong narrative thread and it can open up the debate on the rise of the BJP before Modi, and the progression of the BJP as a political party in a post-Congress India

Meena Menon December 27, 2020 13:02:38 IST
In Jugalbandi, Vinay Sitapati unravels the relationship between Advani and Vajpayee, examining BJP before Modi

Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi, by Vinay Sitapati

Towards the end of his book, author Vinay Sitapati says, “Vajpayee’s and Advani’s ability to work with each other through thick and thin was based on more than just cold calculations and warm feelings. It was also based on an ideology that valued teamwork.” Jugalbandi unravels this relationship between the two stalwarts of Hindutva — Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, while at the same time, explaining the formation and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Sitapati identifies “Modi’s better connect with the voter” as perhaps the “most telling difference” between the two eras of the BJP. He writes that both Advani and Vajpayee lacked the daily contact with the masses that Modi had perfected. According to him, neither Vajpayee nor Advani were mass leaders whereas Modi has an “almost mystical connect with the voter. The prime minister he is most like is Indira Gandhi.” That should surely cause some heartburn!

Also, he points to a difference in the relationships of Advani and Vajpayee and Modi and Shah (a hint that there could be a Jugalbandi 2 in the offing). “It is hard to imagine Narendra Modi one day serving under Amit Shah — the way Vajpayee and Advani were able to swap roles not once but twice. They were able to do this only because they had internalised the teamwork that is at the heart of Hindu nationalism. It is in this sense, and not without irony, that the Vajpayee-Advani relationship seems more ‘ideological’ than Modi–Shah’s,” Sitapati concludes.

While it is admittedly hard to see Shah and Modi switch roles, both do subscribe in a sense to the ‘teamwork’ valued by the Rashtriya Sawayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP, which is largely contingent on acquiescence and submitting to a larger cause — that of Hindu Rashtra and unity. For example, as Prime Minister, Vajpayee had to give in to Advani, then his home minister, when he wanted Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to resign after the communal riots in Gujarat, 2002, not once but twice.

Sitapati explains that the BJP before Narendra Modi, from 1924 to 2004, is the subject matter of this book which contributes to academic discussions on: What is Hindu nationalism? Does the ‘inclusion- moderation’ thesis apply to the BJP? And what accounts for the rise of the BJP before Modi? The book shows how the intertwined lives of Advani and Vajpayee steered the BJP from its founding principle of Gandhian Socialism, to a majoritarianism replete with the Ram temple, cow slaughter bans, terrorising Muslims by mob lynching and now laws against the so-called love jihad, apart from the Citizens Amendment Act. That widespread protests have marked each of these actions indicate that ordinary people are still brave enough to protest despite the terrible consequences for some, and still cling to hope that a vestige of democracy survives in this country.

Advani and Vajpayee are not two ordinary people — and as the book shows, they played a significant role in the post Congress trajectory of the country and contributed to changing the idea of India by eventually encouraging and supporting Narendra Modi (Advani openly and Vajpayee as part of his belief in teamwork). It is a jugalbandi that withered not just the lotus but also the idea of India by endorsing an ideology of Hindutva that was intolerant and aggressive and promoting the man who came to embody that.

Vajpayee’s projection as a moderate leader, a good Parliamentarian, a man who lived with another woman who was married — as his liberal face — and also a leader who sought good ties with Pakistan, jars uncomfortably with his refusal to push his convictions for fear of breaking the RSS credo of unity and teamwork. Where Advani and Vajpayee differed was perhaps in articulating their support for a Hindu Rashtra. Vajpayee was willing to be led along, even if he on the face of it, had reservations, whereas Advani, seeing rich political remunerations, wholly endorsed it.

The revisionist approach of the book at times tends to soften the blow of Hindutva and its actions. The Jugalbandi then while recording this political tandem of two close friends, sometimes falls apart in dissecting the import of the duo’s actions, though the interplay of the two main characters holds your attention. Sitapati — who has earlier written a biography of India’s Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and is well versed with the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 — is speculative in his analysis of the role of leaders in the demolition. He writes:

“But consider, for a moment, an alternative explanation. The evidence tying Advani, let alone Vajpayee, to the crime is circumstantial. And we do know that Advani and Vajpayee had lost control of the movement — the BJP was fighting within, the RSS and VHP were not listening to the BJP, and the sadhus were not listening to the VHP. Improbable though it may sound, what if the events of 6 December were a breakdown of Hindu nationalist ideology rather than its epitome? What if the problem on the battlefield that day was, indeed, too many generals?”

In Jugalbandi Vinay Sitapati unravels the relationship between Advani and Vajpayee examining BJP before Modi

File image of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani. Reuters

Sitapati is unconvincing by straining to compare this with the refrain of “too many generals”, a favourite RSS critique of the last battle of Panipat in 1761 fought between the Marathas and the Afghan Ahmed Shah Abdali. Though to his credit, he does distance himself from the fact that the RSS and many sympathisers still believe that a lack of Hindu unity is what led to that momentous defeat, which would pave the way for colonial rule for the next 200 years. The revisionist position he adopts argues that the “actual culpability of the institutions of Hindu nationalism is more circuitous than believed.” While stating that, he adds that “there is no doubt that the ideology saw all three events [the killing of Gandhi in 1948, the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Gujarat riots of 2002] through the lens of ‘defensive violence’; the need to stand up for Hindus in every battle.” This kind of weakens his arguments on the links between the RSS and the BJP and leaves some scope for further discussion on the subject.

He shows the BJP as a party that was slow to adopt the Hindutva ideology and only did so when it felt the Congress would usurp the Hindu vote bank. Also, he claims the book has propagated a novel theory for the BJP’s first rise to power. “The secret sauce of the BJP, as well as the RSS, was their unbending focus on unity. This meant making Hindus, who number over 80 percent of India, vote as one.”

However, other than unity, the RSS was equally for upping the volume on Islamophobia, and downplaying caste, banning cow slaughter, among other things, which the BJP emulated. Uniting Hindus meant creating a common enemy — the Muslim, and projecting the Ram temple as the core of Hindu aspiration and glory. It is difficult to be persuaded that unity alone was the reason for the BJP’s triumphant march. “It was the Bharatiya Janata Party alone, led by a Vajpayee and Advani who stayed together, that was able to emerge as the national alternative. Their idea of India won because they worked as one.” That idea was the RSS idea of India, and the scaremongering of the Hindus with the Muslim bogey was the road to Hindu Rashtra.

Actually, the book clearly establishes, not for the first time, the RSS was pivotal in changing the moderate focus of the BJP from its Gandhian Socialism which didn’t fetch it electoral mileage. Sitapati says, “So it was in 1951 that the RSS sent its best to found, and thus shape, the Jana Sangh. So it would be, as we shall see, that the RSS would send Narendra Modi to the BJP in 1987 to reduce the sway of Vajpayee. And so it was now, in 1981, that the RSS decided to counter the BJP by deputing a pracharak to awaken the VHP.”

And it has not looked back since. Sitapati says the Meenakshipuram incident in 1981, where Dalits converted to Islam was the turning point in changing the BJP to a communal force — each time the RSS felt Hinduism was being given a backseat — it stepped in. Another jugalbandi is playing out between the RSS and the BJP, though the RSS is the supreme influencer. The book effectively summarises the trajectory of the BJP, its leadership issues and what it was to lead a non-Congress government and the offers glimpses into coalition dharma.

Jugalbandi has a strong narrative thread and it can open up the debate on the rise of the BJP before Modi, and the progression of the BJP as a political party in a post-Congress India. Also of interest is the need for the idea of a Hindu state to mobilise Hindus, as Sitapati discusses, taking off from Benedict Anderson’s idea of an ‘imagined community’, and whether it was modern colonialism which contributed to the creation of Hindu nationalism as some believe, or was it modern representative democracy as posited by Sitapati.

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