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The idea of India that Vajpayee and Advani sowed

Vinay Sitapati’s new book examines the groundwork that led to the ascendance of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah

L.K. Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were willing to let their egos submerge and work under one another for what they believed to be the greater good.

Jugalbandi is a term associated most with music—a partnership of two solo artists, who come together and perform a piece where the sum is greater than its parts. Vinay Sitapati, a political scientist who teaches at Ashoka University, Haryana, has drawn on that idea to describe the long, outwardly frictionless partnership between the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the nonagenarian Lal Krishna Advani in his new book of the same name.

Vajpayee, the charmer with the gift of oratory, convinced many Indians that he was “the right man in the wrong party” (at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, was considered so by many) because he was affable, appeared less doctrinaire and more tuned in with the Nehruvian ethos than the hard-headed elements of the Sangh Parivar. When he died in 2018, most people spoke of the poems he recited instinctively and how he was admired by politicians of all parties and the “Lutyens crowd”. Few remembered his cynical and suggestive speech in Ayodhya the night before saffron-clad vandals destroyed the Babri Masjid in 1992—a collection of nods-and-winks, hinting at what they could do the following morning, without specifically urging them to do so.

Advani, often admired by the same lot, was hardly the passive observer, even if he looked like an innocent bystander, like the cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s “common man” (a point Sitapati makes). In fact, he was the man who unleashed the fury that led to the mosque’s destruction. It was Advani, on a truck, carrying a bow and arrow, who rallied across the country from Somnath, leaving behind a trail of violence and destruction, wounding the idea of India. The music that the jugalbandi produced may have sounded harmonious to some Indians but it also sowed the seeds of another jugalbandi—of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

The two Gujarati politicians are certainly responsible for what has become of India today—a nation further away from its Gandhian roots and Nehruvian ideals than at any time. But Sitapati contends that to understand this situation, we need to examine what Vajpayee and Advani planted. Crucially, Sitapati’s approach is non-partisan. He is observing the phenomenon; he is not necessarily rejoicing over it, nor condemning it.

'Jugalbandi—The BJP Before Modi': By Vinay Sitapati, Penguin Random House, 424 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
'Jugalbandi—The BJP Before Modi': By Vinay Sitapati, Penguin Random House, 424 pages, 799.

One of the highlights of the book is the engaging way in which Sitapati provides the complicated history of Hindu nationalism. The questions worth exploring are: if Modi and Shah are building what Advani and Vajpayee laid the foundation of, then to what extent did Advani’s and Vajpayee’s effort adhere to the architecture designed by Vinayak Savarkar and Nathuram Godse? Many bristle at such questions; They would like to place the Advani-Vajpayee partnership in the mainstream, following the steps of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, for example. But it is that strategic ambiguity that’s at the heart of the Hindu right’s success.

Upadhyaya was the leader of the Jana Sangh and Mukherjee of the Hindu Mahasabha, Savarkar was with the Hindu Mahasabha (and disagreed with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s early distaste for electoral politics) and Godse was critical of the RSS—but all were manifestations of the hydra-headed Sangh Parivar. Like the Hindu undivided family, it comprised entities with different names, creating an aura of plausible deniability about who did what, while pursuing a common goal. This complex nature of Hindu nationalist politics is not central to Sitapati’s book, but the analysis is helpful in understanding the outward unanimity, internal divisions, and yet the maintenance of discipline to fall in line that the Hindu nationalists have shown.

The question, though, is why the RSS was banned after Godse assassinated Mohandas Gandhi. It is neither rhetorical nor academic. Sitapati suggests Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress was caught in a bind: taking action against the Hindu Mahasabha, with which Godse and Savarkar were associated, was made harder because Mukherjee was in Nehru’s cabinet (though not for long). Could Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel have been firmer with the Hindu Mahasabha, given the public sympathy generated by Gandhi’s assassination? Did Patel restrain Nehru because he was sympathetic to the Hindu cause? These questions don’t have easy answers, but Sitapati is right to raise them.

Jugalbandi is fascinating in describing the early Jana Sangh history in which young Vajpayee and Advani play a part, as they are drawn to the party—how Upadhyaya took control of the party, how he nurtured Vajpayee, how Vajpayee feared Nanaji Deshmukh, who knew how to raise money for the party from India’s industrialists and princes, how the RSS was willing to swallow its own distaste for Vajpayee’s personal life, and the role of the more fundamentalist (and less responsible) Balraj Madhok. Yet Jugalbandi does not explain clearly what Vajpayee and Advani saw in one another to form their durable partnership. Political alliances between two powerful leaders are not frictionless. Were the differences between them only of style or also of substance?

Sitapati is conscious of the two roles he has assumed: of an academic historian and engaging storyteller. It is his attempt at the latter that is sometimes unnecessary, such as the vocabulary he deploys. Images of Vajpayee or Advani on posters and billboards need not be called “mugshots”, for example. There is also the odd avoidable blemish, such as locating the year Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1914, and not 1915. And there is the danger of wading into contentious contemporary issues based on uncertain evidence.

For example, Sitapati mentions that 8.3 million refugees from East Bengal came to India in the months preceding the war that liberated Bangladesh in 1971, with many of them living in camps in eastern India. “Many remained even after the creation of Bangladesh, while a steady influx had continued since,” he writes. The latter part of the sentence is unquestionable (and Sitapati cites a doctoral dissertation on Bangladeshi migration into Assam, submitted in an Australian university), but the first part is contentious.

Records from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that by April 1972, the vast majority of refugees had returned to Bangladesh. Since two-thirds of the refugees were Hindu, it is fair to assume that many Hindu Bangladeshis felt it was safe to return. Acknowledging this is important, because it highlights the weakness of the case against refugees being built by the Indian government. Repeating the assertion perpetuates the narrative the BJP asserts as if it were a fact.

Refreshingly, towards the end, Sitapati moves from interpretation and analysis to opinion, as he compares the Vajpayee-Advani partnership with the Modi-Shah partnership. He notes why Vajpayee and Advani’s successes were limited, since neither had the mass appeal nor the impulsive feel of what the people would respond to—which Modi has. Sitapati also notes that Advani and Vajpayee were willing to let their egos submerge and work under one another for what they believed to be the greater good. He won’t guess if Modi could work under Shah one day, but he leaves few in doubt when he writes: “Their relationship is still unfolding, as are the petals of their lotus. But all flowers will wither someday, must wither someday. Then, perhaps, we can write about the music of their jugalbandi.”

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.

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