‘Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi’ by Vinay Sitapati details the six-decade long partnership between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani and how the two paved the way for the rise of the party.

Collage of Atal Bihari Vajpayee LK Advani Narendra Modi and Amit Shah
news Interview Friday, December 04, 2020 - 15:06

Author, political scientist and journalist Vinay Sitapati’s latest book Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi traces the rise of the party through the lives of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani. Jugalbandi details how Vajpayee and Advani, despite having ideological and personality differences, worked their way up to the highest corridors of power - paving the way not only for the rise of Hindu nationalism but also for the dominance of the BJP in Indian politics today.  

In an email interview with TNM, Vinay Sitapati explains the differences between the Vajpayee-Advani ‘jugalbandi’ and that of Modi-Shah, on why the bogey of ‘love jihad’ is not unique to the present government and more.  

You write that the Vajpayee-Advani era and the Modi-Shah partnership were shaped by the political circumstances of their time. What would you say are the primary differences between the leadership of Vajpayee-Advani and that of Modi-Shah? 

The first difference is that Vajpayee-Advani were very different from each other. On many issues that were core to Hindu nationalism – Ayodhya or the 2002 Gujarat riots for example – they had different instincts. They were also different personality-wise. Modi-Shah, I suspect, are very similar to each other. On 90 percent of political issues, they would have the same instinct. The other difference is that Vajpayee-Advani became, ultimately, an equal relationship. On the other hand, when it comes to Modi-Shah, it’s clear who is boss. 

In your book you cite Amit Shah stating that the fundamental difference between Vajpayee-Advani and Modi-Shah is ‘They never believed that fully waving the Hindutva flag could win them votes.’ What is your assessment of his statement?

I think he is right, descriptively. But a large part of the reason for this difference is the context in which both the jugalbandis operated. Vajpayee-Advani were running Hindu nationalism when it was an ‘untouchable’ ideology in Parliament. This was partly because the Nehruvian consensus dominated Parliament from the 1950s all the way till 1991. And it was partly because Hindu nationalism was tainted by the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. As I show in the book, the RSS was not involved in the killing, but the killers shared the ideology of the RSS. So Vajpayee and Advani were constantly batting on the back foot. Today’s jugalbandi can play on the front foot because they have such large mandates. They have shown that Hindutva can win elections. 

Vajpayee and Advani ‘were wearers of masks’, you write. Do you believe that it was for the RSS and for politics sake that they both chose to wear these masks? And in your opinion, who were the real Vajpayee and Advani?

If you wear a mask long enough, the mask becomes your face. Vajpayee and Advani played the moderate-hardliner jugalbandi for so long, that it became part of their personality. Besides, it wasn’t just a mask. Vajpayee loved Parliament more than anything else, and learnt the importance of accommodation. Advani cared what the party and RSS thought, so that shaped his thinking. The masks that they wore were both an act as well as real. 

Vajpayee often surrendered his own ideological position when it came to important issues like the Ayodhya movement or Modi continuing as Gujarat CM. Why? 

As I argue in the book, Vajpayee was somewhat of a guest-artiste in the party and the movement. He was most comfortable in Parliament, defending his party. But he was least comfortable in party HQ. That job he left to Advani. That’s why they made such a lasting jugalbandi. So, when it came to Ayodhya or the Gujarat riots of 2002, Vajpayee eventually realised that his own ‘moderate’ position was at odds with his party. He sensed that he risked being left behind. Which is why, he gave in. He was ultimately a party loyalist, who would go with the consensus – even if it meant going against his own instincts.

Some say Vajpayee was the most pro-Pakistan Prime Minister India has seen. You write that the outreach to Pakistan was to mainstream the BJP, and to gain acceptance in the Parliament and the West. But was there more to these gestures?   

I don’t want to use the word “pro-Pakistan”, but it is a fact – as I exhaustively document in an entire chapter in the book – that Vajpayee did more for peace with Pakistan than any other Indian prime minister. And Advani – contrary to popular perception – supported Vajpayee 100%. You see it in their joint decision on the Lahore bus yatra, on the outreach to Kashmiris, on the Agra summit – there are a lot of things they did. And they sent a very strong signal to Pakistanis, as well as those living in Jammu and Kashmir, that they were willing to make compromises for peace. Ultimately they failed, I show, because they mis-read the true intentions of Pakistan. But those gestures of theirs still resonate among many Pakistanis and even many in Kashmir today. So gestures do matter. 

Prime Minister Modi has become the face of the BJP despite Hindu nationalism abhorring personality cults. How has this been possible?

This is a good question, and you are right: Hindu nationalism is so focussed on team-building that it does not like personality cults. But I think the answer to your question is two-fold. First, Modi keeps winning elections, and this is as important for Hindu nationalism as teamwork is. If today’s jugalbandi of Modi-Shah stopped winning elections, then I suspect you will see more pushback from the RSS and other leaders. Second, it’s true that Modi has created a personality cult around him. But compared to other leaders with cult-appeal – Indira Gandhi comes to mind – he has not destroyed his own party. He still respects the RSS. Other BJP leaders such as Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Vasundhara Raje Scindia – who are not Modi’s chosen people – still wield influence inside the party. So despite Modi’s personality cult, today’s BJP still has more teamwork than, say, today’s Congress party. 

The mass conversion at Meenakshipuram in 1981 became a rallying point for Hindu nationalism.  How would you view the events of Meenakshipuram in today’s politics especially in the context of UP’s ‘love jihad’ laws? 

 Lots of Modi critics think that ‘love jihad’ is unique to this particular government. But it’s actually based on the 100-year old DNA of Hindu nationalism. This DNA is simultaneously progressive on caste – VHP and RSS members actively encourage inter-caste marriage between Hindus. At the same time, they don’t want Hindus to marry Muslims, or Hindus to convert to Islam (which is what happened in Meenakshipuram in 1981). They want that religious boundary, that definition of what the Hindu community is, to be maintained. You have to understand the BJP as a party that both has an OBC PM and Dalit President at the moment, while simultaneously pushing for laws against love jihad. These are the two sides of Hindu nationalism.  

Jugalbandi captures the rise of the BJP. In your opinion when and why did the decline in the Congress begin?

Most political scientists would trace the beginning of the Congress decline to 1967. What continued to keep the party in power was Indira Gandhi’s extraordinary political wiles. But, as I show in my book, the 1980s begins the permanent decline of the Congress party. Various castes and religious groups, for instance, are looking elsewhere. Parties like the Janata Dal and BSP are trying to take away some of the Congress’ vote-bank. But ultimately, as we now know, it is the BJP that succeeds and becomes the permanent replacement to the Congress. The point of my book is to show the reader how that happened, but also to argue that it was not inevitable. 

Jugalbandi is a Penguin Random House India book. You can buy the book here

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