The binary system of the BJP

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan | Updated on November 29, 2020

Title: Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi Author: Vinay Sitapati Publisher: Penguin/Viking Price: ₹800

The book explores the complex Vajpayee-Advani relationship

For the last 50 years or so, popular history has become all the rage. Its target audience is the intelligent and educated layman interested in knowing what happened in the recent past. It is written from secondary sources and is, therefore, more of a synthesising exercise than actual historical study.

This trend came quickly to India but slow to develop. The first book of this genre was Kuldip Nayyar’s Between the Lines. It was published in 1969 and recorded the events surrounding the Congress split of July that year.

In the last 20 years, however, many persons have written such books. The latest author to arrive on the scene is Vinay Sitapati, who is described in the jacket blurb as a lawyer and political scientist who also teaches at a university near Delhi.

His first book was on PV Narasimha Rao, India’s Prime Minister during 1991-96, the period of economic reform. It was very good.

This book is about Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. It is good in that it covers most of the major points such a book should cover. But it is not quite in the same class as the previous one because there are glimpses of hurry in the writing and an overdependence on the journalistic method.

However, for those wishing to understand the dynamics between two major makers of modern India, their ideology and their political style, this is an excellent starting point. It should be read widely for the initial understanding of a very complex subject, namely, how India has come to be redefined.

Binary stars

Just like Narendra Modi and Amit Shah now, Vajpayee and Advani were like two binary stars that orbit around each other. Astronomers tell us that binary stars have a common centre of mass. In the case of Vajpayee and Advani this centre was the RSS ideology and the political organisation that it spawned in the form first of the Jana Sangh (1953-77) and then the Bharatiya Janata Party (1980 -).

Sitapati says the two men were so dedicated to the cause that they buried their egos and always acted only to further it. That, indeed, is why Advani let Vajpayee become the Prime Minister in 1996. He knew he was seen as a hardliner — although he was the ‘Macaulayputra’ — on Hindu matters and unacceptable to likely coalition partners who depended on the Muslim vote.

Earlier, in the 1980s it was Vajpayee who let Advani become the president of the party after the debacle of the 1984 general election when Vajpayee lost his seat and the BJP won just two seats. It was a good move. In just four years Advani turned the BJP into the only viable national alternative to the Congress.

This relay race technique did result in several tensions, however, such as when Advani ignored Vajpayee between 1985 and 1989 and Vajpayee ignored Advani during 1998-2004. But Sitapati has not been able to do justice to those years. That’s disappointing because during these years the friendship frayed a lot.

There were two major issues on which the two differed. One was the Advani approach to the “Hinduisation” of Indian politics (1985-1996). The other was the conciliatory Vajpayee approach to governance (1998-2004).

The book doesn’t really tell us much about their responses to each other. This, too, is disappointing.

In the end, though, Sitapati is right in his assessment that the two men didn’t fall out completely even when they felt completely marginalised because of their total commitment to organisational unity. Both understood its importance and neither wanted to weaken it. One example of this commitment was the appointment of Narendra Modi, a man so junior, as chief minister of Gujarat. Sitapati hasn’t mentioned exactly how Modi ended up as chief minister.

He is right in saying Advani wanted him. But he doesn’t say that Vajpayee wanted him as deputy chief minister, which post Modi refused. CM or nothing is what he is believed to have told Vajpayee, who agreed reluctantly.

Whatever that story, it was an inspired choice as far as the BJP’s fortunes were concerned. It is a matter of detail that he turned soft Hindutva to hard Hindutva.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and commentator

Published on November 29, 2020

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