Book Review: The Yin and Yang in BJP's Rise

In 'Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi', Vinay Sitapati looks at the relationship between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani.

For a politician who likes to get himself photographed next to peacocks and on top of battle tanks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to walk all the way from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters to the cremation ground along with the body of his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee would not have been a purely emotional one. It was a very political act. In the days preceding the cremation, Vajpayee’s passing away had ignited a national wave of genuine love, affection and regard for the departed leader. Quick to grasp the political significance of this tsunami of sympathy for a BJP leader, Modi had no option but to ride the wave. The media across the nation commented that after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, no other prime minister had won the hearts of so many.

Vajpayee was a genuinely national leader, a statesman and a Chanakya. Lal Krishna Advani was a foundational leader of the Jana Sangh and the BJP, a gentleman, a thinking politician and an organisation man. They became good friends and compatriots, they worked with and under each other. They were neither competitors nor substitutes. Each needed the other. In his highly readable account of the relationship between the two, Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi, Vinay Sitapati says as much and I agree with much of his description of their relationship and their individual and collective contribution to the rise of the BJP.

However, only Vajpayee could have brought the BJP to power in the 1990s. After his retirement, Advani failed to lead his party back to power. Sitapati does not explore the question why. In Advani’s failure to become prime minister lies the real answer to the nature of the Vajpayee-Advani relationship. It was a ‘jugalbandi‘ of sorts, but one in which both improvised, like two maestros. They made music together, with one developing the raga sometimes and the other at other times. It was a partnership of equals but of two men with very different talents. They were not identical twins. They were Yin and Yang.

Vinay Sitapati
Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi
Penguin Viking, 2020

Sitapati says Vajpayee “cultivated” Advani to be able to benefit from his urbane and urban qualities. It could equally be said, Advani ‘cultivated’ Vajpayee to come closer to the grassroots, much like the original ‘pravasi Bharatiya‘ Mahatma Gandhi’s adoption of Gopalakrishna Gokhale as his mentor. It was Balraj Madhok, Vajpayee’s rival in the Jana Sangh, who seemed to correctly identify the difference between Vajpayee and Advani. Sitapati quotes him saying that Advani “lacked confidence”. It was only in 1989 that Advani came into his own as a national leader and even then yielded the prime ministership to Vajpayee, because he would have known that between the two it was the latter who was a genuinely popular person and could keep the coalition together.

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Sitapati seems to underestimate the importance of personal charisma in democratic politics in India. Advani’s failure in 2004 and 2009, an election in which he was pitted against the even less charismatic Manmohan Singh, was on account of his not being able to emerge as a popular leader, that Vajpayee always was.

Sitapati quotes Nanaji Deshmukh, another Vajpayee detractor, saying that while the RSS and the party mobilised the crowds for an election meeting, Vajpayee “takes the entire credit.” I am not convinced that Sitapati’s translation of “Saara shrey Atalji ley jaate hain” as “It is Atalji who takes the entire credit” is strictly correct. That statement can also be read as “It is Atalji who gets all the credit.” There is a world of difference between ‘taking’ and ‘getting’ credit. Vajpayee was given that credit by his audience.

I first heard Vajpayee as a high school student in Hyderabad in the late 1960s at Vivek Vardhini College. I was by then already a Left-leaning Marxist. Yet, I was mesmerised by Vajpayee’s speech. Years later, in 1996, I had written an editorial in the Times of India, on the day when Vajpayee was to seek a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha, advising Vajpayee to go of his own volition since he did not have the numbers. However, later that day, when I heard him speak in Lok Sabha, I was so charmed by his poetic oratory as to wish he would win the vote. That is what is called charisma. Vajpayee had it. Advani did not. The two understood and played their jugalbandi.

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Apart from being an account of the relationship between the two and their role in the rise of the Jana Sangh and BJP, Jugalbandi also offers an explanation for this rise. Students of political science may have their views on Sitapati’s hypothesis on the emergence and consolidation of a ‘Hindu vote bank’, but Vajpayee’s 1998 and 1999 victories were as much about a pan-Hindu vote consolidating itself against ‘caste-based’ and language-based (regional) political parties as it was about the nation’s search for an alternative national party in the face of the decline of the Congress.

Vinay Sitapati.

Vajpayee became that ‘secular Hindu nationalist’ who addressed this national need. If he is loved by all communities and regions, it is because he was not just a Hindu leader, like Modi and perhaps even Advani, but had become a ‘national’ leader. His defeat in 2004 does not contradict that assertion, at least in part because his organisation (especially the RSS) was not with him to give him the kind of support it has lent to Modi. Vajpayeehad failed to endear himself to his increasingly radicalised and communalised party. My only regret with Sitapati’s book is he underplays this aspect of Vajpayee’s appeal to the nation, even as he correctly analyses the gap between him and his party, that Advani had to always bridge.

Sitapati’s great strength as a writer is that, on the one hand, his early career as a journalist allows him to write in very readable prose and style, picking anecdotes (that the churlish would call gossip) that add colour to prose; on the other hand, his scholarly training as a student of law and political science enables him to contextualise his story within a wider framework informed by a reading of contemporary history. It is this combination that made his biography of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, Half Lion, so readable and a best-seller, and it is this that makes Jugalbandi also so readable. It will, presumably, also be a best-seller.

Sanjaya Baru is a writer and policy analyst.