IN THE GENERAL Election of 1991, riding on the back of the Ayodhya movement, BJP emerged as the principal challenger to the Congress. Since then, scholars have agonised over what they believed was an unexpected saffron surge, producing scores of studies on the party and the wider phenomenon of Hindu nationalism. Most of the works by academics were hostile and born out of anxiety that India was heading towards an intolerant majoritarian dispensation that, unless checked, would demolish the basis on which the study of Indian politics rested. The common thread of the studies published between 1991 and today was that BJP could not and should not be assessed as yet another political party. Instead, it should be viewed as a cluster of devilishly clever fanatics with a singleminded desire to reinvent India along the lines of a new Hindu fascism. Every twist and turn of the party was minutely assessed and dissected on the principle that it was important to know the enemy thoroughly in order to destroy it. In every respect, Vinay Sitapati’s study of BJP in the decades preceding the famous victory of Narendra Modi in 2014 is markedly different (Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi; Viking; 409 pages; Rs 799).
First, the author deviates from the turgid academic style of writing and successfully tries to make a history more accessible to the non-specialist reader. This is done without compromising the nuances of the political narrative. The storytelling is deftly blended with analysis.
Second, unlike many academics, the author does not bank exclusively on newspapers as the primary source. In fact, his dependence on written sources is a bit too casual. He bases a significant part of his narrative history on recollections of those who had a ringside view of events. They include journalists and those, like me, who combined association with the movement with a presence in the media. Predictably, this has meant that the sections on BJP are far stronger than the narrative centred on the Jana Sangh.
Third, although the history covers many individuals who played a prominent part in the evolution of the Jana Sangh and BJP, it focuses principally on two individuals: Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani—their long partnership and their jugalbandi. The writer has attempted—quite successfully, I may add—in bringing out the essence of their personalities, including their private lives, without being judgemental. He has also avoided exaggerated adulation. Thus, while the hidden ruthlessness behind the genial exterior of Vajpayee comes to the fore, so do the hesitations and tentativeness of Advani. Vajpayee was always the dominant player after the death of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in 1967 and Advani invariably deferred to him. At the same time, from 1990 to 1996, Advani was thrust into the limelight and it appeared that Vajpayee had been relegated to the background. The hesitations and awkwardness involving the two men has been well captured by Sitapati on the strength of anecdotes.
Unlike his peer group which has always been under pressure to avoid conveying the impression of being even remotely sympathetic to BJP and its belief systems, Vinay Sitapati has attempted to present BJP as a normal political party with an eye on optimising its returns from elections
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The divergent positions taken by Vajpayee and Advani on the Ayodhya issue that dominated national politics from 1988 have been handled with dexterity by the author. Whereas one view of the divergent positions would have us believe that Vajpayee was ‘secular’ whereas Advani was ‘communal’, Sitapati has located the differences in electoral strategies. Vajpayee believed that BJP had located its anti-Congressism in a coalition culture. In effect, this meant that while BJP was loosely a Hindu party, it should simultaneously underplay the more polarising aspects of its politics. Advani—backed by a significant section of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—felt that the disastrous election results of 1984 held very different lessons. They suggested that BJP should aim to be aggressively Hindu and develop a distinct and assertive Hindu constituency. The rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in 1990 was part of this approach, as were Advani’s tirades against ‘pseudosecularism’—a term that became embedded in the vocabulary of Indian politics after Rajiv Gandhi’s reversal of the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano judgment.
My own recollections of the 1991 General Election campaign prompt the conclusion that Vajpayee was out of sync with the heady mood inside BJP. He genuinely felt that the divisions in the anti-Congress vote would only benefit Rajiv Gandhi and lead to BJP getting stuck at the 50-seat level. Advani, on the other hand, felt that the Ayodhya movement had acquired sufficient momentum to make BJP an alternative pole of Indian politics.
Advani turned out to be right as BJP won 121 seats in 1991. Its tally may have touched 150 had Rajiv Gandhi not been assassinated just before the third and final phase of polling. However, Vajpayee had the last laugh after Advani—without any prompting from RSS—realised, shortly before the 1996 General Election, that the incremental push BJP needed to overtake Congress could happen only if the genial Vajpayee was projected as the leader. Always apologetic at having upstaged Vajpayee during the Ayodhya mobilisation, Advani was in fact relieved that he had found a way to restore Vajpayee’s supremacy in the party. This position would remain unchallenged till 2004.
Finally, Sitapati’s work is a major departure from the bulk of academic and quasi-academic studies of the saffron phenomenon. Unlike his peer group which has always been under pressure to avoid conveying the impression of being even remotely sympathetic to BJP and its belief systems, Sitapati has attempted to present BJP as a normal political party with an eye on optimising its returns from elections. The author is fully aware of the rich literature on the subject that paints the Jana Sangh-BJP as a band of hardnosed rightwing, neofascist revolutionaries. Mercifully, the influence of this ideological overload on the larger tale is patchy. I guess it will be for precisely this reason that the importance of Jugalbandi will be discounted in the academic study of Indian politics.
For any chronicler of Hindu nationalism, the delicate and undefined relationship between RSS and BJP poses a formidable challenge. It is, of course, easy to fall back on the belief that BJP is nothing but an extension of RSS, the political arm of a sinister and secretive organisation based in Nagpur. The reality, as Sitapati, has rightly noted, is more complex. The author takes note of Guruji Golwalkar’s deep disdain for politics and RSS’ strong belief that Hindu unity is better served through social interventions than divisive electoral politics. The story, however, does not end here. The quantum of RSS involvement in BJP has, in reality, depended quite significantly on the approaches of individual sarsanghchalaks. Balasaheb Deoras, for example, left the handling of the Jana Sangh-BJP to his brother Bhaurao who, in turn, was instrumental in linking the entire Sangh Parivar to the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan. Subsequently, Rajendra Singh reposed inordinate faith in the leadership of Vajpayee and Advani and accorded BJP an exceptional measure of functional autonomy. His successor, KS Sudarshan, on the other hand was noted for his over-intrusiveness in all matters ranging from high policy to the appointment of ministers and officials. It was on Sudarshan’s intervention, for example, that Vajpayee was forced to shelve the appointment of Jaswant Singh as finance minister in 1998.
With the death of Vajpayee and the retirement of Advani from active politics, not to mention the fact that BJP has moved to a very different political trajectory under Modi, the time may have come to record the varied experiences
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There were profound tensions in the relationship between RSS and BJP during Vajpayee’s tenure as prime minister. The disagreements were replicated in public spats involving the Prime Minister’s Office and senior functionaries of the Sangh, such as Ashok Singhal (Vishva Hindu Parishad) and Dattopant Thengadi (Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh). The tensions also affected Advani who once told me that it was unbecoming of the RSS chief to be so minutely involved in government decision-making. The breakdown in the RSS-BJP equilibrium was a factor in the defeat of BJP in the 2004 General Election. Since then, a new normal has seen RSS establish its organisational primacy in BJP. At the same time, after 2014, RSS’ relationship with the Narendra Modi Government has been free of any outward tension suggesting that the terms of engagement between the two bodies are one of constant evolution.
A facet of this relationship that is relatively under-explored in Sitapati’s work centres on economic policy. Unlike the right in Europe and North America that is distinguished from the rest on the strength of their commitment to private enterprise and a minimal state, the Jana Sangh-BJP, influenced to a large part by RSS, has put culture above economics and nationalism over globalisation.
The early tensions over economics surfaced during Indira Gandhi’s post-1969 socialist turn when the Jana Sangh cosied up to the free-market Swatantra Party and Congress (O) which had strong links with India’s big business. While the vagaries of politics and a determination to fight the growing influence of the Communist Party of India in Indira Gandhi’s Government prompted the Jana Sangh to join the ‘Grand Alliance’, Balraj Madhok sought to deepen the relationship by attempting to unite all the disparate right elements in a new party. Vajpayee was uncomfortable with this turn, as he was with Madhok. RSS sided with Vajpayee and Madhok was edged out of the Jana Sangh, ending the remainder of his life on the fringes of politics.
The tensions over economic policy resurfaced after the liberalisation of the Indian economy post-1991. BJP was always pro-business but was always dependant on small and medium-scale entrepreneurs who sought deregulation with protection from foreign capital. When the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in 1998, Vajpayee—under the strong influence of Brajesh Mishra—sought to open up the Indian economy to beat back the economic sanctions imposed by Western powers as an expression of their distaste for the nuclear tests. This approach fetched dividends for the Indian economy as growth rates rose significantly. However, the entry of foreign capital and the privatisation of some state-owned enterprises triggered opposition within a section of the Sangh Parivar and was sharp enough to provoke Thengadi to denounce the Government’s economic policy as ‘rashtravirodhi’.
Vajpayee was livid, as indeed was Advani who, in any case, had very little appetite for swadeshi economics, despite his personal proximity to S Gurumurthy—a very influential figure in the larger RSS family. However, Advani did attempt to bridge the differences between various wings of RSS and the Government. The relationship between the sarsanghchalak and Vajpayee had touched an all-time low and Sudarshan wanted the dismissal of people such as Brajesh Mishra from positions of authority. This in turn prompted Vajpayee and what I once cheekily described as the people at his dining table to dig their heels in. The cold war, which Mishra kept alive by deftly using the media to his advantage, also engulfed Advani. Sitapati has mapped this strained relationship between the two stalwarts in the last two years of the Vajpayee Government quite accurately. But he has underestimated its intensity. I believe it was principally responsible for distancing the NDA from its core support base and BJP’s defeat in 2004.
Many of us who witnessed the journey of BJP from the margins to the centrestage have chosen to keep their memories largely private. Yet, with the death of Vajpayee and the retirement of Advani from active politics, not to mention the fact that BJP has moved to a very different political trajectory under Modi, the time may have come to record the varied experiences. Sitapati’s book is an important step in filling up the important gaps in our knowledge. It isn’t a comprehensive work, but it is unlikely to be bettered in the immediate future.