Author and academician Vinay Sitapati’s new book, Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi, traces the 100-year-long story of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Jana Sangh, and its later avatar, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to provide the backstory to the current dominance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP in Indian politics.
Based on private papers, party documents, newspapers and over 200 interviews, the book published by Penguin Random House India, follows the journey through the entangled lives of the party’s founding members, former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee and former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani.
In an exclusive conversation with Moneycontrol, Sitapati, 37, who teaches at Ashoka University, speaks about the core argument of the book, which, he says, is to try to make readers understand what worked for the BJP during its evolution that took in 100 years.
Excerpts from the interview:
Why do you call the relationship between Vajpayee and Advani a ‘jugalbandi’?
Jugalbandi technically means entwined twins. Vajpayee and Advani were different ideologically and in their social backgrounds, yet they managed to make music together. They are like the two musicians in jugalbandi concerts who perform together and we do not know who is the main performer and who is the accompanist. Advani worked under Vajpayee for decades till 1986, when Vajpayee stepped down and Advani took over. Between 1995 to 2004, Vajpayee was once again the face of the BJP and Advani served under him. I didn’t find any professional relationship in Indian politics where the two leaders switched hierarchies twice. This relationship is remarkable and ‘jugalbandi’ is an apt metaphor.
You say the Narendra Modi govt has been a hundred years in the making…
The 100-year-long project of the BJP and the RSS has been to create a Hindu vote bank and Modi is succeeding on this front. It started way back in the 1920s. Veer Savarkar quickly realised that a democracy can be used to create a Hindu majority state as long as you convince all Hindus that they are one, both by being inclusive, when it comes to caste, and exclusive, when it comes to Christians and Muslims. That is the original idea.
The fruit of that idea is Modi. People who want to defeat the BJP should realise that it has taken 100 years for the RSS and the BJP to reach where they are today. It is not just about fighting the next election. The secret sauce of BJP’s success is not the majoritarian ideology but the organisational unity within the party. If you think about it, the BJP is the only party that doesn’t split. And it is not because they like each other or they share the same ideology on issues. It’s like an old couple in the park who are fighting but will not divorce. That is what other parties can learn from the BJP.
How different is the BJP now?
I can speak with more confidence about the BJP, prior to 2004. But I would certainly say one difference is that it has become more progressive on caste and more regressive on religion today. Advani didn’t understand caste. Former PM Charan Singh even told him that because he was from Sindh, he wouldn’t understand caste. Compared to him, Modi, because of his social location as an OBC, reaches out to a lot more to the lower castes.
I would say that under Vajpayee, Advani and also under Modi, the BJP has become an inclusively progressive Hindu organization, but that is coupled to the kind of Muslim- baiting. And that is something that Advani didn’t do, even in the peak of Rath Yatra.
You call Vajpayee a ‘moderate’. Did a moderate face in BJP end with him?
The standard view of the Vajpayee-Advani jugalbandi is that one was a moderate and the other was a hardliner. I argue in the book that it is a bit of a good cop and a bad cop act. Both of them were actually acting a little bit. One of the reasons that the BJP always needs a jugalbandi is that it is both a movement as well as a party. So it needs both a movement face and a parliamentary face.
The parliamentary face has to be a moderate’s and the movement face has to be a hardliner’s. Advani’s social background was an English-speaking liberal. Yet, the way he emerged, especially after the Rath Yatra in 1990, was as a hardliner. It suited him and it suited Vajpayee. Every time the RSS wanted Vajpayee out as party leader, he would put forward his ‘hardliner’ approach. Advani was acceptable to the RSS and it was loyal to him. I show in the book that the people who threatened Vajpayee in the party were never the hardliners because he needed them.
Vajpayee is thought of as a right man in the wrong party. But I muddy that impression a little bit. For example, look at how he became the defender of the BJP in Parliament after the fall of Babri Masjid. Vajpayee had this remarkable Obama-like ability that different audiences heard different things from him.
You talk about Vajpayee’s role in Kashmir in the book. How was he different from other PMs?
I would say that no other Prime Minister did more to solve the Kashmir issue and have a friendship with Pakistan than Vajpayee did. Contrary to the belief that Advani was a hardliner, he completely backed Vajpayee during that time. In fact, the Agra summit of 2002 was Advani’s brainchild. But, as I mention in the book, they failed. And the reason, I suspect, is that when it comes to Kashmir, the Indian and Pakistani views on Kashmir are irreconcilable because both views are linked deeply to their respective views on the two-nation theory. Pakistan will not, I think, settle for anything short of full sovereignty over Kashmir. I do not think any Indian government will ever accept that.
Where do you see Congress in this BJP’s rise?
I hope that enough Congress people read this book, not just for my sales but to internalise the lesson of this book on why the BJP is winning. Let’s look at what is happening in the Congress now. Kapil Sibal has recently spoken against the Congress. You could say that if Sibal was in the BJP, he would not publicly criticise his party. At the same time, if Sibal was in the BJP -- at least the old BJP I am writing about -- he would have internal forums within the party to criticise.
The Congress doesn’t have this. The idea of unity goes two ways -- the juniors should not split the party but you should also treat juniors in the party with respect. I think the biggest ill of the Congress today is that it has a system defined by factions. That is the one big lesson that Congress should learn from the BJP. While I criticise the RSS and the BJP where criticism is due, this is why they win. And the other parties should take a leaf from it.
Where do you see BJP going from here ?
Well, I think the BJP is here to stay. I think for the next 20 years or so, the BJP will look a lot like the Congress between 1967 and 1996, which means either the BJP will be in power, or if it is not in power, the parties in power will be an anti-BJP alliance. The BJP is the principal pole on which Indian politics will oscillate for the next 20 years. The reason that this book has been written is that this movement is here to stay has been long in the making.The aim of this book is not to tell you that the BJP is bad or good. My job is to help you understand what makes them win and what led to its evolution over 100 years. And if you look at it that way, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah behave in a very consistent manner, unlike Donald Trump whose politics is driven by what he thinks that morning.