Partnerships in power: The story Vajpayee-Advani jugalbandi

Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi
Author: Vinay Sitapati
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 799 
Pages: 409

First, a disclosure and disclaimer are warranted. The former: This reviewer has not recently read any other book with such intensity. The disclaimer: The author spoke with and cited the reviewer, albeit as a biographer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The attention this book received was not just because the subject was of keen interest to me, but also because it is rich in new anecdotal incidents, information and analyses. The book is particularly relevant because the contemporary political discourse suggests little of significance occurred before 2014, not just in the country and its governance, but even within the ruling party.

The book correctly establishes the fact that the situation that enabled Modi to become the premier would not have come to a pass had Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani not been pivotal within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for decades. Much is made out of the fact that despite polarising Hindus across several regions of India, the Vajpayee-Advani duo failed to make Hindutva the central credo of governance, but Modi has succeeded in doing so. But Modi would not have thrived had it not been for their groundwork. Sitapati argues innovatively that Vajpayee-Advani were guided by Central Hall consensus, whereas Modi had little opportunity to spend time there and now forces his viewpoint on others.

The title of the book alludes to the Hindustani (also Carnatic) classical music term of which every Indian is aware. Sitapati’s premise is that the top duo within the pre-Modi BJP had a copybook mutually complementary relationship. But in the latter half of the book, detailing events after 1998 when the BJP came to power at the Centre, he describes how the Vajpayee-Advani relationship became tenuous because ambitions clashed and they disagreed on crucial matters of policy, too. They diverged on crucial intra-party related decisions also, most famously on Modi continuing as Gujarat chief minister after the 2002 riots.

The author’s initial depiction of this complex relationship is uni-dimensional but this is corrected in the end. He establishes how the jugalbandi became disharmonious as Vajpayee kept Advani out of crucial developments, including events that rocked his government, the hijack of IC 814 included, although Advani was the home minister. The emergence of the Prime Minister’s Office coterie around Vajpayee, the frostiness between Brajesh Mishra and Advani are detailed beyond the realms of gossip. The Agra Summit was a major watershed in Indo-Pak ties. Its treatment leaves the reader perplexed about Advani’s role. Was he facilitator or saboteur? Sitapati quotes journalist Karan Thapar establishing how he facilitated Advani’s secret meetings with the Pakistani High Commissioner. The author asserts it was Advani who advised Vajpayee to invite General Pervez Musharraf for a summit. While arguing that no Indian government could have accepted the Pakistani draft of the joint declaration, Sitapati seemingly suggests that the prime minister, on his own, may have conceded, at least partially.

Where I disagree with Sitapati is the portrayal of Modi and Amit Shah and their relationship as the new jugalbandi, for in doing so, Sitapati does not factor in the former’s stature and his pivotal position in establishing the Jana Sangh. In contrast, the latter was not only much more junior but was essentially deputed by the RSS to take charge of the organisation.

The narrative in the book is substantiated by several interviews with significant players with a ringside view of the National Democratic Alliance years as participants and observers as well. Granular details provided by Arun Shourie on how Advani outfoxed Vajpayee to enable Modi to continue as chief minister are important. There are, however, pitfalls in accepting each claim in interviews. For instance, an unnamed journalist, whose testimony appears more than once, repeated an Amit Shah “claim”. The scribe is cited as claiming that Shah told him that he had been in “touch” with Morarji Desai when he was prime minister and discussed the issue of India going nuclear. This claim is possibly exaggerated, for Shah would have barely been a teenager when Desai was at the helm and it is hard to believe such an exchange.

Sitapati also reveals that Nusli Wadia was an early Jana Sangh funder and continued financing the BJP till 2004. Much is, however, needlessly made of Wadia’s Jinnah “connection”, possibly a hangover of Sitapati’s previous avatar as a journalist. This raised hopes that Sitapati would examine the corporate funding of the BJP that increasingly came its way from the 1990s. Likewise, besides the top two, the roles of several other leaders could have been explored, especially that of Pramod Mahajan, bridge to the corporate world from the late 1980s, and Ved Prakash Goyal, who held the party purse for years. That apart, Sitapati’s is a worthy contribution and adds to the available literature on the pre-Modi BJP.
included Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times and The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right

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