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‘Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi’ review: Hindutva’s birth and growth

The march of Hindu nationalism was wobbly and uncertain for most part of the last century, though its strides appear sure-footed now. Two central characters that chaperoned its current patriarch Narendra Modi to the throne were Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. Their lives were intertwined, to borrow Jairam Ramesh’s phrase. The duo nurtured Hindu nationalism in its infancy but was taken aback by its muscularity and masculinity as it grew up, according to Vinay Sitapati in his new book, Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi.

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Their diarchy in the Sangh Parivar — the Family — lasted for six decades. In political penury they looked after each other; but when the perch of power became their shared domain, they began to look over their shoulders for the other. Through all the ups and downs, they marched in step, and sang to each other’s tune. It was a jugalbandi. “Their... partnership had been crafted, not just for personal fortune, but for a loftier goal.”

Violent charter

Sitapati uses these two characters as a conduit to take the readers into the rather colourful world of Hindu nationalism, without offering judgment. He says this is a “revisionist” account of the rise of Hindutva that either challenges or nuances quite a few notions. The violence that accompanied the rise of Hindutva is graphically detailed, for instance, the account of the murder of former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri in the Gujarat riots of 2002. But violence is not integral to the plot, in this telling. It plays in the background as the duo on the stage continuously raises the pitch. December 6, 1992, was a “breakdown of Hindu nationalist ideology rather than its epitome,” the author says. At this point, the audience took over the stage from the artists.

Therein lies a fundamental question that the author grapples with in the book — was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s evolution a response to pressure from below, rather than preordained in an ideological script? The book is rather conclusive that it is the first, and the author marshals considerable evidence to support this argument. By juxtaposing the BJP position on communal issues in the early 1980s with those of the Congress, the book nearly convinces readers of this argument.

While Vajpayee was disapproving of the chatter around building a temple in Ayodhya, Indira Gandhi maintained ambiguity. Following the Meenakshipuram conversions of Dalits to Islam in 1981, the Congress sprung to action as defenders of Hinduism; in 1983, Indira Gandhi’s Congress used the Hindu card in elections in Jammu and Kashmir; as Sikh separatism and terrorism grew, the Congress questioned the patriotism of the BJP on grounds of its earlier sympathy with Akali politics. The 1984 victory of the Congress was characterised as a “massive Hindu mandate” by the Organiser, the official mouthpiece of the RSS. All this suggests that the line that separates mainstream Indian nationalism of the Congress and Hindu nationalism has been thin.

Hindu Rashtra

The BJP is stumbling towards becoming the flag-bearer of a Hindu Rashtra, it appears, responding to changes in public attitudes towards religion and politics. The “two criteria that this book argues defines the BJP: an emphasis on organisational unity and an ideology designed to win elections.” Ideology, for the BJP is merely instrumental, as it comes across.

The party’s vacillation on economic policy is instructive. The author also puts the spotlight on the absence of a theory of state in RSS thinking. However, elsewhere in the book, the author is emphatic about the role of ideology in the BJP's growth. The book is conclusive that “the glue that kept them (Advani and Vajpayee) together was the ideology itself.”

It is, after all, a political project that evolved over a century, holding its ground and rising consistently. The book points at the contradictory notes within the tent — for instance, V.D. Savarkar’s contempt for cow worship — but desists from attempting to decipher the current tenets of the ideology, which has acquired form and clarity. The book’s engagement with Hindutva ideology hence remains tentative. But there is a teaser that a second volume on the Modi-Amit Shah jugalbandi could well be on the way.

Mandir politics

Jugalbandi amends the entrenched notion of Advani being a hardliner and Vajpayee being a moderate, by delicately unravelling their mutual views.

Vajpayee’s Nehruvian aura is not demolished, but his willingness to play second fiddle to the core ideology is brought to the fore. Sitapati includes vignettes from the closets of some supporting characters such as Jaswant Singh; and organises events, ideas and people around the rise of Hindu nationalism in a manner that has not been done before. His grip over the dynamics of caste is enviable, and that is a remarkable aspect of this book, along with a helpful survey of existing studies on Hindu nationalism.

He brings his fine understanding of caste to bear on the three defining forces of Indian politics in the last three decades — market, mandir and mandal.

He does not apply that adequately, however, to interpret the jugalbandi between a heartland Brahmin and an uprooted Sindhi, who is assigned to lay the foundations on which the nation would be rebuilt but never got to hold the reins.

Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi; Vinay Sitapati, Penguin/Viking, ₹799.

varghese.g@thehindu.co.in

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