How much has the BJP veered away from the Vajpayee style of governing? Could you really have called Vajpayee a moderate and LK Advani, a hardliner? And what can be learned from the sense of unity in the BJP? For Express Audio, Sandip Roy spoke to political scientist Dr Vinay Sitapati about his latest book, Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi, in which he deals with these questions, and writes about the movement which led to Vajpayee and Advani coming to power.
Full transcript of the Sandip Roy show
Sandip Roy: December 25th marked not just Christmas but the birth anniversary of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee or as the current government calls it Good Governance Day. But despite all the floral tributes and even the Bharat Ratna, has the BJP under Narendra Modi veered away from the Vajpayee style of governing? One would often hear that Vajpayee with his relationships across the political spectrum was the right man in the wrong party. But a new book said that’s not necessarily true. Vajpayee and LK Advani carefully paved the way for the rise of Narendra Modi by giving their party the political respectability it needed. In fact, it’s not possible to look at the story of Atal Bihari Vajpayee without looking at Lal Krishna Advani. One was presented as the moderate face of the party, the other the hardliner.
But this was an odd couple that in some ways was made for each other and their partnership over six decades transformed India as well. Political scientist Vinay Sitapati’s first book was a biography of PV Narasimha Rao. His new book Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi is a biography of the movement which led Vajpayee and Advani to power in New Delhi.
Dr Vinay Sitapati, Welcome to the show.
Vinay Sitapati: Thank you very much. It’s a homecoming. I used to work in Express for a couple of years, to the extent that the book relies on journalistic practices and processes. It’s all come from Indian Express or blame Express for what you don’t like about the book.
Sandip Roy: I will remember that. Well, the book is called Jugalbandi and of course, the players being Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. And at the end, you compare it inevitably with the current Jugalbandi of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. But I was struck by the fact that even at the beginning of the story, from the time of Syama Prasad Mukherjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Savarkar, there were these other Jugalbandies that were actually also in play. So is Jugalbandi in a way in the DNA of the party?
Vinay Sitapati: Absolutely. One of the things I realised very quickly about Hindu nationalism is that it has this contradictory tension at the heart of it. At one level, it’s a movement trying to change society. At another level, it’s a party trying to gain political power through government. Right. In that sense, it’s a little bit like the Communist Party of India (Marxist). So right from the beginning, you have this deliberate social engineering of Syama Prasad Mukherjee being the articulate voice of Hindu nationalism in Parliament. He was the youngest vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, extremely erudite, et cetera, et cetera. And the RSS made sure that assisting him was a young guy Deen Dayal who was a dhoti-wearing RSS organiser. And so this idea that Hindu nationalism always needs an orator and an organizer is embedded into the movement itself. And in that sense, Vajpayee and Advani, it wasn’t an accident that they began to hold the reins of the movement for this long. Vajpayee was deliberately chosen because he was a dazzling and mesmerising orator. He was the chosen replacement of Syama Prasad Mukherjee after Mukherjee’s death in the early 1950s.
Sandip Roy: But also you write in the book that Syama Prasad Mukherjee, like with most Bengalis, including me, his Hindi left a lot to be desired.
Vinay Sitapati: Absolutely. So this is the other contradiction, right. Which is that you want to dazzle Lutyens’ Delhi, you want to dazzle Parliament. So you need Syama Prasad Mukherjee, who is an English speaker. But the Jan Sang, which is the precursor party of the BJP — their vote bank lay in the Hindi heartland. So how is how are you going to have the face of Hindu nationalism both appeal to Parliament as well as speak to the vote bank? That’s why Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a very young Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was chosen to be the Hindi translator and Hindi orator to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee.
Sandip Roy: But is that quite true anymore with Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Jugalbandi in a sense Amit Shah is Narendra Modi’s chosen man, not the RSS man who has been the apparatchik who has been handed to Modi the orator.
Dr Vinay Sitapati: But that’s the exact dynamic for the rise of Lal Krishna Advani. What was his chief quality? He was a loyal secretary to Atal Bihari Vajpayee because he was one of the few English speaking types in the movement. He was seconded to the new member of parliament, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in 1957 to help Vajpayee ironically navigate Lutyens’ Delhi, to speak to diplomats, to speak to the press. And in the early 1970s, why does Vajpayee make Lal Krishna Advani, who is under-confident, hasn’t really given a public speech before. Why does he make him president of the party? Because not only is he someone beloved of the RSS because of his organizational credentials, he’s also loyal to Vajpayee. That’s exactly the same dynamic behind Amit Shah, that he’s an organiser, is somebody the RSS trusts, he’s somebody who works with the cadre. But his second and perhaps more important virtue is that he is loyal to Narendra Damodardas Modi.
Sandip Roy: Well, now that’s really interesting is that in a Narendra Modi Amit Shah jugalbandi. It’s like if you’re talking Jugalbandi and musical instruments it is like a sitar-sitar jugalbandi. Whereas the Vajpayee and Advani, as you write in the book, are much more of an odd couple. This is like a sitar and sarod and maybe sitar and violin because their backgrounds are so different. Advani you say is actually a Macaulayputra
Vinay Sitapati: As you correctly point out, Vajpayee and Advani, are more a classical jugalbandi because as the word Jugalbundi implies, it’s not just a musical concert of two people. The two people have to be different from each other, usually playing different instruments. And B, it’s an equal music. And in that sense, the Narendra Modi Amit Shah Jugalbandi, at least as of now, is not yet a classical Jugalbandi, because, as you said, they are two peas of the same pod. You know, 90 percent of the time you put them in a room, they will actually agree. Whereas, Vajpayee and Advani fundamentally disagreed about politics. And two, it’s not an equal music. Clearly, Narendra Modi is the boss and Amit Shah serves under him. If one day, Amit Shah becomes boss and Modi serves under him, that would be similar to what happened between Vajpayee and Advani.
Sandip Roy: So could you give people a sense of the backgrounds that Advani and Vajpayee came from? Because I think for most people listening, they are fixed on an image of Advani and Vajpayee in their later years where Vajpayee is this person who dazzled Lutyens’ Delhi, he’s the poet, he’s the man of culture and Advani is somewhat more dour.
Vinay Sitapati: Well, in the book I call him colorless and odorless, and I think that’s why people underestimate him because, you know, he wasn’t an actor. What you saw with Advani is what you got, whereas I think Vajpayee is an actor and Narendra Modi is an even bigger actor than Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Now, it is true that when I came into this book, the default assumption I had is one’s moderate and the other is a hardliner. The book complicates that story in two ways. Firstly, it tells you that the social background of the two are the opposite of this political persona. Atal Bihari Vajpayee came from a Gangetic Brahmin family. Initially, he wore the sacred thread. He is a provincial politician. He resents English-speaking Indians, even though he’s fascinated by them.
The two things that kind of liberalises Atal Bihari Vajpayee is first, parliament, you know, he loves parliament. It’s not that he loves Nehru, but he loves parliament. He joins parliament when he’s thirty-four years of age in 1957 and remains there more or less for the next 50 years. And more than anything else, he wants respect in parliament. He doesn’t care who runs the party. He wants to be the speaker of the party in parliament. The other factor, and it’s the big factor, right? A controversial factor that I talk about in the book that socialises Vajpayee is his companion, Rajkumari Kaul. He lives with Rajkumari Kaul and her husband together for about 40 years. She’s a second cousin of Indra Gandhi, a very articulate, a very smart woman. She is a Macaulayputra. Her own husband is a professor of philosophy, and she argues back and forth with Vajpayee. She’s a fierce critic of the Ayodhya movement and she’s the other part of the missing puzzle about why Vajpayee, this Gangetic provincial Brahmin becomes this liberalising heir.
Lal Krishna Advani, on the other hand, speaks English before he learns Hindi. He comes from a very syncretic strand of Hinduism. There is Sikh rituals that are performed at home. His own mother goes to a Sufi Dargah because that is the type of Hinduism practiced in Sindh in the 1920s and 30s. What transforms him into a Hindu nationalist is the catastrophe of partition.
Not only does partition destroy his idea of Sind as central to the sacred geography of India, it dispossesses a very, very rich family. Right. And in that sense, I am a little sympathetic to Advani. Look, whatever his many, many flaws — his cynical opportunism or example — keep in mind that here’s a man who lost has lost a lot in his life. Of course, I also point out that Vajpayee, who was a great prime minister, make no mistake, was also a lot less liberal and moderate than we like to imagine. For example, he backed down from his initial demand to sack Narendra Modi after the 2002 Gujarat. In the Ayodhya movement, his initial instinct was to oppose the movement and oppose the Rath Yatra. But after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, he plays the role of a cynical defense lawyer in parliament defending his party. So, you know, look, his instincts were liberal, his instincts were parliamentary. But at the end of the day, he was a loyal Hindutva politician. Advani, on the other hand, I point out that when it came to the treatment of Christians, his own instinctive belief towards Muslims, his reach out towards Pakistan and Kashmiris. He was a little less hardline than we like to give him credit for.
Sandip Roy: And in fact, Vajpayee not only backs down from his demand to sack Narendra Modi after the Gujarat riots. His speech where he says Islam is the religion of peace, but then it tries to shove the religion down people’s throats, at the BJP meeting, is actually virulently Islamophobic there.
Vinay Sitapati: But look, I try to avoid judgments in the books, but you can read the book and look at his actual sentences and it’s hard to imagine any prime minister, let alone Vajpayee, saying that, let alone at a time soon after the Gujarat riots where Vajpayee has spent the last month trying to get Narendra Modi sacked. And there’s only one explanation for this, Sandip, which is that ultimately Vajpayee always had this insecurity, that he was a guest artist in his own movement.
So his initial reaction would be parliamentary, would be liberal but when he felt that the cadre and the party were moving to his right, he always felt that unless he moved to their right risk he getting sidelined. But I still think he was one of India’s best prime ministers. My basic point, he was at the end of the day, a politician.
Sandip Roy: To go back to the point you raised about Rajkumari Kaul, this is a story that was probably well-known to people, insiders in Delhi all through Vajpayee years, it only became much known to people outside, long after Vajpayee left office. In fact, towards the end of his days and to the end of her days. How were you, as the biographer able to figure out that, indeed, she had this much as you call it, socialising influence upon him?
Vinay Sitapati: This book is, of course, not a biography in the sense it’s the biography of a movement and it uses Vajpayee and Advani to tell that story. But nonetheless, I have to therefore understand Vajpayee. And I very quickly realised that the woman that is the love of his life, with whom he spent 40 years, how can I not talk about her right then I realized that if I have to talk about her, I don’t want to talk about it in whispers.
And look, here is a remarkable woman. She’s an intellectual in her own right. I have plenty of footnotes in the book recording people who hear conversations between her and Vajpayee. I talk about her childhood, how much Vajpayee and her fall in love in the early 1940s. But that’s never to be. How they meet again in 1957, but also how she is an intellectual in her own right, that she wanted to be a medical doctor. That could never be so because she’s a woman.
And this cannot be an irony. More of an irony. The second cousin of Indira Gandhi, right. What can be more Nehruvian than being a Nehru in that sense? And I took a judgment call that rather than whisper, use innuendo, which is frankly quite degrading to her memory, because the fact that somebody of Vajpeyee’s social background became this liberal face of Hindu nationalism needs an explanation. And only part of that explanation is parliament. The other big sized hole in explaining this is Rajkumari Kaul.
Sandip Roy: You know, when you read part of the story, you wonder that somewhere this is almost like a Netflix film, you know, it is begging out for somebody to wonder if they could have been Victoria and Abdul. Why should there not be an Atal…?
Vinay Sitapati: I really hope, Sandip, because I think I’ll make a lot more money in that way than selling books. I can tell you.
Sandip Roy: But tell us the story which you recount in the book about that moment when actually Atal Bihari Vajpayee stands up against the RSS for Rajkumar Kaul, he doesn’t stand. In many of the other cases, he has LK Advani go and manage the RSS for him or something, or eventually comes around to their view because he figures after making. But this is one case he actually does stand out.
Vinay Sitapati: So I knew it’s a controversial story. So it has, I think, four or five people who have vouched for it. So it’s the mid-1960s. Vajpayee has already established himself as the mesmerising orator of Hindu nationalism. Nehru already feels that this man is going to be a future prime minister. In fact, as an aside, I have what I found a very funny story where Nehru invites him for a meeting with Khrushchev and who is the premier of Soviet Union. And while introducing Vajpayee was a young MP, the prime minister Nehru tells Khrushchev meet Vajpayee he will one day be the prime minister of the country. And Khrushchev says, why is he meeting me in our country? We throw people like this in the gulag, you know. So in other words, Vajpayee had already become the electrifying voice of a movement that was at that time completely untouchable when it came to mainstream Indian Nehruvian politics. So the RSS needed Vajpayee.
At the same time, by the 1960s, his relationship with Rajkumar Kaul who is a married woman is becoming well known. The RSS is worried. Some in the RSS want Vajpayee and Rajkumari Kaul to get married. Just get it over with. Just get married. What’s the problem? Someone else, a senior gentleman in the RSS that says that, look, as long as it’s quiet why should why is it anybody else’s problem? While Golwalkar, who is that time the Sarsangchalak or the head of the RSS, is one of the most religious figures in the RSS. As I point out in the book, the RSS is an ethnic movement. It’s not a religious movement. And he has none of it. He tells Vajpayee, you have to break off the relationship. Vajpayee refuses. Now, this puts Golwalker in a dilemma. Vajpayee has refused a direct order.
It says something about how valuable Vajpayee was to Hindu nationalism that he was allowed to continue. At the same time, that marks the break of Vajpayee from the inner inner circle of the RSS. They need him. It becomes an instrumental relationship rather than a relationship of love. But look, I think what he did is entirely to his credit at that point of time.
Sandip Roy: These terms that we, that come up again and again, even in our conversation, this project of Hindu nationalism, which is a hundred-year project, and then this term of Nehruvian consensus, these have become these shorthand terms that we use and people read whatever they want into them depending on which side of the political spectrum they are. Would you explain what they mean for you and Vajpayee and Advani’s own relationship to those concepts?
Vinay Sitapati: So I would say that and thank you for asking this question because I teach and I teach political science and I like concepts and definitions to be pretty clear. To me at the way use the phrase Nehrueruvian consensus in the book, it has three ingredients. Ingredient one is a deep suspicion of the majority Hindu religion from taking over the state. I’m deliberately not using the word anti-Hindu because that’s what the BJP allegation is against the Nehruvian consensus. That’s not true. Nehru was not anti-Hindu. But nonetheless, Nehru did not have a worry that Islam would take over the Indian state. He was always worried that the Indian Democratic state would become suffused with Hinduism.
This pillar of the Nehruvian consensus was based on the fact that Nehru was worried that his dream of a secular India would be threatened by Hindu nationalism, not by Muslim nationalism. The second pillar of the Nehruvian consensus was the overwhelming belief that the modern state should interfere in society, should interfere in the economy. And he had this very disparaging view of traditional Indian economic and social structures. This is what we call Nehruvian socialism.
The third pillar of the Nehruvian consensus is a respect for other constitutional functionaries, right? Counter majority institutions, the institution of the chief minister, for example. So Nehru was, after 1950, at least all-powerful within the Congress party. He could have dismissed chief ministers at will like his daughter eventually did. He doesn’t do that. So I would say these are the three pillars- a suspicion of Hinduism when it came to the state, a belief that the modern state should interfere in society and the economy in order to modernise and a respect for other constitutional institutions other than just the executive. From the 1947 all the way really to 1991, this was the broad consensus within Parliament, even when people were anti-Nehru or anti-Indira Gandhi. They believe broadly this consensus. And I think Vajpayee in the 1970s along with Advani, realises that if the Jan Sangh, which is at the time the precursor party of the BJP, wants to “mainstream itself” it has to fall within this consensus.
So in that sense, I would say that Vajpayee was a member of the Nehruvian consensus until 1991, not because of love for Nehru, but because of a tactical belief that this is what it takes to be part of the non-Congress opposition, if you want to get rid of the Congress.
Sandip Roy: Do you think that that was a well-founded belief or was it was actually the country moving in a different direction because you write in the book that Hindu anxiety was coming, was bubbling up bottom-up, and in some ways Vajpayee was late to catch on to it.
Vinay Sitapati: Well in the 1970s, I think Vajpayee was right. So I point out that in the 1970s itself, you have people like Subramaniam Swami, Balraj Madhok within Hindu nationalism who wants to move the party to a more economically right direction, who wants to make the Jan Sangh look like the Swatantra party or a classically right-wing party. And Vajpayee pushes back and he pushes back because he says, look the voter may reject Indira Gandhi, but they’re not rejecting the Nehruvian consensus. He was objectively right that JP movement was not a fundamental rejection of the Nehruvian consensus in that sense.
But you know what? The 1980s are a different decade. There is Hindu anxiety, which is bottom-up. And the three reasons for this anxiety, this Hindu fear that is bubbling from down below, not from top-down, but from bottom-up, is firstly the Khalistan movement which is targeting Hindus of all communities and caste. Secondly, the extension of OBC reservations in North India, in South India. We already see it from the 1960s.
And I think that third cause of Hindu anxiety during this period is a worry about conversions, religious conversions being fuelled by Saudi petrodollars. Again, it’s not my job to say it is this fear founded or unfounded, but that fear was actually manifested at that time. This is the very time which, as you point out, Vajpayee is turning left wing. He’s still stuck in the 1970s. The RSS and VHP jump to that and radicalise Hindu opinion further. And wait for it.
The first political party who wants to play on these fears of the Hindu voter is not Vajpayee’s BJP but Rajeev Gandhi’s Congress party. In that sense, they are the first truly communal party in India of that period. From banning Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, to opening the gates for the Babri Masjid, to annulling the Shah Bano verdict. The Congress gets there first, and it’s a full four years after the Congress has sought to use this newly formed Hindu vote bank that the BJP in its Palampur declaration in 1989 actually supports the Ayodhya movement. And my argument in the book is that the Rath Yatra is actually Advani and the BJP coming late to the party and actually signalling to the radicalised Hindus and the larger Sangh Parivar that we are actually on your side.
Sandip Roy: One of the things that puzzled me though is in this vision of the Hindu nationalist project, why were they not actually happier with the partition of India, which led with a larger Hindu majority that they could consolidate and still hanker for a country for a larger Akhand Bharat where they would be at more of an electoral disadvantage? Because, as you point out, the Hindu nationalism project is actually a deeply democratic project. It is. It relies on the votes for power.
Vinay Sitapati: It puzzled me for three years. Right. Because think about it I mean, exactly what you said. That pre-partition Muslims are 25 percent of the vote share Hindus are 75 percent. Post-partition, Hindus are at about 80 percent of the vote share and Muslims are 13 percent and entirely dependent on the Congress party. So using that logic, someone like Savarkar, someone like Hindu Mahasabha or the RSS might actually support the division of population theory. Which is by the way exactly what Ambedkar argued for in his 1940 book on Pakistan.
And there have been scholars, post-colonial scholars, who say that at the local level, Hindu nationalists in Punjab, in Bengal, were actually actively looking forward to partition. Be that as it may, it is striking that the big institutions of Hindu nationalism, Hindu Mahasabha of that time and the RSS, were stridently against partition. And the leaders, Golwalkar, Savarkar thought that it was the single biggest catastrophe to befall India. And even today, the RSS is haunted by the ghosts of partition. And that told me that it was not the division of people that upset them so much. It was a division of land because along with demographics being central to Hindu nationalism, what is even more central is an aspect of Hindu nationalism that goes back to traditional Hinduism, which is this idea of religious territory, which is that Vishnu Puranas itself, that there’s something special on this territory, which you have the Snowy Mountains on the top, you have the Indus River flowing on the west and you have the oceans below.
And if you don’t understand this aspect of Hindu nationalism, you can never understand what, as you correctly pointed out, is it demographically inconsistent view on opposing partition. So that’s a very good question. But it tells you that in addition to its obsession with demographics, which is something that you see, for example, in the Citizenship Amendment Act, right. That it’s a straight line from the original obsession of Hindu nationalism to creating a Hindu vote bank that can use elections to consolidate power. But in parallel, another precept of Hindu nationalism is this emphasis on religious territory. And if you don’t understand that, if you don’t understand this obsession with Akhand Bharat, you can never understand the BJP’s position when it comes not just to Pakistan, but when it comes to Kashmir.
Sandip Roy: And in terms of creating this Hindu vote bank, do you say one of the three sort of big issues that face the Vajpayee-Advani combination were Mandir, Mandal and the market? Just looking at the Mandal Commission, did some of that anxiety comes from increasing OBC reservation and presence? How did the Vajpayee-Advani combine dance around that issue? Because this is something that is actually targeting their original vote bank, at least, which was uppercaste, which may not still be the case.
Vinay Sitapati: That’s a period from 1986 to roughly 1994-1995 where Vajpayee had been sidelined and from the movement as the movement is taking a more radical turn. Here’s the conundrum. The Hindu nationalism initially is, of course, an upper caste organisation in terms of its composition, but it’s not an upper caste organisation in terms of ideology. And why do I say that? I say that because upper castes, who founded the Hindu nationalist movement, know right from the beginning that if it’s just an upper caste movement, it’s going to win just 20 percent of the vote share, not more than that. And the core argument of this book, other than teamwork, is that elections constitute Hindu nationalism. They’re not fascists. They are majoritarian. And there’s a world of difference between both those words. So right from the beginning, Hindu nationalism has the sense that while being anti-Muslim, it has to reach out to lower castes.
But at the same time, there are other politicians who are vying for the mobile or the OBC vote share or the OBC vote bank, which is becoming mobile in the 1980s. And the Mandal Commission is VP Singh’s attempt to get this vote back. That’s what he’s attempting to do. The Mandal Commission report is implemented in August 1990 and that puts the BJP in a bind. The BJP is providing outside support to the VP Singh government. If Advani, who is the party president at that time, opposes the Mandal Commission report, it will lose the OBCs that’s almost twice the percentage of upper castes in India. So if the BJP at that key moment were to oppose the Mandal Commission report, it would become stuck as an upper caste party. It can’t win in India. On the other hand, its core vote base at that time at least would poor upper castes and they were furious with Mandal Commission. So Advani’s genius and I use the word genius descriptively because he was thinking of the interests of his party, not the interests of India.
I leave it to your listeners about whether what he did was good for India or not. But Advani’s response at one level were to accept the Mandal Commission report in August 1990, while at the same time demanding a quota for the upper caste poor which is something that Narendra Modi has implemented later. At the same time, barely a month after the Mandal Commission report, he comes up with this idea of traveling from Somnath to Ayodhya on a Toyota convertible that looks like a chariot in what is now famously known as the Rath Yatra. The organiser for the Gujarat leg of Rath Yatra was a young Narendra Modi. But even Advani, even Vajpayee, who opposed this idea and even Narendra Modi didn’t imagine what this did to India. It electrified India. Not just did it unite upper castes and backward castes, who were fighting over the Mandal Commission, which was the aim of the BJP, but it created this religious wave in India that nobody had anticipated. It also gave the famously under-confident, self-doubting Advani literally a pillar to stand on.
I think I quote Swapan Dasgupta in the book, who said that the Advani got on top of the chariot and the Advani who got off the chariot were two very different men.
Sandip Roy: One of the things you stressed repeatedly in the book, as you mentioned in this idea of teamwork, is also that this is a party that is obsessed with unity.
And this you write is an old historical anxiety that the Hindus were defeated over centuries because they were disunited. That is sort of the fundamental anxiety within the RSS. But my question is, why in the BJP does that family, the sense of family unity, hold that sense of sublimation when in so many blood families around us, from the Ambanis to even the Gandhi, this family unity falls apart
Vinay Sitapati: Just straight up, I would request your podcast listeners to ask themselves a simple question when was the last time that a BJP leader furious that he or she did not become chief minister take 20-25 MLAs go to a resort, you know, play table tennis while they financially bargain to come back? When was the last time this happened? This happens in every other party and it’s not limited just to the Congress. It happens in the DMK. Brother and brother are fighting. It happens in the Samajwadi Party. Uncle and nephew are fighting.
The deep question is this we Indians are terrible at teamwork, we don’t trust each other and being from the same caste, the same religion, the same family is no recipe to stand united. The genius of the RSS is that they understand this. So while they want family bonds between their members, hence the Sangh Parivar. Right, the Parivar. They don’t want actual family. Golwalkar, for instance, the longest-serving head of the RSS was very suspicious of actual blood family, which is why Golwalkar made this rule that pracharaks who are the frontline functionaries of the RSS, about 4000 to 5000 of them.
He made this rule that they should not be married. So for them, they realise that family bonds are important. It’s a form of framework. But those family bonds should not be between family members. So if I can just summarise the BJP ethic, I think it is creating family bonds between non-family members and the BJP takes this very, very seriously because right from the beginning in the Shakas, the young in the RSS are told, look at the third battle of Panipat, look at the battle of Plassey. Indians are constantly defeated because at key moments in battle, they stab each other in the back. And it’s not because of caste disunity. Rajputs are stabbing Rajputs. Marathas are stabbing Maratha. It’s an Indian problem. Of course, their reading of history exclusionary. They are interested in Hindus, not other Indians. But nonetheless, in doing so, they arrive at a very important truth about India, which is that we’re constantly breaking up.
I’ve always felt, Sandip, that the Congress is not a particularly nepotistic party. It’s not a particularly split prone party. It’s an Indian party. Indians are nepotists. Indians are dynasts, whether you work as a doctor or lawyer or in the stock market, What the RSS has understood is that this is the central problem that prevents politics becoming successful. And they have spent a hundred years internalising this teamwork.
Take, for example, Advani today. No secrets divulging by saying that Advani doesn’t like Modi. He doesn’t like the way he has been sidelined. But just a few weeks ago, it was Advani’s 93rd birthday. Narendra Modi went all the way to Advani’s house asked for his ashirvad, his blessings. Advani gave his blessings. It’s not because there’s any love between the two of them. It’s exactly like a fighting Indian family when nonetheless, you have to respect your elders and I don’t want to mock it. It’s a very important symbolism because the family stays united about all this.
If there’s one thing you can take from this book and you don’t like the BJP is, learn this from them that have difference of opinion, don’t like each other, but put a cause larger than individual egos and stay united if you actually want to achieve anything.
Sandip Roy: But it’s fine to have a philosophy. It is fine to be pushing for unity. But a party eventually needs money. And you write that after the assassination of Gandhiji, the Jan Sangh and the RSS are in the political wilderness. They are what you call them, politically untouchable. Why does a grandson of Muhammad Ali Jinnah fund the Jan Sangh?
Vinay Sitapati: Before I answer a question, a lot of people think the BJP wins because it gets corporate money. And actually, the causation is reverse. Because the BJP wins, it gets corporate money. Corporates are not fools. Corporates always want to back the winning horse, which is why until the early 90s, when the BJP was nowhere near political power, the BJP had no money. Absolutely no money. All the money went to the Congress party. Why then, as you ask, is one of the few big Bombay funders most of the big corporates are funding The Congress party is Nusli Wadia.
I think part of it is the principle. And I think today’s BJP, which has complete power, should remember and honor Nusli Wadia for sticking with them when no one stuck with them. For example, I have a quote on record from the Vasundhara Raje Scindia whose mother was in jail during that period, whose assets, the Gwalior dynastic assets were frozen during the emergency by a very vindictive Indira Gandhi, saying that Nusli was the only one who helped them then, and to do it then, right, meant risking the wrath of Indira Gandhi and Congress at the height of their power.
So that’s even more credibility to Nusli Wadia. I think it was principled. It was also personal loyalty, Nanaji Deshmukh, the long time treasurer of the Jan Sangh, was a father figure to the young Nusli Wadia, along with Ramnath Goenka, founder of Indian Express, who again, I’m not revealing any secrets when I say it was very close to the RSS. And Nusli found father figures in the two of them, had a pathological hatred for the Congress party.
What makes this story delicious is the historical fact that Nusli Wadia is the only grandson of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, right? Of course. Jinnah married a petite, one of the richest family. The Parsi family, the richest family in India, and his daughter married Nusli Wadia’s father, one of the, again, richest families in India. So when Jinnah goes to Pakistan, he disinherits his daughter. His daughter Dina Wadia remains back in India and her only son Nusli Wadia becomes a scion of the Wadia family. And you can’t make the story up.
The idea that Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s son is the funder of BJP. I can’t make that up right. However, as I point out, that, look, people saw him in the BJP. I think I think whether it was Nanaji, that was Vajpayee, whether it was Advani, and he could walk in and out of any of the houses, by the way, any of their houses. They saw him as a Bawaju, as a Parsi, not as Jinnah’s grandson. But there were people in the BJP who resented Nulsi’s access. And I have heard them telling me more than once that Aakhir Jinnah ka Khoon hai, that at the end of the day, he has Jinnah’s blood flowing through him but that’s very mean.
Sandip Roy: That’s your second next Netflix film, the Nusli Wadia story. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, having worked on the book. What do you think were some of the key moments which were part of the roadmap which Vajpayee and Advani jugalbandi-employed to bring the BJP back into the political mainstream from what you call its years of untouchability?
Vinay Sitapati: Well, first up, I think your listeners should know why it was an untouchable in the first place. And there are two reasons for that. First, as I said, the Nehruvian consensus in India was the dominant consensus in parliament from 1947 all the way till Narasimha Rao1991. And of course, the Jan Sangh and Hindu Mahsabha and the RSS were against the central pillar of that consensus, which is the role of Hinduism in the state. So that made them untouchable.But the bigger reason for that untouchability was the taint that the RSS had because of the murder of Mahatma Gandhi.
When Mahatma Gandhi dies in 1948, Jinnah has a very telling obituary saying to the effect that a great leader of the Hindu community has died. He was right. The Hindus pre-partition voted for Gandhi’s Congress. They didn’t vote for the Hindu Mahasabha. So it was Gandhi, not Savarkar, who was the leader of India’s Hindus. But at the same time, he was not anti-Muslim. In fact, he bent over backwards to try to get the Muslim League into the into his into the national movement. So in that sense, the criticisms that Godse and the other murderers of Mahatma Gandhi had was also shared by the RSS.
The difference, as I point out, is that the RSS as an institution had no role to play in Gandhi’s murder. That they did not advocate violence, but the ideology was absolutely similar. That held back Hindu nationalism for about, I would say, two generations from independence. Had Gandhi not been killed by a person who espoused Hindu nationalist ideology, someone like Narendra Modi would likely have come to power in India a lot earlier.
And in some sense, the story of the book is how Vajpayee and Advani, who are batting on back foot for this reason, for this the reason of the untouchability gradually makes the BJP touchable or makes Hindu nationalism touchable. And I point out perhaps for the first time by scholar that the first time this happened was not really Rath Yatra or etc., etc. It was in 1963 after the China war, when Nehru allows uniformed khaki shorts-wearing RSS volunteers to march alongside everyone else during Republic Day. Right, on Rajpath. How much more mainstream can that get?
What also aided this mainstreaming was the point of the book, which is that Vajpayee and Advani were very careful. Especially in the… from the 50s, 60s and 70s, to operate within the Nejruvia consensus.The real story for me about the rise of the BJP begins as demand-side Sandip, which is that all evidence and you know, maybe I’m the first person to point this out so emphatically. But other scholars have also shown this, or parts of this, that there is genuine change going on within the Hindu voter in the 70s and 80s for a variety of reasons. Of course, the RSS and VPE opportunistically use that.The Congress then uses that in the BJP eventually uses that. But it’s very hard to understand the rise of Hindutva as just a bunch of politicians changing society. Society has also been changing in this direction over the last 70 years.
Sandip Roy: So when we read a statement like Vajpayee saying we should never let sadhus into Parliament. What does that say about what they are part of the Nehruvian consensus, as you are talking about, but what is their belief about what role religion can play in governance?.
Vinay Sitapati: You know, Sandip, one of the central themes of this book is that Hindu nationalism is not a religious movement. It’s unlike Hezbollah or the Iranian ayatollahs. It’s not driven, driven by transcendent passion. It’s not driven by the other world. It’s driven by this world and it’s driven by the political opportunities and constraints that one person, one vote has thrown up in a group-based society. Savarkar, for example, had very little respect for the cow, he used to call cow a useless animal. He was a self-professed atheist. Golwalkar, as it happened, was much more religious, a former monk of the Ramakrishna Mission. But in general, Hindu nationalism has always stayed away from the traditional institutions of Hinduism. You know, the sadhus only for the really effectively, for the first time beginning to enter Hindu nationalism in the early 1980s with the Ayodhya movement.
And that’s a bit different from how the RSS conceives of itself. So for example, after my book came out, plenty of RSS people have called me. And as you know, I’m quite critical of Hindu nationalism also in the book. But they said, look, you the first English speaking type who has understood RSS and the fact that the RSS has always felt that the institution of the Sanyasi or the sadhu, which is a traditional Hindu trope, is a sign of weakness because Sanyasis and those are sovereign entities, they are indisciplined. They don’t respond to anybody. They are they are law unto themselves. Hindu nationalism doesn’t like that. They want teamwork. They want discipline.
And they told me and this is, of course, the core, one of the core arguments when it comes to the Babri Masjid chapter that I have, that getting sadhus into the Ayodhya movement was a mistake because you can’t control sadhus. Because for the RSS and for the BJP, the Ayodhya movement was just political opportunism. So they wanted to keep the pot boiling, but they really didn’t want to destroy the Babri Masjid because if you destroyed the Babri Masjid, then how do you keep using and exploiting Hindu grievance? On the other hand, the sadhus who they mobilise actually believe that Ram was born there and they are not willing to listen to the VHP and RSS and BJP saying, look, agitate one day second day, accept the Supreme Court assurances third day, agitate. You can’t turn on and off sadhus. So in that sense, it does give me credence to the theory that on December 6, 1992 things went out of control. That’s not in any way to reduce the guilt of Hindu nationalism in what happened. But I’m just saying don’t reduce that guilt to December 6, 1992. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was nine years in the making.
Sandip Roy: Now, to go back to this image that we are finally left with of Vajpayee and Advani is the Lauhapurush and the Vikaspurishs. So, this image of Vajpeyi, the moderate, as you’ve said, that he wasn’t necessarily as moderate as we like to think of him right now. But why were people who would have no truck with the BJP, okay with Vajpayee as if he were a creature apart from his party? Was it just sort of an almost Obama-esque quality of saying the right thing at the right time?
Vinay Sitapati: I think there were two reasons why from the 1990s, there were a host of smaller political parties who are willing to enter a coalition with the hitherto untouchable BJP. The first reason was that they realised that the BJP was here to stay that no non-BJP coalition would have been stable So one is just the reality that the BJP vote bank is not going to dissipate. But the second explanation is exactly what you said, which is the raw charisma of Vajpayee. He was seen famously as the right man in the wrong party. My book muddies that a little bit. But in that sense, Sandip, I’m very grateful that while researching this book, I never met Vajpayee because, by all accounts, he had Elvis Presley charisma. If you met him, you would be charmed.
So, I’m happy that I didn’t meet Vajpayee because by the time I started working on this book, he had been incapacitated so I couldn’t meet him. But I’m glad because otherwise I would have definitely lost my objectivity.The other thing about Vajpayee that made him acceptable was that because he had spent so much time in Parliament from 1957 all the way to the late 2000s, he had a pulse of Parliament, unlike Modi and Amit Shah, who haven’t worked in Delhi until 2014.
And the third reason why Vajpayee was acceptable is something that you alluded to, which is that he was a wordsmith par excellence. He knew how to say sentences that would appeal to one group while also appealing to a different group so he could say sentences that appeal to liberals without irritating the RSS.
Sandip Roy: So when you now look back and you say that Vajpayee’s base constituency, in a way, his primary audience was parliament.
And Advani’s primary audience was the party. Vajpayee was really motivated. He wanted to be liked and respected by his fellow parliamentarians more than perhaps people in Nagpur. But what is in that sense then Narendra Modi who does not come with that 30, 40 years of parliamentary experience behind him? What is his primary audience?
Vinay Sitapati: I think his primary audience is the voter, and to give credit to Narendra Modi, again, in a descriptive sense, not in a normative sense, neither Vajpayee nor Advani really had the ear to the voter. They needed a Vijaya Raje Scindia, genuine master politician who could win Madhya Pradesh. They needed Bhairon Singh Shekhawat to win Rajasthan. They needed Kalyan Singh to win Uttar Pradesh.
Neither of them were mass politicians in that sense who had a sense of mass connect the way, say Indira Gandhi had. In that sense, the politician Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is closest to his Indira Gandhi. On the flip side, I think that internal democracy within the BJP was much better because when Advani was running the party compared to Modi and the behavior of the BJP in Parliament was much better and much more consensual when Vajpayee was running the party in Parliament.
Modi has no need to negotiate with the smaller parties, with the regional parties, with the allies. But look, as I keep saying in the book, you wear the Mask long enough, the mask becomes your face. The necessity of Vajpayee to be compromising made that by the time he became prime minister, he was a consensus and compromise driven prime minister.
Sandip Roy: So now, would you say that that old Vajpayee Advani philosophy of where Hindutva was for the cadre and a more diluted ideology worked for the moderate Hindu to win power? Is that consensus over?
Vinay Sitapati: I agree with you. I think it is over and I think it’s over. And I point the moment break, the moment when it’s over is the December 2002 Gujarat state elections, not the Gujarat riots. Because the state election showed the cadre, Narendra Modi was able to show that you could believe in Hindutva, you could wave the Hindutva flag and you could win elections. The day the cadre figured that out, they realised they don’t need the Jugalbandi of Vajpayee and Advani anymore.
Sandip Roy: So do you think we live in a Hindu Rashtra right now?
Vinay Sitapati: Oh, absolutely. But again, to be specific about it, the Hindu Rashtriya is not a Hindu state. The Hindu Rashtra is the idea of a Hindu national community AKA a Hindu vote bank that works very well under the conditions of one person, one vote. Many critics of Modi feel that Hindu Rashtra lies down the road. It doesn’t. You and me are recording this podcast under Hindu Rashtra, which is Hindu vote bank that is able to use electoral democracy. It’s not liberal, it’s majoritarianism. But it’s not fascist either. And it works very well under India’s constitution.
Sandip Roy: So right now, when people look at, think about what the possible opposition to a Modi will be in the future, do you think it will come from a Atal Bihari Vajpayee like figure? Or do you think it will come from somewhere else? You know, maybe people have been talking about Yogi Adityanath like figure?
Vinay Sitapati: Well, within the BJP, it’s harder for me to say because, look, Modi and Amit Shah are winning right now, and this is not a party where you will have full-blown attack. You know, it’s a consensus party. It’d be more interesting question for me is what will the opposition to Modi look like from outside the BJP? And look, there are plenty of Indians who don’t like the BJP. So the argument I make through the book is the BJP doesn’t win because it’s a majoritarian idea, because yes, Hindus are a majority. But peasants and workers are a majority in India. The Communists should win. Non-uppercaste Bahujans are a majority in India. Kanshi Ram should have won. A majority of Indians don’t vote for the BJP in that sense. And there is that vote to be had. The problem with that vote is that it is divided. As I said, if there’s one lesson in this book holds to people who don’t like Modi, it is organisation, organisation, organisation, and it is unity, unity, unity.
That’s the only way to beat Narendra Modi. And look, this is not a fascist state. Don’t write op-eds in some foreign newspaper thinking that it’s going to unseat Narendra Modi. That ain’t going to happen. The only way to defeat Narendra Modi is on Election Day. So if you are a supporter of BJP and are hearing this, continue doing what you are doing because you understood your own movement right. And if you don’t like Narendra Modi, please read the book because you understood Narendra Modi wrong.
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