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Explained Ideas: How will history judge the Narendra Modi, Amit Shah duo?

Narendra Modi is currently Amit Shah’s boss. But if their party requires, are they capable of one day switching places, asks Vinay Sitapati.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, when the latter was BJP chief. (File Photo)

A jugalbandi is a concert featuring two musicians with separate styles and often distinct instruments. Yet, they somehow manage to make music together.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are only the latest in a long line of jugalbandis in the Bharatiya Janata Party,” writes Vinay Sitapati, who teaches at Ashoka University and has recently written Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi, in an opinion column in The Indian Express.

Express Illustration: C R Sasikumar

The first jugalbandi was from the early 1950s during the early years of the Jana Sangh — the precursor party to the BJP. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the youngest vice-chancellor in the history of Calcutta University, was the erudite voice in Parliament.

His partner was Deendayal Upadhyaya, deputed from the RSS to provide the organisational chords to Mookerjee’s rhetorical flourishes. This choice of Mookerjee and Upadhyaya was deliberate social engineering. Hindu nationalism always knew it was both a movement seeking to shape society as well as a party pursuing power.

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It needed an orator as well as an organiser.

The jugalbandi that embodied this most was the 60-year-long partnership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. Both had separate styles and distinct instruments.

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Vajpayee grew up in a poor Gangetic Brahmin family and joined the RSS because of his caste and because his Gwalior was also Marathi-speaking.


Advani came from the cosmopolitan Karachi of the 1930s. He spoke English before he learnt Hindi, and his wealthy family owned a horse-driven Victoria carriage (a luxury even in Karachi) and possessed a lavish home with a room just for games. Had it not been for the cataclysm of Partition — which turned the prosperous Advanis into penniless refugees — Advani might never have joined the RSS.

Despite differences, Vajpayee and Advani worked together to control their party from 1968 (after Deendayal’s murder) all the way till 2004 (when the BJP lost the national elections).

“Their partnership enabled the first bloom of the lotus. And even when the love from their political marriage evaporated (which it did from 1998 to 2004) they remained united. Divorce was not an option,” writes Sitapati.


A jugalbandi is a concert revelling in difference. But it is more than that.

“What to make, then, of the music being played in today’s BJP? Narendra Modi is currently Amit Shah’s boss. But if their party requires, are they capable of one day switching places? Vajpayee and Advani, for all their many many foibles, were driven by something larger than themselves. How will history judge today’s jugalbandi?” asks Sitapati. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

First published on: 25-11-2020 at 08:04:54 am
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