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The power of two: Modi and Shah are the latest in a long line of jugalbandis in BJP

From Mookerjee-Upadhyaya to Vajpayee-Advani, the BJP has valorised teamwork. How will history judge Modi-Shah?

Narendra Modi is currently Amit Shah’s boss. But if their party requires, are they capable of one day switching places? (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

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. The first 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. 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. 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. He was, and this is the irony, too much of a “Macaulayputra”.

What accentuated these social divergences was — as is well known — ideological postures that seem the reverse of their backgrounds. Vajpayee was the “moderate” who knew how to seduce Parliament; he was the greatest political orator India has produced. Advani was the “hardliner” who could divine the mood of the cadre and of the RSS. More than Parliament, he cared what the party headquarters at Ashoka Road in Delhi and RSS basecamp at Hedgewar Bhawan in Nagpur thought. There was an element of acting in both these outlooks; Vajpayee and Advani knew the role they had to play. But there was also much authenticity to the act.

Yet, despite these 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.

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This ability to stick together through thick and thin was based on three entwined strands. There was personal chemistry of course — their shared love for Bollywood films and their matching emotional quotients. The second strand in their bond was professional compatibility, the ability for one to handle party and the other to manage Parliament. But the third and most important reason for the strength of their relationship was the teamwork embedded into their political ideologies. Right from their youth, the RSS tells its own one account of history. This version has Hindus losing battles and being invaded by foreigners because of back-stabbing and in-fighting. The veracity of this history is beside the point. What matters is that its lessons have been converted to an ethic of organisational unity — what I call “Hindu Fevicol” in my recent book on the BJP before Modi. It is an ethic demonstrated by Vajpayee and Advani’s ability to see each other through.

In a country as hierarchical as India, professional rankings formulated early tend to persist. Diplomats, bureaucrats, and generals from “senior batches” would rather resign than serve under a “junior”. To work under someone who has once worked under you is considered a loss of face. One of the few exceptions is the example of cricketer Virat Kohli who first reported to captain M S Dhoni, then one day became Dhoni’s captain. It goes to Dhoni’s credit that he continued serving despite this demotion. Team-building mattered more than ego-massages.


Now consider this: From 1968 to 1986, Vajpayee was the leader of his party, and Advani served under him. But in 1986, the RSS forced the “Gandhian socialist” Vajpayee to step down. For the next nine years, Vajpayee might have sulked on mute, but he continued to be part of the BJP, serving under Advani as the party moved in a more radical direction. Cut to 1995, when Advani — who was the RSS’s choice for prime minister — announced Vajpayee as prime ministerial candidate. Advani realised that, in the coming elections, the BJP could not win a majority and the coalition allies it needed would recoil from his blunt image. The rest is history, as Vajpayee became prime minister thrice — in 1996, 1998, and 1999 — and Advani served wordlessly under him. For a duo to switch positions once (like Dhoni and Kohli) is noteworthy. To have them switch places twice has no precedent anywhere in the world.

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A jugalbandi is a concert revelling in difference. But it is more than that. Both performers have the same status; no musician is the accompanist of the other. They are both playing an equal music. 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?


This article first appeared in the print edition on November 25, 2020 under the title ‘The power of two’. Sitapati is the author, most recently, of Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi. He teaches at Ashoka University.

First published on: 25-11-2020 at 03:00:36 am
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