During their years in power, we thought of them as near equals; Vajpayee as prime minister, Advani his deputy(Prakash Singh/ HT Photo)
During their years in power, we thought of them as near equals; Vajpayee as prime minister, Advani his deputy(Prakash Singh/ HT Photo)

Atal-Advani: The jugalbandi in the BJP

For my generation, they were either heroes or villains but never non-entities. Vinay Sitapati’s book on their relationship, aptly called Jugalbandi, shows aspects of their relationship — and their individual personalities — that are revealing, disillusioning and, possibly, controversial
UPDATED ON DEC 12, 2020 11:03 PM IST

Today we identify the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Not so long ago, it belonged to two very different men: Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani.

For almost four decades, they straddled our political consciousness. For my generation, they were either heroes or villains but never non-entities. Vinay Sitapati’s book on their relationship, aptly called Jugalbandi, shows aspects of their relationship — and their individual personalities — that are revealing, disillusioning and, possibly, controversial.

During their years in power, we thought of them as near equals; Vajpayee as prime minister, Advani his deputy. But that wasn’t so. Sitapati suggests, though home minister and deputy prime minister, Advani made little contribution to either foreign or economic policy. He did not support disinvestment but was overruled. He favoured sending troops to Iraq but was ignored.

On relations with Pakistan, an area where the Vajpayee government experimented more than any predecessor or successor, I always thought Advani had a critical hand to play. But Sitapati suggests Vajpayee was even more committed to improving relations with Islamabad. Advani’s advice was accepted largely because it suited Vajpayee. However, it’s what Sitapati says of their individual personalities that I find particularly fascinating. Reading between the lines, you can’t help feel he admires Advani but is somewhat disparaging of Vajpayee.

Of Advani, Sitapati writes he “acted more bigoted than he really was”. He says “Advani was more a man of principle than Vajpayee, less altered by make-up”. Approvingly quoting, of all people, a Congressman, he suggests Advani’s problem was he wasn’t a good actor. “Sometimes in politics you need to be a good actor.”

Of Vajpayee, the impression Sitapati creates is of a man who often would not stand up for his principles. At the last moment, he would buckle under pressure. The two telling instances are his opposition to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and his insistence Narendra Modi resign as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002. As Sitapati puts it: “He would initially oppose his party on principle, then overcompensate when he felt his position threatened.”

In fact, Sitapati is pretty blunt. “The reason for Vajpayee’s U-turn(s) is not hard to divine … Vajpayee’s first ‘liberal’ reaction would be followed by the realization that he risked being cast aside by his party. He would then leap to his party’s defence, a leap not of faith but of moral acrobatics.”

My generation would not quarrel with this final comment: “It’s easy to fall in love with Vajpayee. An epicurean, a charmer. It’s harder to feel for the colourless, odourless Advani.”

But looks and feelings can be deceptive.

Towards the end, Sitapati makes a few perceptive comparisons between the Vajpayee-Advani jugalbandi and that of Modi and Shah. For now, let’s overlook the fact the latter combination is not really a jugalbandi; Modi is master, Shah his follower. Yet Sitapati’s points merit attention.

The BJP under Modi-Shah is “less upper caste than the BJP of old (but) it’s also more anti-Muslim”. Whereas “Vajpayee and Advani sought to appeal to both the moderate and the radical there is no such electoral incentive for Modi and Shah”. In fact, of the latter duo, Sitapati adds: “They have no training in appealing to the diversity of India as represented in Parliament. Their prism is the provincial politics of Gujarat”. Vajpayee and Advani always served at the Centre and their outlook was more national.

If this is Sitapati’s conclusion, many I’m sure would agree: “The result is that Modi-Shah are more ruthless to political opponents than Vajpayee-Advani ever were”. He quotes Advani’s blog to take this point tellingly further. “In our conception of Indian nationalism we have never regarded those who disagree with us politically as ‘anti-national’.”

On the other hand, Narendra Modi’s great strength is what Sitapati calls “an almost mystical connect with the voter”. His opponents in the Opposition may not like this but, if they’re honest, they can’t deny it. It could be a lot harder to overturn than Vajpayee’s charm.

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story
The views expressed are personal
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