Vinay Sitapati’s book presents a fascinating account of the journey of the two tallest and major drivers of the ‘Indian Right Wing’, who remained at the helm to navigate it through testing times, beginning with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and later managing and executing the affairs of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party.

The book offers a larger ambit to study the rise of Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee, and an analytical chronology of all the organisations cemented upon the idea of uniting Hindus, namely the Hindu Mahasabha (1915), the RSS (1925), the Jan Sangh (1951), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (1964), the BJP (1980) and Bajrang Dal (1984) and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (1991).

Sitapati’s title is apt: a jugalbandi is the twinned performance of musicians playing separate instruments but perfectly in tune with each other. Neither artist gets on in the shadow of the other, instead they complement each other to mesmerise their listeners.

An academic’s shadow falls over the book. Sitapati has utilised all available resources to tease out the argument of his book, leaving a mark of solid scholarship. It took him three straight years to complete it.

The book not only provides a political account of Vajpayee and Advani, it also delicately steers through all the major events of India’s politics, mainly right wing, that have marked a substantial presence on the political map of this country. It ranges from their struggle —to register mass acceptability, electorally— in the early years of independent India, to the rise of Bahujan politics, the Khalistan movement in Punjab, globalisation and the Babri Masjid demolition movement.

Here a conspicuous shift took place, and the author says: “After decades in which Advani was subordinate to Vajpayee, by 1980 their relationship had become more equal. While Advani had always needed Vajpayee, he was now needed. They were now a classical jugalbandi.”

Before 1980, Vajpayee with the support of Advani was busy crafting space for himself by politically burying leaders like Balraj Madhok (who founded the RSS student wing the ABVP in 1948) as also M.L Sodhi, Nanaji Deshmukh and others. Had Deendayal Upadhyay and Balraj Madhok survived the strategies employed against them, perhaps we would have read their jugalbandi.

The first chapter sheds light on events that caused the emergence of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, preparing the background which helped Advani and Vajpayee join politics with the resolve to unite Hindus of all sects.

Sitapati theoretically spurns a widely believed argument, which followed the murder of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, that Godse was a direct beneficiary or borrower of the RSS’ religious political ideas. On the contrary, he argues, far from supporting political violence the RSS wanted nothing to do with politics during the period. He considers Godse’s differences with the RSS, and how Godse went on to repeatedly criticise it throughout the mid 1940s.

The book detests the fact that the RSS was remotely involved in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. This could be a matter of great further academic dispute.

Through the journey of both leaders - nurtured by the RSS - during the formative years of the modern Indian state, the book exposes the hypocrisy and inconsistency in their ideology to accomplish political goals, whether their shift from adopting ‘Gandhian Socialism’ to drifting towards Capitalism as a core economic principle, or their approach to minorities especially Christians and Muslims.

Jinnah’s grandson, Nusli Wadia, was one of the first wealthy businessmen to fund the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, and the BJP too had no hesitation in accepting donations from him. Perhaps Advani repaid his debt to Wadia’s grandfather, Mr Jinnah, during his visit to Pakistan in 2005 when he hailed him as ‘secular’, a ‘great man’ and apostle of ‘Hindu-Muslim Unity.’

Says Sitapati, “What parliament did to Vajpayee was to teach him the Nehruvian version of India. It was one which respected India’s public institutions, endeavoured to keep Hinduism out of government, was sensitive to the trauma of post-partition Muslims, wanted state control over the economy and veered away from the West on foreign policy. Vajpayee initially followed all of this – not out of love for Nehru (as his right wing critics alleged), but out of love for the parliament of that period.”

The Advani and Vajpayee jugalbandi took shape on the foundation of organisational Hindu unity and theocratic principles. But if we take the first decade of independent India, the jugalbandi of Nehru and Patel, built on democratic secular values, which thrive on giving adequate scope to diverse viewpoints, still remains as the major glue uniting the country.

There is a fundamental flaw in Sitapati’s argument. He only takes into account Vajpayee’s verbal conflict with the RSS on various subjects, but largely neglects to assess him on the basis of power and positions, including the prime ministership, happily cherishing the RSS’ support in his political life, which was more than the benefit taken by Advani. His argument fails on merit, as Vajpayee markedly compromised on his principles in public life to peddle the idea that the Rightwing (mainly the RSS and VHP) fundamentally stands for.

The book suggests that Vajpayee’s politics was formulated during the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s golden era, which may have amplified his never ending discontent with the RSS. But Vajpayee’s public political actions largely contradict the Nehruvian vision except on countable occasions. Principally, he never resigned and disassociated with this ideology to stand firm and condemn what was done by the RSS and BJP to polarise the country.

Nor did his partner in jugalbandi, who did not condemn the horrific campaign of Love Jihad, mob lynching of Muslims, the discriminatory CAA, or the demonising of Sikh farmers as Khalistani and anti-national. Advani’s absolute silence endorses all kinds of marginalisation and campaigns of hate unleashed against Muslims, Christians, Dalits, Farmers, and Students.

After the Babri Masjid demolition for instance, Vajpayee is famously known to have been quite disturbed; however, he followed the party route and surprisingly demonstrated himself as a secular leader to later seize power in Delhi. Morally this does not carry any weight, as Vajpayee never distanced himself officially to fight back these unjust, inhuman and degrading ideas.

It will, however, remain a perennial irony that the person who drove the chariot to Ayodya to mobilise mass support in favour of the Ram Mandir could not secure the prime minister’s seat, and finished in his self-nurtured party with humiliation, forced to live life in political seclusion in the never fading quarters of Lutyens Delhi.

The book seems lost in its argument as it attempts to strike a balance when two contentious historical subjects require the definite response of the author. It could be an intentional move, since the book is devoid of mere subjective convictions and prejudices, and the author approaches them purely, using considerable references.

In chapter 10 the author discusses how disturbed Advani was after mobs demolished the Babri mosque, and more so was Vajpayee. “Mahajan, who was present at the Babri Masjid, later admitted to Vajpayee: ‘all the generals were present there, I don’t know what went wrong’”. The reference is to the third battle of Panipat in 1761, when the Marathas lost to the Mighty Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali’s army, despite the presence of too many generals in the Marathas’ army.

Despite other things, it is Hindu Nationalism and the call for organisational unity that kept them together. They were devout to their ideology. Towards the end the book attempts to see through the new developing jugalbandi, between Modi-Shah. It points out their similarities and dissimilarities, for instance how the new ongoing jugalbandi is more hostile towards the opposition, though it adheres to the age old conviction of a public display of internal unity.

Or how the new jugalbandi’s expanded social base, from the Hindu upper castes to Adivasis, middle castes and even Dalits, shows it has mastered the strategy to hide their failures by directly channeling Hindu anger towards the Muslims on all matters, to conveniently safeguard the ideology and galvanise support for the larger good of Hindutva.

It aims at the Hindutvisation of Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs: this trait is a unique and distinct attribute of the Modi-Shah jugalbandi.

It is authoritarian and less democratic in its functioning, as only the few are allowed to speak truth to power. The Vajpayee-Advani relationship was more ideological than Modi-Shah. But still to draw conclusions on their relationship could be a little unfair, as long as the artists of the new jugalbandi have not gone off stage after delivering the performance.

Advani and Shah do not enjoy mass support, and remained crucial to the functioning of the organisations. They can’t bring the crowd to the rallies; on the contrary Vajpayee and Modi could connect strongly with the audience. They have developed their own needs, way beyond others in the party.

Sitapati in his analysis seems to ignore - though it was not a stated focus of his analysis - the support of new corporate media to the current jugalbandi displayed by Modi-Shah. And while he notes their hostility toward the opposition, I believe he could have elaborated a bit more on the hostility to the intelligentsia, pro-people media, institutions and students, who dare to ask relevant questions to power, not just the political opposition.

In this jugalbandi, Vajpayee emerges the undisputed winner.

This book engages the reader and is written sedately. As a student of philosophy I was provoked not to leave it unfinished. It can bring more clarity to the current dominating political scene saturated with the Right-wing of this country. Sitapati has interwoven all the major events and figures essentially required to make it an intriguing read for students of right-wing politics and post-colonial Indian politics in general.

Jugalbandi by Vinay Sitapati is published by Penguin Random House India, 2020

Mohammad Irshad is Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi