The Jana Sangh was founded by Syama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951 as a reaction to the problems of thousands of Bengali Hindu refugees forced to flee to West Bengal from East Pakistan in the wake of Partition. He wanted the Jana Sangh to be a national democratic alternative to the Congress. Obviously Syama Prasad believed that the Congress was not reflecting the Hindu cause adequately and not effectively securing Hindu interests. A former Congressman from Bengal who came from a distinguished family of educationists, Mookerjee had strayed into the Hindu Mahasabha in the 1940s.

The Hindu Mahasabha lost steam because it propagated a very conservative Hindu viewpoint. As such, it could not capture the imagination of Hindus who were part of a nation on the move. Progress meant not only growth and development but also social reforms. After quitting the party in the wake of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Mookerjee joined the Nehru cabinet only to resign and establish the Jana Sangh.

Mookerjee died in 1953 not too long after the party was founded, thus altering the fortunes of the Jana Sangh. He was a career politician and had been in electoral politics since 1930. This had made him practical and taught him to negotiate the twists and turns of politics. After his death, the party came under the control of the RSS, a socio-cultural organization which had no experience in electoral politics. The RSS enlisted a young pracharak, Deendayal Upadhyaya, to run the party with the assistance of a few other chosen pracharaks. Though dedicated, hard-working and endowed with great organizational abilities, Upadhyaya was limited by his background, experience and the network of the RSS, which in those days was limited to parts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The party was also influenced by the Arya Samaj with many of RSS’s members and supporters having worked with that organization. As a result, the party developed a North-Indian ethos, that is, it promoted concepts that could only be popular in these parts. Hence, promotion of Hindi as India’s national language was one such idea that the Jana Sangh espoused.

A result of this was that the Jana Sangh could not become popular in South India where Hindi was anathema. In fact, Madras state (now Tamil Nadu) was gripped by anti-Hindi agitations. Incidentally, the status quo – the dominance of the Congress – was first challenged in Madras by the Dravidian parties. Very soon the Congress was put out of business and the Dravidian party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), representing the intermediate castes, established its hegemony. This was the first dent on the Hindu vote. In Madras state, in the initial years after Independence, the Hindu vote could be taken to roughly denote the electoral preference of the entire Hindu community including Brahmins, intermediate castes and the Dalits.

The Jana Sangh could also make no headway in West Bengal from where the party’s founder had hailed. Here, the Congress’s hegemony was challenged by the Left parties who represented industrial workers and peasants. Marxism was on the rise; under its influence votes got divided across professions rather than on the basis of caste and community.

The Jana Sangh did not realize that to win against the Congress party it would have to cultivate a different voter base and establish support amongst groups who wanted to challenge the Congress base. The Congress was essentially controlled by the higher castes – led by the Brahmins – across the country, though the Dalits, who formed the lowest level of the social pyramid, also supported the Congress. They had not evolved enough in the first two decades after Independence to chart their own path. But the intermediate castes in North India were getting restive. Originally a part of the Congress, they were looking for political outfits who would reflect their interests and aspirations. During the 1960s, socialist parties like the Praja Socialist Party and Samyukta Socialist Party, and even the Communist Party of India had a support base of these intermediate castes. In Madras state, the Dravidian movement (roughly representing the same social classes as the intermediate castes in the north) had succeeded because of two reasons. First, the movement had begun in the mid-1920s and, second, the Brahmins comprised a miniscule proportion of the total population (unlike in the north).

The Jana Sangh’s support base was still restricted to the Brahmins and the Banias in North India. It failed to articulate the concerns of these rising intermediary castes (who were Hindus) and this acted as a deterrent to its growth. For instance, the party was involved in a movement opposing cow slaughter which was seen as an upper caste movement. Although this had the potential of mobilizing even the lower castes in North India, in reality the movement ran out of steam.

Deendayal Upadhyaya

Though Jana Sangh leaders were locked up in jail and the RSS was banned during the Emergency, this came as a boon for the saffron party. The merger of the Jana Sangh into the Janata Party allowed the leaders of the former to mix with leaders of parties that constituted the latter. This close interaction opened new vistas for the leaders of the erstwhile Jana Sangh and broadened their thinking considerably. Deendayal Upadhyaya had by now died tragically after being thrown out of a moving train and the leadership of the party had passed on to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Though an RSS man with exposure to the Arya Samaj, Vajpayee had been coaxed by Upadhyaya to join electoral politics. This was after he realized that Vajpayee was a great orator. On Upadhyaya’s insistence, Vajpayee contested elections to the Lok Sabha from three seats in 1957 and got elected from one. He was a little over thirty then and his tenure in the Lok Sabha, and later Rajya Sabha, exposed him to the art of legislative politics. This stood him in good stead when the leadership of the party fell into his lap a decade later when Upadhyaya suddenly died.

Vajpayee had understood quite early in his legislative life that flexibility and liberalism were a must for a successful political life. However, his elevation to the head of the party was not a smooth affair. He was challenged by Balraj Madhok, the first secretary of the Jana Sangh, who had drafted the charter of the Jana Sangh and had got Syama Prasad interested in Kashmir’s affairs. But, for all his strengths, Madhok was very mercurial and espoused extreme views about minorities. With the help of a young lieutenant called Lal Krishna Advani and the blessings of the top echelon of the RSS, Vajpayee was able to wrest control of the party in the early 1970s. Over the next few decades till 2004, this duo ran the party together – in part cooperation and part competition.

Excerpted with permission from the ‘The Saffron Tide’ by Kingshuk Nag. Published by Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd. This article was first published on June 29, 2014.