COMPARE Congress chief Narasimha Rao with his BJP counterpart, L.K. Advani. Rao is thick-skinned, and Advani hyper-sensitive. The entire party tried, in vain, to dissuade Advani when he decided to resign from Parliament as the Rao Government implicated him in the hawala case in January. Rao, on the contrary, resisted every demand for his resignation, beginning from Ayodhya to the recent electoral debacle.
That probably explains why Advani commands so much respect even when he is nowhere near prime ministership. Indeed, he had a key role in projecting Atal Behari Vajpayee as the candidate for prime minister—and this happened much before Rao tried to turn the hawala weapon on the BJP.
It was in some remote village in Madhya Pradesh that Advani announced, way back in October, that if the BJP ever came to power, not he, but Vajpayee would be the prime minister. In November, Advani took up the issue once again at the party's Bombay plenary, and got its endorsement.
When Vajpayee stakes claim to form the government, it's Advani who pleads his case before the President, belying speculation that the two would squabble over the post in such an eventuality. In a parallel sequence of events, Rao refuses to step down as AICC chief after the party's worst-ever electoral ousting and gets all voices of dissent to sing a meek chorus of praise at the CWC meeting.
What could have provoked Advani, the BJP's frontman, to step aside for the gentler Vajpayee? Did he simply want to impress upon the plenary delegates that he was not bothered about any post? After all, he was the party's most recognisable public face in the '90s, its most prosperous years.
Advani's announcement was unilateral. Vajpayee apparently called him up after reading about it in the newspapers to say that the announcement at least merited his "approval". "Would you have said yes to my proposal had I consulted you?" was Advani's riposte. Advani's response to press reports highlighting the alleged differences between the two is simple: "He has been my leader all through. He is my senior and more capable of leading the nation. Never have we had differences on major issues. He is still my leader and I did what I always felt regarding Vajpayee".
He is believed to have said in private that he was fed up with adverse press reports. Says an insider: "Once he became party chief and acquired a high profile mainly in the wake of the rath yatra, these differences were projected on a more regular basis. But all were imaginary and baseless."
Ever since Deen Dayal Upadhyay's death in the '60s and Balraj Madhok's expulsion in 1973, the duo have alternated at the top post, barring M.M. Joshi's stint in 1989-'91. But Advani—brought over to the Jan Sangh from Rajasthan in 1957, when Vajpayee was already an MP—knows how to keep his dignity as number two.
For contrast, again turn to the Congress, where in the past two years top leaders like Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari, G.K. Moopanar and K. Karunakaran either left the party or made raucous, ineffectual demands for Rao's scalp.