To be sure, the position isn't vacant yet. And despite the frequent 'health scare' rumours on the political circuit, there is no good reason to believe that the prime minister, who is in his late seventies now, isn't in good shape. Or that home minister L.K. Advani is playing a Machiavellian behind-the-scenes role as some more-loyal-than-the-King Vajpayee admirers seem to believe. So, when bjp vice-president J.P. Mathur insists to Outlook that "it is the media which sees a Vajpayee versus Advani story in any inner party affair", he is probably right - the duo have tended to be dragged into more that their fair share of controversy. In fact, those in the know point out that, if anything, the two are working in closer tandem at this point than ever before.
But that is exactly the point. It is not so much about the Big Two but the thought processes within the bjp and, by implication, the National Democratic Alliance (nda) which have been exposed by the controversy sparked off by the over-the-top treatment given to Advani in the 20th anniversary issue of bjp Today. In which Advani has been credited with being the person who "created the mass base of the bjp" and "an individual yogi who is a bhogi for the nation". Or, as bjp editor and former Rajya Sabha MP Prafull Goradia writes of him vis-a-vis his unilateral declaration of Vajpayee as the party's prime ministerial candidate in late 1995, "what Advaniji has done belongs to a hitherto unknown world of patriotism". And this 'sacrifice' for Vajpayee finds more than one mention in the issue, leaving very little to the reader's imagination as to where the journal's sympathies lie. The Vajpayee camp, though aware that there is no move to topple him at the moment, is nonetheless peeved at the fact that their man is being undermined. Considering his age, though, it isn't really sacrilegious to look at a post-Vajpayee scenario.
Advani, as sources close to him insist, may have been "embarrassed" at this potrayal and even asked party president Kushabhau Thakre to look into the matter. And bjp vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy spoke to Goradia of his "unhappiness" at the controversy. But even if it is true that Goradia was miffed at being denied a renomination to the Rajya Sabha (Goradia himself was not available for comment), which was the line put out by some leaders when the controversy broke, it is worth taking into account that the means chosen to express this alleged resentment was to put into print what many in the party believe privately. That there is a danger of Advani's role in bringing the bjp to the position it is in today being forgotten. And that post-Vajpayee - whenever that may be - he and nobody else is the natural choice to take over.
For, despite the 'rah-rah' Vajpayee campaign, there are enough of the party faithful who feel it is unfair to Advani that a solitary mention of him - even if in an excessively laudatory way - should lead to accusations and controversy. Especially as there has been no corresponding charge over past few years of a Vajpayee-focused campaign (including issuing of seven-page supplements in the national press). Led, so to speak, by Advani. There is, undoubtedly, a section which believes that the compliment should and will be returned in the future.
According to Mathur, who sticks to the official line on the bjp Today controversy, "the media is adept at playing up and magnifying a small error". But even he concedes, on questioning, that "Vajpayee and Advani have been regarded as the twin pillars of the party's leadership for decades and have been regarded at the same level by the cadre. It is not the end of the world if Advani has been praised; Vajpayee is equally important and there has been immense respect and praise for him as well".
Senior nda leaders refuse to be drawn into the controversy. Says the leader of a key ally: "We're supporting the nda government led by Vajpayee. Any discussion of a post-Vajpayee scenario, whatever the inner rumblings in the bjp, is purely hypothetical." In private conversations, however, some nda leaders concede that they would be uncomfortable with Advani at the helm. Not so much because of what he is, but because of how he is perceived by significant sections of their support base. "Somebody like Jaswant Singh, with a moderate persona who represents no direct threat, could well turn out to be more acceptable," says a leader on condition of anonymity.
There is even a suggestion that if it comes to that, it may not be a fait accompli for the allies to accept a bjp man. In this scenario, the name doing the rounds as a frontrunner is still of George Fernandes despite his recent low profile. He is seen as having been instrumental in building the alliance and has, in fact, won the trust of the allies by leading the formal protest against Sangh interference in the functioning of the coalition in the latter half of 1998. (There is strong dislike of him within the bjp, of course, and that has been the reason, many believe, for his losing his job as Vajpayee's troubleshooter at large).
The fact remains that despite there being no threat to Vajpayee in the near future, the initial jostling for positions shows signs of beginning. And matters have been further complicated by the ambivalent stand of the bjp vis-a-vis its attitude to the editor of bjp Today. After all, either he is responsible for what appears in the magazine or he is not. But the party's stand is that "the editor did make an error of judgement but it was not intentional". Adds Krishnamurthy: "So there is no need for him to resign."
It is understandable that no action is being contemplated against Goradia for praising Advani. But what's inexplicable, to many, is that he is being admonished by the party brass for the very same thing! Or does the new bjp now decry that each time a leader is praised in the party organ, another must also be given a certain number of inches per column? The party, of course, seems only too happy to let the matter die a natural death if only to shy away from answering the broader succession-related questions it - perhaps inadvertently - raises. It is nobody's case, within the bjp or outside, that Vajpayee is going anywhere in a hurry. Equally, it would be naive to believe that nobody within the party and alliance has one eye on the future.