New Delhi, Oct. 18: The BJP's defeat in Maharashtra claimed its first casualty today when M. Venkaiah Naidu stepped down as party chief.
L.K. Advani was back at the helm for his fifth term, confirming the perception of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that not one among the high-profile GeNext leaders is capable of reviving the party after the body blow it suffered in the general elections.
Naidu is the third president in a little over three years to demit office mid-term after Bangaru Laxman and K. Jana Krishnamurthi.
Advani will also continue to be leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Though the BJP constitution is silent on it, the convention is an individual holds only one post.
The RSS welcomed Advani's appointment but the Vishwa Hindu Parishad expressed disappointment, saying the message was that the BJP did not want to return to Hindutva.
The sequence of events leading to Naidu's resignation was set in motion yesterday after the RSS and the VHP conveyed to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani that it was time the reins were handed over to a 'senior' person.
RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan and VHP working president Ashok Singhal reportedly rooted for Murli Manohar Joshi. They said the 'overweening dominance' of the BJP by Advani and his nominees ' Naidu was hand-picked for the job when Krishnamurthi asserted himself once too often ' did little good.
Sensing that Sudarshan and Singhal were determined to strike when the BJP was down, party leaders decided that rather than allow an RSS-VHP takeover, they should go for a surgical operation at the top to convey that they want to revive the party.
Naidu, who was in Chennai with his ailing wife, was summoned to the capital. This morning, he went through the motions of first informally telling Vajpayee and Advani that he wished to resign to spend more time with his family and hand over responsibility to a senior person who could cope better with the challenges ahead.
Sources said Naidu was also stung by former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Uma Bharti's 'harsh' words when she accused him of wanting to 'sabotage' her tiranga yatra. Though Advani brokered a public truce, sources close to Naidu said he never 'recovered' from the ignominy Uma subjected him to and had made up his mind to quit.
Vajpayee and Advani went through the ritual of declining Naidu's offer but accepted it by noon. The former Prime Minister ' who nearly had Naidu sacked for comparing him with 'Iron Man' Advani ' reportedly held his hand and asked him not to leave. When Naidu spoke of his wife who is unwell, Advani turned misty-eyed, the sources added.
To impart a sense of consensus to the exercise, central office-bearers and national executive members available in the capital were called for an 'emergency' meeting which endorsed Naidu's resignation and Advani's anointment. As per the party constitution, it will be formally ratified by the national council when it meets on October 29.
Sources said there were three reasons for today's development:
Although Advani controlled the party organisation by proxy, having him as de jure head would reassure the 'demoralised' cadre that things were back on track.
The experiment with second-rung leaders was a disaster. Naidu's authority was never fully accepted by his peers, especially Pramod Mahajan and Sushma Swaraj who were once senior to him in the BJP hierarchy.
Vajpayee, the BJP's most acceptable public face, and Advani, an organiser par excellence, would complement each other.