There is no such thing as an off-the-cuff remark in the cunning art of politics. Every comment, even the apparently throwaway ones, is imbued with significance. The master politician makes the most well-thought-out and deliberate pronouncement seem like something said casually and impromptu. Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a master of this ingenuous art. He often says things that are double-edged and impossible to pin down to one particular reading. In normal life this would be dissembling, but in political life this ability marks the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary. For quite some time, it has been evident to most supporters of Mr Vajpayee that his number two is a pretender to the top job. A rival waiting in the wings is difficult to accept for players accustomed to holding centre-stage. Mr Vajpayee has been the victim of sniping emanating not from Mr L.K. Advani but from the latter’s camp-followers who claim for Mr Advani more than what Mr Advani claims for himself. Mr Advani’s supporters seem to be in an unseemly hurry to install him as the prime minister. It will surprise nobody if Mr Vajpayee has not taken such suggestions very kindly. But it is unlike Mr Vajpayee to articulate his displeasure and his discomfort in too direct a manner. His riposte was to announce that Mr Advani would lead the Bharatiya Janata Party in the next elections. It took everybody by surprise, rang the alarm bells in certain quarters and left Mr Advani visibly embarrassed.
It would be impossible even for the most ardent Vajpayee-watcher to decide from what he said whether he was being gracious or whether he was miffed. But the result of the statement was perhaps exactly what Mr Vajpayee had wanted and intended when he made his innocuous-sounding comment. It led to the BJP president, Mr M. Venkaiah Naidu, reaffirming faith in Mr Vajpayee’s leadership. It was little short of an oath of allegiance. Mr Vajpayee has once again reestablished himself as the undisputed leader of the BJP. But he did this by offering to step down in favour of Mr Advani. For public consumption, Mr Vajpayee offered to pass on the mantle, but the party president stopped him. But there is a breach between what is meant for public consumption and real intent, between text and subtext. In India, governance may have come to a standstill, economic reforms may be in reverse gear, secularism may be in tatters, but the cunning of politics thrives. His mastery over this sphere makes Mr Vajpayee primus inter pares among his party colleagues. The prime minister is also a prime master.