New Delhi, Oct. 16: When the BJP suffered its first 'shock' defeat in May 2004 after the Lok Sabha polls, the mourning was short-lived. The knives were in their place, nor was any leader out to score brownie points against another.
A week later, however, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee suggested that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi's post-Godhra 'excesses' were responsible for the rout, all hell broke loose. First the RSS, then M. Venkaiah Naidu and lastly Modi cried foul and silenced his brand of moderation.
Even the supposed Vajpayee loyalist, Pramod Mahajan, quietly advised his mentor not to meddle with Modi for fear of nettling the BJP's Hindutva vote bank in Maharashtra.
But there was more to the nuggets of counsel doled out to Vajpayee. It appeared as though the party's GeNext was gearing itself to effect what a representative called a 'generational change'.
The insinuations were finally put in perspective by Advani, who in a TV interview said by the time the next Lok Sabha elections are here, he and Vajpayee would be into their eighties and, perhaps, 'unfit' (not necessarily physically) to lead the party. More so because the Congress would have youngster Rahul Gandhi to show to the electorate.
But as Advani would not take names, the conundrum of 'who after Vajpayee and Advani' persisted.
If the Sena-BJP had won the Maharashtra battle, Mahajan would have been a frontrunner because he made the election his solo show. But now that the die is cast, it is clear who is up and who is down:
• Pramod Mahajan: The clear loser. He hoped to end his 'kshetriya sanyaas' (regional seclusion) and make a grand re-entry into the capital. Although it looked like the BJP would continue with Naidu as president, a Maharashtra win would have made Mahajan a de facto head overseeing the next round of elections in Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana.
• Arun Jaitley: The distinct gainer. The Mahajan-Jaitley popularity sweepstakes were first debated when the BJP won Madhya Pradesh (with Jaitley as guardian) and Rajasthan (under Mahajan) last November. The Mahajan camp argued that a comparison was 'unfair' as Madhya Pradesh had virtually come on a platter after the Congress blew up its second mandate while, in Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot was a 'tougher' adversary.
• Sushma Swaraj: Neither here nor there. Her threat to adopt a widow's life if Sonia Gandhi became Prime Minister and the Veer Savarkar satyagraha in Andaman backfired. But Sushma is still acknowledged as the BJP's biggest vote-catcher after Vajpayee.
• Venkaiah Naidu: In perennial trouble. A fresh round of rumblings to replace him started today. The argument now is that if Mahajan is made the fall guy for Maharashtra, why should Naidu escape the blame for the Lok Sabha polls'
• Uma Bharti: In sanyas. The sanyasin's future would rest solely on the BJP reviving Hindutva.
• Narendra Modi: The question is whether he will survive another rebellion. Apparently, the dissidents were told by the Delhi bosses to wait till the Maharashtra polls.
Rajnath Singh: Has made no impact in Uttar Pradesh and is hardly known outside.
With so many things going against the BJP's GeNext, party sources conceded that its best bet was still good old Vajpayee.