|Advani at a news conference in New Delhi on Saturday. (AFP)
L.K. Advaniís loss of face over the last week can hardly be disguised by the compromise resolution that has enabled him to stay on at the helm of affairs of the BJP. The controversy over his remarks in Pakistan has not only brought fissures in his party and its affiliates into the open. It has also raised serious doubts about his sense of timing and judgemental capability.
Looking back at the ferocity of the debate, it is evident that few were taken into confidence about his views on Mohammed Ali Jinnah. No wonder none of his hand-picked second-rung leaders came out in his defence on the issue.
Even state-level leaders like Babulal Marandi, a former chief minister, publicly criticised the party chief.
The churning has also brought into the open the deep animosity over the middle course the party has steered for over a decade in its arch for power at the Centre. For the VHP, the entire Advani-Vajpayee duopoly that has presided over the triumphs of yesteryears looks nothing less than a sell-out.
Nowhere is this more evident in the way in which the man who made Hindutva a byword in the Indian political lexicon has undergone a shift in perception of his own cadre.
Unlike Atal Bihari Vajpayee, once described by the late Murasoli Maran as ďthe right man in the wrong partyĒ, Advani won his distinctive place for calling a spade a spade.
The soft-spoken former journalist, in his third spell as head of the BJP, has faced a difficult choice. In the aftermath of defeat, he sought to restore the Ram temple to the centre stage. Yet the critical organisation in this movement, the VHP, now openly questions his credentials on the matter, citing the snail-like pace of the progress on the issue in his five years as Union home minister.
The feeling that the issue was used and then discarded was given public articulation in the television interview of RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan.
Even the stir over the Pakistan visit did not omit Advaniís regrets over the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.
Contrary to popular perception, there is no real contest of party versus the parent body, the RSS. As Vajpayee himself once said, all are swayamsevaks or volunteers first. But this does not mean the Sangh has no views about the course of action taken by the political wing.
Even in the past, most memorably in the eighties, the RSS publicly raised doubts about the departure from the strong espousal of Hindutva cultural agendas. Eventually, Atal gave way to Advani and there was a course correction from around 1986.
The difference between then and now is not only the passage of time or the growth of the party. It is also a mark of how far the leadership of the parent body is aloof from the rapidly changing realities of the country and the larger neighbourhood.
To be fair, the party too was and is unprepared to go the extra mile in reassessing historic events around the time of the Partition.
What is more, Advaniís sense of timing seems to have deserted him for much of the last year. He has fallen between two stools, opening up space for ridicule from opponents and failing to rally his own flock to his side.
In the absence of a clear line of succession, he will continue as head of the organisation and as legislative leader.
The paralysis that grips the party when someone other than Vajpayee or Advani heads it is also a distinct disadvantage when several other national parties have younger leaders in the frontline.
The loss of nerve is more crucial given the challenge of rebuilding the confidence and 'lan of the cadre. It is here that the close links with the RSS are of paramount importance. No party office of the BJP can function efficiently in the absence of the spine provided by the ideologues or pracharaks. Advani should know, having been deputed as an ideologue by M.S. Golwalkar to the Jan Sangh.
In the years in power, there was a shift of centre of gravity of the party to those holding public office. In Opposition, the cadre are of more central importance.
The only silver lining in the whole episode is the way in which the allies in the NDA have stood by Advani. Not only the Janata Dal (United) but also the Telugu Desam has endorsed his view.
His advisers may well draw satisfaction from the growing acceptability of the party leader to centrist opinion. Pilloried by elements of the Sangh, he can broaden his range and appeal.
Such a calculus is not groundless but any gains may be offset by two factors.
One is the growing perception that the party is adrift. It lacks a strong captain at the helm. This cannot but be a liability in countering adversaries or even dealing with allies.
The other is a reality Advani cannot escape, namely his legacy as champion of an ideologically coloured view of the polity. Had he pressed home his resignation and waited his turn, he might still have been able to overcome his past. Now, it is bound to revisit him as party and the parivar alike search for a symbol that energised their cadre even as it divides them from many other Indians.