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IT SPEAKS FOR the panic in the Bharatiya Janata Party that it has turned for help to Lal Krishna Advani — the man who, 14 years ago, set the BJP on the belligerent path of Hindutva, thereby rewriting the course both of his party and the country. Mr. Advani's appointment as party chief is clearly prompted by the BJP's abysmal showing in two successive elections, first to the Lok Sabha in May 2004, and then last week to the Maharashtra State Assembly. The party cadre was rendered inconsolable by the defeats, especially given that the BJP was the favourite to win both elections. Worse, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mr. Advani thought to be out of the reckoning, the famed second rung was locked in a succession war, demolishing the myth of discipline long associated with the party. Ironically, it was Mr. Advani who set the cat among the pigeons with his statement (made in September during an interview to Karan Thapar for BBC) that the time may have come to pass the baton to a younger leader. Mr. Advani turns 77 this November, and Mr. Vajpayee 80 in December, which means that five years hence neither might be in a position to muster the focus and stamina required to fight an election.

It stands to reason, then, that Mr. Advani has been seconded essentially for a fire-fighting operation. It is an unenviable job considering the mutual suspicion in the second rung and the low morale among the rank and file. Two defeats in a row would affect any party. More so the BJP, which has crash-landed from the heady heights of "India Shining" and "feel good." The sudden vacuum in leadership seems only to have added to the sense of despair and ideological disorientation. It helps that Mr. Advani commands the loyalty of the organisation as no other leader in the party does. That the celebrations around his formal installation rivalled the victory-induced euphoria in the Congress camp says something for the hope stirring in the BJP. But will the `iron man' deliver?

Consider the trajectory of the BJP from 1986 to 1991, or the first phase of Mr. Advani's stewardship. In 1984, the party had two Lok Sabha seats based on a 7.74 per cent share of the popular vote. In 1989, this rose to 85 and 11.36 respectively, thanks to seat adjustments between the BJP and the Janata Dal. By 1991, the conviviality was over and Mr. Advani had embarked on his calamitous Ram rath yatra, leaving behind death and destruction on a scale that destroyed the communal peace of this country. Mr. Advani's aggressive Ayodhya avatar fetched the party 120 Lok Sabha seats and a vote share of 20.04 per cent. The next phase of his helmsmanship began in July 1993. This was a period of even greater violence and turmoil, with the Sangh Parivar having brutally destroyed the Babri Masjid only months earlier. By 1996, the BJP's individual performance had peaked with 161 seats and a vote share of 20.29 per cent. Mr. Advani's fierce espousal of Hindutva may have secured for the party its core vote but acceptability and office came only via Mr. Vajpayee's "moderate" appeal. Today with the Hindu Right in defeat mode and Mr. Vajpayee no longer active, Mr. Advani is caught in a strange "catch-22" situation. If he heeds the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, he would return the party to its obscurantist past. If he desists from that path in order not to restrict the BJP's vote base, he would make enemies of the Parivar, which as the architect of Hindutva he can ill afford.

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