When a seven-decade long career, marked by game-changing initiatives, comes to a close, hyperbole is hard to avoid. It was truly the ‘end of an era’ last week when the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Lal Krishna Advani, passed the baton to Sushma Swaraj. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his deputy loomed so large and for so long over the Bharatiya Janata Party that its fortunes became inseparable from their own personal triumphs and losses. The Atal-Advani presence was the prism though which any outsider watched the party’s rise and fall, its raging internal battles, its ideological struggles, and its increasingly awkward relationship with mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Mr. Advani himself would see his long innings as an incomplete journey. “I am not about to retire,” said the formidable rath yatri, the light touch he sought to impart to the moment failing to obscure his disappointment at the way things turned out. Unlike Mr. Vajpayee who reached the pinnacle of success, his deputy lost out more than once. At the peak of his career in 1995, Mr. Advani overrode objections from the BJP rank-and-file and the Sangh to take a backseat to the more ‘moderate’ Mr. Vajpayee. That proved a masterstroke for the BJP and future coalition-builder, but it would be 14 years before Mr. Advani was cast in the role of shadow Prime Minister.
Yet by 2009, the wheel had turned a full circle. The BJP, now deprived of the charismatic and reassuring presence of Mr. Vajpayee, once again faced isolation and rejection, with a resurgent Congress on course for a second term in office. The irony would be greater for Mr. Advani’s interesting effort towards the end of his political career to overcome his fiery rath-yatri persona. The praise he lavished on Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s August 1947 secular orientation was a necessary course correction -- as much for himself as for his party. For the BJP’s minder in Jhandewalan, however, there was no sacrilege worse than praising Jinnah, in however qualified and nuanced a manner, on Pakistani soil. It speaks to Mr. Advani’s towering stature in the BJP that he was the automatic choice to lead the party into the 2009 election. But other political factors aside, at 82, Mr. Advani was no match for the Congress troika of Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, and Rahul Gandhi. He also knew he had reaped as he sowed. He could not dismount the Ayodhya tiger and his party was constitutionally incapable of giving up its divisive communal agenda. With the RSS blessing the installation of Nitin Gadkari as party chief in place of Rajnath Singh, the former Deputy Prime Minister seems destined to watch his party drawn deeper into the embrace of its saffron mentor.