An old joke about surgery - the operation is successful, but the patient is dead - can be applied to the latest rumpus in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party managed to push Narendra Modi some distance towards his coveted goal of being the prime ministerial candidate. But, in the process, the party itself and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by it have taken a number of crippling blows.
These include L.K. Advani's self-inflicted wounds when he first peevishly resigned from all party posts after Modi's nomination as chief of the campaign committee for the 2014 elections, and then meekly accepted a stern fatwa from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to withdraw the resignations.
The tragi-comic vaudeville in Goa and Delhi, which saw a demonstration by a so-called Hindu sena before Advani's residence in the national capital, must have been a cause of considerable solace to a beleaguered Congress, which has been further embarrassed by the extension of the coal scam to include Naveen Jindal.
Yet, the turmoil was not unwarranted. Only the wilfully blind would not have seen it coming. It must have long been obvious to all in the saffron ranks that Modi's elevation will not be a smooth affair. Modi himself must have known it. But, as the only "strong" character in a party of second-rank leaders after Atal Bihari Vajpayee's retirement, the Gujarat chief minister had little difficulty in goading "provincials" like Rajnath Singh - to use BJP M.P. Jaswant Singh's description of the party president - and rootless wonders like Arun Jaitley to have his way.
Perhaps, the BJP leaders were also aware about what may happen if Modi's ambition is thwarted. It wasn't long ago that he boycotted the party conclaves in protest against the appointment of a small-time rival of his in Gujarat, Sanjay Joshi, to the party's national executive.
At that time of his skirmishes with Joshi and the latter's supporter, the then party chief Nitin Gadkari, the future campaign chief of the BJP had stayed away from the party's campaigns in UP, Punjab and Goa. It was only after Joshi resigned that Modi piped down, but not before Bihar's deputy chief minister, Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP, said that no one had the right to "hijack" the party.
This time, too, Advani's humiliating retreat after yet another successful "hijacking" by Modi must have convinced the purported Hindu hriday samrat of his clout in the party. But, in the present coalition era, being numero uno is not enough, as it was in Indira Gandhi's time.
Now, it is the conciliatory skills of an amiable leader that are the prime requisites. In the BJP, only Vajpayee had the talent. That was why he could head a coalition of 24 parties - a record which is unlikely to be broken. If the Janata Dal-United leaves the NDA, the alliance will comprise only three members, all of them with a sectarian bias - the Hindu-dominated BJP and Shiv Sena, and the Sikh-dominated Akali Dal.
That Modi should be the cause of this shrinkage is not surprising. It was the 2002 Gujarat riots, when he played the role of a "modern-day Nero", according to the Supreme Court, which led to the departure of the Telugu Desam, Lok Janshakti Party, National Conference, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and others from the NDA. Not only that, Vajpayee held the riots responsible for the BJP's defeat in 2004.
Then, the anti-Christian riots in Odisha in 2008 made the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) break its ties with the BJP. At about the same time, the Trinamool Congress walked away from the BJP because it realised that a continued tie-up with it would come in the way of weaning away Muslim votes from the Left in West Bengal.
The same perception is evidently behind the Janata Dal-United's uneasiness about remaining in the NDA. Its misgivings must have increased after its defeat by a huge margin in the Maharajganj byelection at the hands of the Janata Dal-United's main rival in Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). Nitish Kumar's fear apparently is that each day that he remains in the BJP's company will induce more and more Muslims to switch their loyalty to the RJD.
It was relatively safe for him to do so as long as moderates like Vajpayee and a reformed hardliner like Advani were at the BJP's helm. But Modi is different. For all his emphasis on development, Modi's adamant refusal to apologise for the riots is not without significance, for he is fully aware that his USP is the perception among communal-minded Hindus - his main support base - that he can teach the minorities a lesson - if the need arises.
The need to sustain this image also explains his refusal to wear a Muslim skull cap during a 'sadbhavna' (goodwill) rally which was meant to boost social harmony. It will be a dicey proposition, therefore, for Nitish Kumar to risk his future in an alliance where Modi will be the dominant figure.
Consequently, the NDA's break-up will lead to a new configuration of the political forces whose contours are unclear at the moment.
(15-06-2013-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)