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Last Updated: Friday, 30 December 2005, 12:43 GMT
What next for the BJP?

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

BJP leaders LK Advani (left) and Atal Behari Vajpayee (right)
Mr Advani (l) and Mr Vajpayee have dominated the BJP for 25 years
Two leaders have dominated India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during its chequered history - former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and party president Lal Krishna Advani.

With a combined age of 159 years, the two leaders have been largely responsible for founding the BJP and making it an alternative to India's grand old Congress party.

In an earlier manifestation, the party was a fringe and pariah Hindu nationalist outfit.

Party old-timers like describing this stunning evolution as a "national epic".

But with the partial eclipse of the two venerable old men - the pragmatic and charismatic Mr Vajpayee and the dour and determined Mr Advani - the unfinished epic seems to be headed for some stormy chapters ahead.

Mr Vajpayee's statement could easily trigger off another round of intense power struggle in the party

Mr Vajpayee has announced his retirement from active politics, and Mr Advani is resigning as the party president. A low-profile regional leader, Rajnath Singh, is expected to take over as the party chief.

What this means is that Mr Vajpayee, who led a coalition government for six years until electoral defeat in 2004 and has been the party's most popular mascot, is not going to contest the next general elections - and the party will have to look for a new prime ministerial candidate.

It also means that Mr Advani, former deputy prime minister and party chief for nearly 13 of the 25 years of BJP, will no longer head a party which seems to be fast running out of ideas.

Generation Next

The developments will have no immediate implications for the party - Mr Vajpayee remains leader of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition and of the BJP parliamentary party until the next general election, due in 2009; and Mr Advani continues to be the leader of the opposition in the parliament.

Pramod Mahajan
Mr Mahajan leads the pack of younger leaders
But what has really set the cat among the pigeons is Mr Vajpayee's apparent endorsement of young party leader and former federal minister Pramod Mahajan as a future leader.

In a public speech on Thursday, he rather enigmatically said that Mr Mahajan and Mr Advani would continue to "lead the party".

So is Mr Vajpayee keen to project Mr Mahajan, a long-time favourite, as a future prime minister?

If so, it is likely to cause a lot of heartburn in a party where a clutch of ambitious young leaders are in fierce competition for the top post.

The savvy Mr Mahajan, 56, belongs to the BJP's Generation Next - a group of relatively younger "technocrat" leaders who lack a grassroots political base.

They include the telegenic and slick former federal minister Arun Jaitley and the earthy and populist Sushma Swaraj, both 53. The controversial Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, 55, also has steeper aspirations.

Where does that leave the army man-turned-politician and former foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, 67, who some reckon could be the BJP's next prime ministerial candidate?

Jaswant Singh
Former foreign minister Jaswant Singh could be the dark horse
Nobody quite knows, but it is clear that Mr Vajpayee's statement could easily trigger off another round of intense power struggle in the party.

Analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says 2006 will be "the year of intense internal conflicts in BJP".

"The party is grappling with too many problems."

For the moment, the BJP's problems go much further than deciding on the shadow prime minister.

Analysts say there are sharp differences on the party's political direction between the powerful, younger leaders, and the more ideological older ones.

'Party in decline'

The party's Generation Next is seen to be behind the expulsion of a peer, the 46-year-old Hindu nun Uma Bharti, a popular politician who believed, as an analyst says, that the party should be in a "permanent campaign mode" for elections.

Analysts believe that the younger leaders prefer a more moderate course for the party.

There are other problems ahead.

The party recently lost two by-elections in the politically influential state of Uttar Pradesh to a regional party.

BJP leader Uma Bharati on campaign trail
Uma Bharti was expelled for anti-party activities
Half a dozen BJP MPs have been expelled from the parliament over a cash-for-questions scandal.

A party general secretary has also had to resign after becoming embroiled in an alleged sex scandal.

The party's allies in the NDA have begun asserting themselves more firmly, and in the recent elections in the troubled state of Bihar, the BJP had to depend on its regional ally, Janata Dal (United), to come to power.

To make things more difficult, an ideologically friendly ally like the Shiv Sena is in tatters after a series of unprecedented splits in the key western state of Maharashtra.

"The BJP has lost power, is no longer in the campaign mode, and has failed to occupy the opposition space effectively. Also, Hinduism is no longer the currency to win elections. It is a party in decline," says Mahesh Rangarajan.

At this point, the exit of Mr Vajpayee and Mr Advani from direct "power politics" could be an ominous portent of things to come, one analyst says.

"In a way," says political philosopher Pratap Bhanu Mehta, "the BJP has become a victim of its own success."

"It gave a kick of masculinity to Indian politics and then lost the plot."

The months ahead will show whether the BJP has lost the epic plot.

Vajpayee retirement stuns party
30 Dec 05 |  South Asia
Vajpayee to retire from politics
29 Dec 05 |  South Asia
Advani BJP role-switch confirmed
27 Dec 05 |  South Asia
Profile: Atal Behari Vajpayee
13 May 04 |  South Asia
How will history remember Vajpayee?
14 May 04 |  South Asia

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