That the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would make the perennial No. 2 of GenPast its new No. 1 should cause no surprise. After all, for as long as one can remember, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani were the 'twin towers' (as a hawkish scribe derisively described them) of first the Jan Sangh and then the BJP. So, if one withdraws from the fray, the other has to step in almost automatically.
But it is necessary to remember that Advani was not only No. 2, but a rather distant one, as was evident from the fact that he held the information and broadcasting portfolio in the Morarji Desai cabinet in the first Janata government (1977-79) while Vajpayee was the external affairs minister, a position high up in the official hierarchy.
The reason why Vajpayee was way ahead of his present successor virtually all through the party's history was simple. The former was seen to have a more eclectic mind, which was why he had friends cutting across party lines, while Advani was a typical apparatchik with an outlook limited to the party's agenda and little appreciation of the wider world.
Only once did this seemingly immutable pecking order change - and for a reason which highlighted the difference between the two. This was in 1990 when Advani embarked on his (in)famous Somnath-to-Ayodhya rath yatra (chariot ride) for the 'liberation' of Ramjanmabhoomi.
As is known, Vajpayee was against the provocative journey and even contemplated resigning when it had its inevitable fallout - the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and a countrywide outbreak of Hindu-Muslim riots.
But the apparatchik had had his day, for the intensification of communal sentiments had boosted the BJP's electoral prospects, raising its tally of seats in the Lok Sabha from 86 in 1989 to 120 in 1991. While Vajpayee was derided as 'half a Congressman' by the fiery propagandist, Sadhvi Rithambara, Advani's hardline policies were perceived as what the BJP needed.
If Advani nevertheless remained No. 2, it was because his alleged involvement in the hawala scam made him yield place to Vajpayee as the prime ministerial candidate if the BJP came to power. Thus, for 13 days in 1996 and again from 1998 to 2004, Vajpayee was again the indisputable No. 1.
Even as late as a national executive meeting of the party in Bhopal last September, Vajpayee was still believed to the frontrunner even if this perception was due more to the machinations of Advani's detractors in the BJP than the former prime minister's actual desire.
What is more, Advani had shot himself in the foot earlier by his surprising praise for the secularism of Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, during a visit to that country in 2005. A furious Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the paterfamilias of the Hindutva family, compelled Advani to step down as the BJP president in favour of the colourless Rajnath Singh.
But as the No. 2 sulked, it is the unfortunate deterioration of Vajpayee's health that has now persuaded the party to project Advani as a possible prime minister in something of a hurry, apparently because of the talk of a general election early next year.
But even if the RSS has been mollified, presumably because of reassurances from Advani's camp that he wouldn't commit a Jinnah-like faux pas again, the road ahead may not be smooth enough to enable Advani fulfil his life's ambition.
The difficulties are obvious. Though he has no health problems, the ascent of the octogenarian shows that no one among the party's younger generation is considered good enough. Not even Narendra Modi, the BJP's 'pet monster', as a former Shiv Sena MP and filmmaker Pritish Nandy called him. In fact, the possibility of Modi throwing his hat into the ring may have forced the BJP to hastily choose Advani.
The leadership vacuum at the middle levels cannot but hurt the BJP when a high percentage of the Indian population is young. How an 80-year-old will connect with them is open to question. What is more, the vacuum doesn't mean that there are no aspirants. One of them is Rajnath Singh, who signalled his dearest wishes by once saying that he would like to lead the party's baraat (wedding procession) to Delhi as the bridegroom.
There is also Murli Manohar Joshi, a former human resource development minister, who was a distant No. 3 when Advani held the second position in the party. Even though few took him seriously, Joshi never concealed his desire to be at helm both in the party and government.
Then, there is the former external affairs minister, Yashwant Sinha, who has recently been leading the charge against the nuclear deal along with Arun Shourie, another former minister. Sinha, too, has been a critic of Advani.
For the present, they may bide their time if only because the chances of the wedding procession reaching Delhi do not seem to be very bright. But outside the BJP, Advani will have to cope with the problem of treading carefully so as not to offend either the RSS or the BJP's 'secular' partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) like the Janata Dal-United and the Biju Janata Dal.
If there is any hint of Advani playing the Hindutva card to please the RSS, the NDA will be alienated, and if he tries to be moderate a la Vajpayee, as during the Jinnah episode, the RSS will be up in arms.
In a sense, Advani's dilemma is also the BJP's. If the party and its leader want to attain power at the central level, they will have to tone down their anti-minority world-view. But if they do so, they will confuse and alienate their own hawkish support base, which looks to the RSS for inspiration.
Vajpayee had the ability to perform this balancing trick fairly successfully. Which is why his government lasted for six years; although to achieve this feat, the BJP had to drop its pro-Hindu agenda. It is doubtful if Advani has the political dexterity to do the same.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)