Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. Whether Hindus or Greeks coined that aphorism, it resoundingly describes the Bharatiya Janata Party's blundering ineptness. Obsessed by 2014, the party has missed the chance of creating a precedent for statesmanship and squandered the asset it has in someone of Jaswant Singh's calibre.
This is not to build up Darjeeling's unlikely MP or question the impeccable credentials that enabled Hamid Ansari to discharge the vice-president's duties with distinction, which he will undoubtedly do again. But given India's fractured polity, with even coalition partners squabbling among themselves for prominence, we could have done with a healing touch at the top. Instead of frivolously pushing P A Sangma for Rashtrapati Bhavan and splitting the National Democratic Alliance, the BJP should have accepted the logic of numbers and tried to come to an arrangement with the United Progressive Alliance on the second slot.
It's not as if Lal Krishna Advani and Manmohan Singh have not consulted each other before and reached secret agreement. When P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh finalised their reforms in 1991, they disclosed it only to Advani whom many then regarded as the prime minister-in-waiting. As I wrote in Waiting for America: India and the US in the New Millennium, "Advani gave his blessings. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh did not bring it (the reform package) up in cabinet, fearing alarmist newspaper headlines, a hue and cry in Parliament and resistance in the ranks."
Presumably, something of the mutual confidence that inspired that pact remains since the prime minister called Advani this time to seek his support for Ansari. There is no indication that Advani responded with a counter-request. In any case, it would have been too late then. Advani should have taken the initiative much earlier. Reminding Manmohan Singh that the national interest sometimes calls on leaders to rise above party labels, he should have asked him to reciprocate the BJP's gesture in 1991.
A bargain may not have been impossible. Advani's latest blog, which has set the cat among the saffron pigeons, shows he is not blinded by party loyalty. If any BJP leader can enjoy the confidence of Indians not sold on the Hindutva dream, it's Jaswant Singh. Moreover, a beleaguered UPA needs all the support it can get and more.
Advani's view that "a non-Congress, non-BJP prime minister heading a government supported by one of these two principal parties is feasible" reveals realistic understanding of ground conditions. So does his assessment that in spite of B S Yedyurappa's "bungling" blotting the BJP copybook in Karnataka, the party is making some advance there because of Congress failures. Finally, Nitin Gadkari, the BJP president, may be right in inferring that Advani's blog recognised Nitish Kumar's point that it would be self-defeating for the NDA to project Narendra Modi as a national leader.
It would be different if Advani and the BJP were convinced Modi can carry the party to victory. Obviously, this is not so, which is why Modi loyalists are working overtime to project him as the best prime minister India hasn't had. I can name at least three e-mail addresses that pour out an unending stream of brash propaganda like a volcano belching lava. No matter how desperately Gujarat's chief minister hankers for the prime ministerial mantle, no self-respecting politician could possibly be so crass. I suspect the publicity is the handiwork of eager beaver adventurers anxious to curry favour with the master and claim their reward when the great day comes. They must also feel their leader is sorely handicapped to need such sugary adulation.
If all this puts off Advani, the more reason for appreciating Jaswant Singh's dignity and restraint. Those virtues, as well as his temperament, would have prevented him from ever transgressing the conventions of the vice-presidential office to create political controversy -- something Advani could have pointed out to Sonia Gandhi and the prime minister. He should also have stressed that constructive cooperation with the opposition would have earned public confidence at a time when the Congress prestige doesn't stand very high. That would be seen as true coalition dharma.
With Pranab Mukherjee as president and Jaswant Singh as vice-president, India might even have started a new bipartisan tradition. Lebanon's president is always a Maronite Christian and the prime minister a Muslim. Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh represented rival forces that cooperated in Cambodia's government when peace and democracy were restored. India needs such a courageous experiment more than the embittered competition that erupted in tantrums in the Lok Sabha last Wednesday.