It is a measure of the overwhelming presence of the leadership of the original duo, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, in the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party that the party has had some difficulty in making the transition from the Vajpayee-Advani era. But in choosing Sushma Swaraj for the post of the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Arun Jaitley in the Rajya Sabha, the BJP has put its best foot forward.
The challenge before the new duo is to strike a working relationship that is as productive as the one Vajpayee and Advani had. The party's choice for president, Nitin Gadkari, is more a regional political leader from Maharashtra than a national leader, which Swaraj certainly has become after having contested elections in various states, including Karnataka. In opting for a Maharashtrian, the BJP may be preparing for a post-Thackeray and post-Pawar era in Maharashtra politics. Gadkari's first important announcement that the BJP would open its doors to all party prodigals is a wise decision.
Without closing ranks around the new leadership, the party has no hope of taking on a resurgent Congress party that is waiting for its own generational transition. If Narendra Modi plays his cards well and acquires a more moderate persona, even at this late stage, and if the party's other regional leaders and chief ministers do not seek to undermine the authority of the Gadkari- Swaraj-Jaitley trio, the BJP has a decent chance of returning to the centre stage of politics by the next general elections.
The BJP's mentors and party elders have been wise in selecting Swaraj. She is not only a credible national woman leader in a male dominated party, but she also brings with her a more liberal socialist past to a conservative, chauvinistic party. Like Vajpayee, Swaraj has the potential to be 'all things to all people', embracing a wider constituency beyond the Hindutva loyalists of the Jana Sangh. Without such a pluralistic approach, a la Vajpayee, the BJP has no chance of leading a meaningful coalition, leave alone secure power on its own steam.
The BJP's revival will also depend critically on how much of an arms-length relationship the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh will choose to maintain. While the BJP needs RSS cadres, the RSS must realise that it has to satisfy itself being the skeleton around which the flesh and blood of the BJP is draped. The core can never become the whole. It is the right balance between the core and the whole that Vajpayee's deft leadership enabled that gave the BJP its only chance at wielding real power.
Without returning to India's political 'centre', the BJP cannot return to power at the Centre. Gadkari, Swaraj, Jaitley should know this. The challenge before the new trio is to return the BJP to the platform that Vajpayee built, without alienating the likes of Modi. It is not an easy task, but a necessary one.