The national executive committee meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Patna over the weekend, climaxing with a large public rally, was supposed to be a kind of coming out party for the junior partner in the Bihar government. In the event, it turned out to be a setback resulting from a self-goal. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had taken pains to maintain the secular credentials of his Janata Dal (United) with the substantial Muslim population of Bihar by keeping Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi out of campaigning in the state (assembly elections are a few months down the line), was forced to react violently to newspaper advertisements picturing him and Modi clasping hands as "unethical". The alliance is still there but with a greatly reduced legitimacy. The coalition partners will be quite embarrassed by each other on their way to the polling booth when they should have been basking in the glory of the turnaround in the state achieved by the government.
In a way this is a further blow to the authority of the new BJP chief, Nitin Gadkari, who did not exactly cover himself with glory in the earlier fiasco over ministry-making in Jharkhand with the unpredictable JMM leader Shibu Soren. Dissident rumblings, no longer alien to the BJP which was once known for its discipline, are likely to grow in the absence of a firm hand on the rudder. All this raises doubts on the party's strategy for coming in from the cold. What is quite clear, however, is that Mr Modi remains the only "mass leader" yet in the BJP's emerging pantheon. If there is a "leader-in-waiting" who has not yet revealed her potential, it is Sushma Swaraj. She could yet be the Atal Behari Vajpayee to a future "Advani-like" Mr Modi. If the BJP's new duo is to be Ms Swaraj and Mr Modi, the party must evolve a strategy that will enable them to work together.
While the sorry state of the main Opposition party should have made the ruling Congress party confident of going ahead with a bold agenda, the irony is that its own mood is not very purposeful. Other coalition partners of the UPA, with their own agendas, are either routinely difficult, as is the Trinamool Congress, or a plain embarrassment, as are the DMK and the NCP. But that is not all. A party with a long history has perforce to carry a heavy baggage, causing ghosts from the past to come and haunt it periodically, as is now happening with the Bhopal gas tragedy. Thus, UPA-2 is in many ways a throwback to the Congress party of the Rajiv Gandhi era when it did not have to worry about parliamentary numbers but still lost sleep over factional feuding. The Congress party was then de facto, as the UPA is now de jure, a coalition of forces whose ability to move forward decisively had nothing to do with its formal licence to do so. Thus, despite its massive majority in Parliament, the Rajiv Gandhi government was unable to deliver much by way of economic performance and good governance. That danger faces UPA-2 as well.