Of former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, who patented the political pout, it was famously said that he could speak 13 languages - and remain silent in all of them. Perhaps there is something about the prime ministerial chair that induces muteness, considering that the current incumbent isn't exactly a shining example of garrulity.
But as senior BJP leader LK Advani has demonstrated today, you don't even have to make it to the prime ministerial chair for your lips to be sealed like those of a clam at defining moments in political history.
To give the benefit of the doubt to the man who has been uncharitably christened the "eternal Prime Minister-in-waiting", his absence from the Goa national executive meeting of the party he founded may not be - as has been widely speculated - the outcome of petty churlishness. He may well be unwell, as he claims.
But by observing mauna vrat at this defining point in time, when the BJP appears on the threshold of investing authority in a Next-Generation leader, he has fed the fire of political speculation that he is entirely displeased with the contemplated leadership change. Unless his stomach ailment has also afflicted his vocal chords or been otherwise seriously debilitating, there is only one explanation to account for his pointed failure to clarify matters one way or another: that he wishes the message to go out loud and clear that he wants no part of the party's agenda.
Again, to give him the benefit of the doubt, Advani perhaps has legitimate grounds to believe that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi - whom the party cadres are overeager to anoint - is not the man who will advance the BJP's political fortunes the most in the next elections. Perhaps he genuinely believes that only a leader who can carry a broader coalition of parties can work best for the BJP today. Perhaps he is right to be concerned - as Advani is believed to be - that if Modi is anointed the BJP's prime ministerial candidate for 2014, the narrative for the next elections will move away from the UPA government's many failings - and onto Modi's persona.
Proceedings at the BJP's national executive have so far validated Advani's inhibitions on that last count. A session where the BJP ought to have been focussing its energies on the UPA's many scams and misgovernance has been hijacked by a self-debilitating discourse centred around Modi.
Perhaps, therefore, history will judge Advani right on these counts.
But if that is so, Advani will do himself, and his party, a world of good if he speaks out on these issues in a forthright manner, without resorting to the circumlocutions that have had political analysts parsing his recent speeches to wonder, for instance, if he was putting down Modi in paying compliments to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. A clash of ideas, even if they are centred around political personalities, isn't bad for the BJP. If anything, it will only advance the party's claim to being truly democratic.
But sporting a Narasimha Rao-esque political pout, or resorting to a Manmohan Singh-esque muteness, in the way that he has done, does the 'Iron Man' of Indian politics no credit. According to media accounts, Advani is evidently sending out feelers to BJP leaders in Goa suggesting that a compromise formula - under which Modi would be declared the convenor (but not the chairman) of the BJP's election campaign panel - would find favour with him. Perhaps it's an effort at face-saving, but all this only opens the door to the kind of backroom political deal-making that represents everything that is rotten about Indian politics.
At one level, it could be argued that Modi's supporters in the party - and the rank-and-file - have needlessly heightened the stakes from the Goa conclave by suggesting too soon that an outcome that anoints Modi in some way is both inevitable and necessary. The political progress that Modi has been making in recent months wouldn't have gone off stride if a trifle more gradualism had crept into the process of formally naming the party's prime ministerial candidate. In any case, as is clear by now, the party isn't entirely behind Modi - or indeed any other leader.
But against this, the calculation must be made that excessive delay in naming the putative Prime Minister will only feed the uncertainty and give room for political skulduggery.
It is this dilemma that the BJP is grappling with today. BJP president Rajnath Singh has promised that the Goa conclave will have a "happy ending". Perhaps it will. But given the heavy-duty build-up by the pr-Modi faction in the party, leaving Goa without clarity on his nomination would be an anti-climax, and could end up signalling that the party is hostage to its past. As the entire political discourse of the past few days has demonstrated, it's far from clear that the BJP has vanquished the ghosts from the past that continue to haunt it.
First Published On : Jun 9, 2013 07:15 IST