New Delhi: It is more or less clear why Narendra Modi has such a mass following. Atal Behari Vajpayee’s uniqueness as a prime minister and statesman need no elaboration. But why didn’t Lal Krishna Advani make the grade? Why did he fail? One proximate reason may be that he stayed too long in the shadow of Vajpayee to confidently strike out on his own. By the time he separated from the great man, he had no personality for himself and no governing vision for the country, points on which Modi scores by a mile. Advani’s failure should send alarm bells ringing for such of his acolytes as Sushma Swaraj and Ananth Kumar.

For all his exceptionality as prime minister, it must be accepted that Vajpayee did not make a success of the Jana Sangha or the successor Bharatiya Janata Party when he was in charge. Nor did his philosophy of “Gandhian Socialism” find much traction in the party formally committed to the principles of “Integral Humanism” of its founder Deen Dayal Upadhyay but broadly practising the ideology laid down by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangha. Under his direct charge, the BJP dropped disastrously to two Lok Sabha seats in the 1984 election, and its rise thereafter is mostly attributed to Advani. Which is why despite the volatility between Advani and Modi, the Gujarat chief minister has always recognized his former mentor and present rival’s immense contribution to the growth of the BJP. “Let us not forget the BJP’s second-line leadership was built by Advani-ji,” said a close aide of Modi.

Advani’s problem was Vajpayee. Although he made the Bharatiya Janata Party into a mainstream entity rivalling the Congress, Advani always felt somehow politically inferior to Vajpayee. He respected Vajpayee hugely, deferred to him in every respect, and a large part of this was genuine. It is not always clear how Vajpayee viewed Advani because in personal relations he wasn’t a very expressive man. Advani, on the other hand, needed any opportunity to gush about Vajpayee’s greatness. It was in this phase of extreme deference to Vajpayee that Advani proposed him as the BJP’s prime minister candidate against the advice of his party devotees. Later, he would come to rue the decision, especially after Vajpayee did become prime minister, and he was reduced to playing second fiddle as home minister and then deputy prime minister, a position obtained after the intervention of the RSS.

It was to break away from Vajpayee’s umbra that Advani stirred the Loh Purush versus Vikas Purush controversy, where nearly the entire BJP second line backed him against the prime minister who was on an overseas visit. When he returned, the revolt promptly collapsed. To an extent, Advani did try to play the strong man in the mould of Sardar Patel to counter the soft image of Vajpayee. He hoped that as home minister, he would make a mark like Patel and even surpass him. That was the reason he chose home. But as home minister, Advani was lacklustre. India has never had a home minister as capable as Patel and it won’t in the future. But Advani brought nothing to the home ministry. No plan. No vision. He simply let the bureaucrats run the show. This was not how Vajpayee managed the prime minister’s office or Jaswant Singh the foreign ministry, which brimmed with ideas in his time unlike now. Controversy and all, George Fernandes was a pugnacious defence minister too. But Advani represented the status quo. In his watch, the Parliament House was attacked by Pakistani terrorists. Under him, the Intelligence Bureau was strenuously politicized, as now.

The point is this. Advani never appeared to have a mind of his own in matters of administration and governance. Whether this was a result of having remained in the shadows of Vajpayee is hard to tell, but it seems the most likely reason. By the time he had had enough of being Vajpayee’s number two, he had acquired limited skill sets. His expertise of organizing the street was no longer needed. His knowledge of Indian constitutional law and parliamentary procedures was handy but didn’t equip him in any serious way for prime-ministership. Between Vajpayee and him, perhaps Advani would know more of the law, but it cannot take away from the other’s genius as prime minister. Advani sought the route of a slow and steady climb to the top, which is not always advisable in politics, and at some point, switched strategy to play dirty with the man he professed to admire and venerate. It didn’t work. It is open to question if Advani would have risen in Modi’s dire situation, thrown into a shark-infested sea. Modi made the best of desperate straits, and Vajpayee moulded the prime-ministership in his own image against tremendous odds. This puts Vajpayee and Modi in an exclusive club of achievers from which Advani will remain forever excluded.

It is the rare politician who is terrific on the campaign trail and brilliant in office or at least amazingly re-inventive. Vajpayee was good in one sphere like Tony Blair. Modi is good in both. Unfortunately for Advani, his worth at making the BJP a national party did not extend to his own political career. Partly fate has not sided with him. He is also unlucky. But he ultimately blotted his copybook with his deviousness towards Vajpayee and apropos the party he brought to eminence. He forgot the example of Sardar Patel who shone as number 2 often brighter than Jawaharlal Nehru but never thought to upstage him. Patel was the best prime minister India never had. No one will say that about Lal Krishna Advani.