Bhopal, Sep 21: The absence of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on health grounds from the BJP conclave here has sparked a debate on leadership inside and outside the forum.
Even as the party maintained that Mr Vajpayee and Leader of the Opposition L K Advani continued to be ''their revered and respected leaders'' and there is no such question before the BJP, party spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad was at a loss to reply to a question why there cannot be any third leader to be considered as a Prime Ministerial candidate.
Shortly before the Executive began its three-day session at the Kushabhau Thakre Hall in Deen Dayal Complex, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Jaswant Singh told TV channels that Mr Advani is an ''undisputed and natural choice'' as the party's prime ministerial candidate after Mr Vajpayee.
However, party Vice-President Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, replying to queries, said the Executive is not the right forum to decide the leadership issue.
''There are many other issues before the Executive including Ram Sethu, internal security, terrorism, price rise, farmers' plight, the nuclear deal and non-governance,'' he said.
However, the debate on the leadership issue among the party rank and file did not begin on its own, but all started with ''well-wishers'' of Mr Advani pushing the leadership agenda in media in an effort to ensure that the Executive takes cognizance of the issue and declares Mr Advani as the prime ministerial candidate ahead of the perceived mid-term election.
However, many people in the anti-Advani camp, including his main bete noire Murli Manohar Joshi and other RSS strongmen like Bal Apte and Ram Lal who are ready to oppose it if it is taken up in the Executive.
Sources said that even party president Rajnath Singh is also very unhappy over the manner in which a private discussion is taking place on the leadership issue, particularly at this juncture.
''Mr Vajpayee is our tallest leader and he is very much there,'' Mr Singh said.
Nevertheless, it is evident that the party is divided in two parts-- pro-Advani and anti-Advani. While the Advani camp wants him to take the leadership role, particularly after he defined the party's stand on Ram Sethu and the Indo-US nuclear deal, but the RSS is very reluctant to accept Mr Advani, who had annoyed it with his statement describing Pakistan's founder Mohd Ali Jinnah as secular. Sources say Mr Advani has failed to make a place in the heart of RSS leadership despite his best efforts.
The stage is set for a debate on the leadership issue in the next two days of the Executive.