It is understandable that the Congress' present condition of disarray will encourage its opponents to take it on in an electoral battle. But curiously, the enthusiasm is noticeable more among individuals than parties.
As the Congress' principal adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might have been expected to be more assertive in challenging the former to a frontal confrontation before the scheduled year of 2014.
Instead, it is two of the BJP's major leaders, LK Advani and Narendra Modi, who have signalled, without mentioning elections, their intentions to be front-runners in the ensuing battle as prime ministerial candidates.
Advani's gambit is typical of him - a rath yatra even if it will be his sixth since his riot-scarred debut in 1990. He obviously expects that, like his first journey, the latest one will again be a memorable success in terms of surging crowds and the whipping up of fervour about his avowed objective, which is corruption this time and not a pledge to build a temple at the site of a mosque, as two decades ago.
In contrast, Modi's ploy is a new and uncharacteristic one. He intends to go on a three-day fast, albeit in an air-conditioned venue, to advance the cause of "peace, unity and social harmony". The move can be regarded as a continuation of his efforts at an image makeover - from being a fire-breathing minority-baiter to a man of goodwill.
Earlier, his emphasis was on development, which had earned him the plaudits of the corporate sector. But he seems to have realized the inadequacy of that praise as long as he is seen as a Hindutva hawk, an unsavoury reputation which made his National Democratic Alliance (NDA) colleague, Bihar Chief minister Nitish Kumar, keep him out of the election campaign in the state lest he scare away the Muslims.
It is to erase that image that he has recently referred to the need for expanding the educational facilities for Muslims and stressed that his plans envisage progress without "discrimination". But what was most noteworthy was his observation in his blog that he sought "forgiveness for any hurt" that he "may have caused".
For a "modern-day Nero", to quote the Supreme Court's description of Modi who had dismissed the 2002 riots, which claimed more than 1,000 lives, as "stray incidents" in a letter to the president of India, to seek forgiveness is astounding. If anything underlines his intention to move from Gujarat to the national stage, this is it.
For the BJP, however, the sudden emergence of two PM wannabes can be problematic. For a start, the party is wary of Advani's ambition. In fact, it had tried to sideline him by making him the leader of the parliamentary party, a post created for him, when he insisted after the BJP's 2009 defeat on continuing to be the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha till 2014.
The subsequent selections of Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley as leaders of the opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, respectively, were a sign that the BJP wanted to usher in GenNext. Now, Advani's sudden decision to try to be in the limelight will put the party as well as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in a quandary, especially considering that the saffron patriarchs had eased Advani out of the party chief's post because of his praise for Jinnah in Pakistan in 2005.
It is difficult to say which of the two, Advani or Modi, the BJP and, more importantly, the RSS will choose to be the person to succeed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In any event, the process of selection will not be easy, for it will mean marginalizing two others, Sushma Swaraj and Jaitley, who must have considered themselves as the main contenders till Advani and Modi sprung their surprises. The recent observation of a saffron journalist, therefore, that the "Delhi 4", viz Sushma Swaraj, Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar, will side with Advani against Modi is significant.
Besides, it has to be remembered that the RSS will not be too pleased with Modi's new, liberal, even pro-Muslim stance, for it will frustrate its game plan of turning India into a theocratic Hindu rashtra, which has long been a saffron dream. It is no secret that the RSS was never happy with the moderate Atal Bihari Vajpayee and did not like Advani's recent transformation from the fiery rath yatri of 1990 into a paler version of Vajpayee.
Irrespective of who beats whom in the race, the fact that no one in the BJP is talking about building the temple any more means the party has realized that the pseudo-religious card it played during and after Advani's first rath yatra has no place in what will probably be his last.
Writer is a political analyst.