A Thackeray act

Published : Feb 29, 2008 00:00 IST

At Shivaji Park in Mumbai on February 3, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena activists attack a Samajwadi Party worker.-VIJAYANAND GUPTA, HINDUSTAN TIMES/AP

At Shivaji Park in Mumbai on February 3, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena activists attack a Samajwadi Party worker.-VIJAYANAND GUPTA, HINDUSTAN TIMES/AP

The violence in Mumbai by supporters of Raj Thackeray exposes his real agenda as opposed to the promises he had made.

At Shivaji Park

THE violence indulged in by Raj Thackerays Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in Mumbai in the first week of February is being seen as a curtain-raiser to the Assembly elections scheduled for early next year in Maharashtra. It will be his first Assembly election without the backing of the Shiv Sena, but the former Shiv Sainik and heir-hopeful to Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray does not seem to be intimidated by it.

Raj Thackerays party, which he launched in March 2006, tasted electoral success last year in Corporation elections in seven municipalities, with creditable victories. MNS representatives won seats in the Mumbai, Thane, Ulhasnagar, Pune, Akola, Nagpur and Nasik Municipal Corporations. The question now is: Can Raj Thackeray sustain it? The answer, at the present time, seems to be veering more towards the negative.

On February 3, when the United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA) had organised a rally at Shivaji Park in the Dadar area of central Mumbai, MNS activists clashed with Samajwadi Party supporters close to the venue. The actual reason for the clash remains unknown, though the aim seems to have been to disrupt the rally. Top leaders of the UNPA, including Samajwadi Party chief and the groups chairman Mulayam Singh Yadav, were scheduled to speak.

In a preventive measure, the police detained some of the activists. Meanwhile, others gathered at various points in Dadar and threw stones at taxis and shouted slogans against North Indians. A motorcycle-riding duo was reported to have hurled glass bottles at actor Amitabh Bachchans home even as they sped past it. Raj Thackeray had earlier spoken about Amitabh Bachchans bias for Uttar Pradesh although he was a resident of Mumbai.

For five days after the Shivaji Park rally, there were sporadic incidents in Mumbai, in which 40 taxis were damaged, taxi-drivers were assaulted, and the office of the taxi-mens union and a garment shop were attacked. A total of 250 people from the MNS and the Samajwadi Party were arrested on charges of violence.

The violence and tension caused by the MNS are being seen as having exposed Raj Thackerays political immaturity. It is said that about 200 members of his party returned to the Shiv Sena within three days of the street violence. They apparently believe that he has bitten off more than he can chew and backtracked on the promises he made when the MNS was launched.

Worse still, from the point of view of the MNS and Raj Thackeray himself, is the perception that he is a confused leader. By choosing to attack North Indians, Raj Thackeray reinforced the very link between him and the Shiv Sena that he sought to break with his party.

At the launch of the MNS, Raj Thackeray, intent on proving himself as a leader in his own right, projected a brand of politics that was considered refreshing. In his speech, he spoke of farmers right to electricity and irrigation, of providing employment and filling empty bellies, of assuring the safety of women and of Dalit rights and citizens rights. He even broke his own idols by questioning the Shiv Senas obsession with renaming everything after Chhatrapati Shivaji.

For Raj Thackeray, the MNS was a way of stepping away from the urban mould of the Shiv Sena and also projecting himself as a thinking, peoples politician. While Marathi pride was evident in his speech, it was not to be at the cost of non-Maharashtrians. He spoke of building Maharashtra and encouraged Maharashtrians to emulate the work ethics of other more entrepreneurial communities.

Although he likes to think of the MNS as a separate party, which it officially is, the public perception of the MNS as well as the core of the party are essentially Shiv Sena. Given Raj Thackerays political education and personal background it is impossible for the party to have been otherwise. Despite breaking away from his uncle Bal Thackerays party, he has, through the events in February, proved that he adheres to the basic tenets of the Shiv Sena.

At the launch of his party, Raj Thackeray gave the impression that he had learnt from the Shiv Senas mistakes and would avoid the pitfalls of that party. But the MNS recent actions are a pointer to the fact that he prefers to stick to his Shiv Sena training of political opportunism.

The Shiv Sena started off as a pro-Maharashtrian party. While this was not meant to be an exclusive label initially, Bal Thackeray realised that he could play on public sentiment with the Marathi manus tag. This anti-outsider stratagem guided the party through its tirades against South Indians, Gujaratis and then North Indians.

Then came the Shiv Senas tie-up with the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was a move that suited both the BJP, which had very little presence in Maharashtra at that time, and the Shiv Sena, which aspired for a presence at the Centre. The new guiding light was Hindutva and the new enemy Muslims.

Soon electoral sense dawned on the Shiv Sena and it adopted a new game plan, the Mee Mumbaikar campaign, which had Mumbaikars raising their eyebrows in disbelief. It wanted to throw out regional differences and embrace all those who lived and worked in Mumbai. That facade was exposed in 2003 when Shiv Sena cadre led by Raj Thackeray attacked North Indians arriving in Mumbai to take the Railway Recruitment Boards examinations.

At present, the Shiv Sena is teetering between Hindutva and all-encompassing love for all citizens.

The MNS, through its recent actions, has shown itself to be a microcosm of the Shiv Sena and its sons of the soil policy. Why has Raj Thackeray chosen to repeat the mistakes of his mentor rather than learn from them? Some political observers say the MNS was dormant from the moment it was initiated and the morale of its supporters was beginning to ebb. With the Assembly elections drawing near, an issue was needed to rally the party. Clearly, the ideals that Raj Thackeray had outlined at the launch of the party were spiritless and too virtuous for the street fighter in him.

Raj Thackeray meets

How seriously was the violence to be taken? Judging by the extent of violence, the MNS only seemed to be making a statement. Many of the party members are former Shiv Sainiks with a history of street-fighting and, according to many political observers, they could have easily created more trouble than damaging 40 taxis, physically abusing the drivers and damaging some commercial establishments. To that extent it was political bluster and the Samajwadi Party and Amar Singh, in particular, perhaps erred in giving it the importance they did.

By denouncing the attack on Amitabh Bachchan, Bal Thackeray sent the message that his nephews actions were stupid and pointless. Further, the Shiv Sena said the violence had nothing to do with sons of the soil and was actually a plain turf battle between the MNS and the Samajwadi Party. That the Shiv Sena believes that Raj Thackeray has to fight for turf on his home ground is a reflection of the rancour that exists between him and his cousin Uddhav Thackeray.

Political observers believe that by choosing to get attention through violence Raj Thackeray may have shot himself in the foot. The son of the soil plank failed not because the average Maharashtrian or Mumbaikar has any sympathy for North Indians but because Raj Thackeray had clearly said this was not an issue for his party. By suddenly turning full circle and jumping on to the Shiv Sena bandwagon, taking up the sons of the soil issue, he may have negated the identity of his own party. His actions did not have any repercussions on the Shiv Sena-BJP combine because, as the BJP pointed out, the recent incidents were the work of the MNS, with whom it had no political tie-up. By endorsing his partymens violence Raj Thackeray may well find himself in a political vacuum.

He has a history of making and breaking promises. For instance, it is not clear what happened to the money collected for the Michael Jackson concert of 1996? This was meant to be a fund-raiser to bolster Raj Thackerays plans to give employment to Maharashtrian youth. How many were given jobs and if this was a successful campaign why does it still not continue?

The fate of the zunka bhakar scheme of the Shiv Sena, which was meant to bring cheap, nutritious, traditional food to the masses and also help small entrepreneurs, is also not known. How many of these stalls still benefit Maharashtrian entrepreneurs, and how many have been sold or are in a partnership with non-Maharashtrian entrepreneurs?

With demands for his arrest on the charge of instigating the violence, the State government was in a quandary. The immediate concern was the law and order problem that the arrest of a Thackeray could create. The family has long held the State to ransom with the threat of burning the city if a Thackeray were to be arrested and successive governments have caved in to this.

One of the election promises of the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance was to bring justice to those mentioned in the Srikrishna Commission report on the Mumbai riots of 1992-93. To do this requires immense political courage and strength that the government has so far not shown.

Arresting Raj Thackeray may prove to be a good second-best trophy. Arresting him will certainly win laurels for the Congress and the NCP from North Indian voters, and the fact that he is a Thackeray will also raise the profile of the two parties in the eyes of Muslims.

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