On a sticky wicket

Print edition : December 05, 1998

The Shiv Sena-BJP has suspended the cricket battle, but there are reasons to believe that the war within the alliance will go on.

THE sectarian battle between the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party in Maharashtra has the trappings of a medieval feud. Only, the icon at the centre of the battle of these alliance partners is wholly modern. Last fortnight's showdown between the Shiv Sena and the BJP over an India-Pakistan cricket match in Mumbai was driven by the need of both parties to consolidate their fragile constituencies. Preceded by disputes over issues ranging from the singing of Vande Mataram to housing projects for slum-dwellers and electricity pricing, the Shiv Sena-BJP cricket war suggests that both parties have given up hope of retaining power after the next Assembly elections and seek only to salvage what they can find amidst the debris of their disintegrating alliance.

Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray's resurrection of the Pakistan cricket team as the party's favourite ogre came at the inauguration of a tiger safari at the Borivali National Park in suburban Mumbai. Asked by reporters about BJP Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde's guarantee of safety for an India-Pakistan match in Mumbai, which is part of a planned three-Test series in January, Thackeray responded with a characteristic display of machismo. "Staunch Hindus," he said, "should boycott the Pakistan team." "How," he demanded to know, "can they be allowed to play here when thousands of innocent Hindus are being massacred in Jammu and Kashmir?" "Do not allow the feet of Pakistani cricketers to touch your sacred land." "This is my Government," Thackeray concluded. "My intentions are clear, and I do not worry about consequences."

It is hard to say just what embarrassed the BJP more: Thackeray's assertion that the Shiv Sena-BJP Government was his alone, or his perhaps inadvertent but certainly hysterical assault on Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's Kashmir policy.

In any event, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee responded sharply to Thackeray's statement. No individual or organisation, he told journalists during an election meeting in Jaipur, would be allowed to obstruct the Pakistan team. Advani, for his part, expressed his opposition to the "linking of politics and sport". This may have been news to Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) supporters who routinely chant religious slogans at India-Pakistan matches, but Advani's statement was backed by a promise to discuss the Mumbai cricket match with Munde.

Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray.-VIVEK BENDRE

The statements of the BJP leaders pushed Thackeray to near apoplexy. "I am glad at the Prime Minister's statement," he said, attempting sarcasm. "Pakistanis would now improve their behaviour, stop massacres in Jammu and Kashmir by their extremists and the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) agents would go back to Lahore and Karachi." "Vajpayee's statement," he continued, "would no doubt make absconding underworld don Dawood Ibrahim feel repentant and ashamed that he sent arms, ammunition and even RDX (research department explosive) to India." Thackeray was perhaps referring to a recovery of three assault rifles, ammunition and hand grenades by the Mumbai Police earlier that day, part of a consignment sent by Dawood Ibrahim to the Shekadi and Dighi ports in Raigad shortly before the serial bombings of March 1993.

Thackeray then raised the stakes beyond rhetorical abuse. After Defence Minister George Fernandes described the Shiv Sena boss, on the basis of a 40-year acquaintance, as "one who could say one thing in the morning and another in the evening," Thackeray told a television interviewer that the issue was important enough for him to bring the alliance down. "I am not prepared to change my stand," he said flatly. "The Pakistani cricketers will not be allowed to play at any cost in Maharashtra." "Now it is for the BJP to decide," he concluded, "whether it would like to continue with the alliance or not." "The ball is in their court, not in our court. We are waiting to see which way they will retaliate; if they want to break it, let them break it. If they do not, then good. If the worst comes to the worst, we are prepared for anything."

Shiv Sena apparatchiks rapidly joined the chorus. Party officials let it be known that a meeting to discuss the issue held by Uddhav Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief's nephew and possible heir, had concluded that the BJP was pro-Muslim.

Munde's reiteration of his party's stand the previous evening in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, was characterised as proof of the BJP's betrayal of Hindutva. The Deputy Chief Minister, who holds the Home portfolio and is therefore responsible for law and order, asserted that he would ensure full security for the Pakistan team in Mumbai. "Sports, music and arts," he said echoing Advani, "should be free from political ill-will and must not be viewed from a religious or caste angle." Significantly, Munde had earlier ordered police deployments outside Shiv Sena offices in Mumbai shortly before the release of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission Report, pre-empting possible rioting.

IN the event, George Fernandes' assessment of Thackeray was proved correct. It took Thackeray less than 24 hours to back down from his threat to bring down the Government. He did not, the Shiv Sena chief told yet another television news channel, want to destroy the alliance with the BJP. Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, who is the vice-president of the Maharashtra Cricket Association, promptly took the cue. There was no threat to the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, he said, for the simple reason that the Pakistanis would not come to Mumbai following Thackeray's warnings. Munde and BJP national spokesperson M. Venkaiah Naidu, for their part, remained guarded on the issue, telling reporters that while the alliance intact, the Prime Minister's position on the cricket tour was final.

Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde.-VIVEK BENDRE

However, the ceasefire attempt of November 24 proved abortive. While the Shiv Sena had signalled its commitment not to bring down the Government, its principal task of proving to its constituency that it was the true representative of Hindutva remained incomplete. The issue now went to the streets. On November 25, a mob of Shiv Sena workers, led by the party's leader in the Lok Sabha, Madhukar Sarpotdar, conducted a hanging of an effigy representing Hindutva at Juhu beach. The demonstration was extraordinary, in that it was the first time that Shiv Sena-BJP tensions had emerged from behind ministerial doors and on to the streets. Sarpotdar explained that the procession had become necessary because "if the Pakistanis are allowed to come, it means Hindutva is dead." The BJP, he said, supported the tour "only because of the Assembly elections". The BJP's Maharashtra-level response was predictable. A visibly angry Suryabhan Wahadane, State BJP president, asked the BJP to "either accept the alliance or leave it now". He was followed in quick time by BJP national president Kushabhau Thakre, who described the Shiv Sena's efforts to appropriate the "nationalist" Vande Mataram platform as absurd.

At BJP meetings held to discuss the issue, sources told Frontline, the debate was polarised between Munde and top party trouble-shooter Pramod Mahajan. Mahajan, the architect of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, argued that the continuation of the alliance was essential for the BJP's survival in New Delhi, particularly given the possibility of serious electoral losses in the North.

At the Delhi demonstration, Shiv Sena "warriors" on their modern "chariot".-RAJEEV BHATT

Munde's counter-argument was that succumbing to blackmail was costing the party the support of its own constituents. After a bitter debate, Munde's line won. Wahadane's two-page statement reflected the emerging adversarial consensus in the BJP. The Shiv Sena, the statement read, had no business criticising the BJP on the Vande Mataram issue, for the Shiv Sena's meetings had never used the song. The note reminded the Shiv Sena that some years ago it had contested the Mumbai Mayor's election in alliance with the Muslim League, in order to appease the minority community."The people have entrusted power to the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance," the note concluded. "But the BJP alone is not obliged to retain the alliance. Partners of an alliance have to behave in an understanding manner. The BJP has always taken such a stand. This should not be misconstrued as weakness by the Shiv Sena, which is free to take its own decisions."

Thackeray, seeing Munde's ascendancy, now called for peace. "I am fed up and ashamed," he reportedly said in response to Wahadane's note. Referring to the note's assertion that the metaphorical ball was in the Shiv Sena's court, the party pramukh was unusually conciliatory. "Let us throw away the ball and retain the rackets so that there will not be any question of who tossed the ball in whose court," he said. Thackeray was doubtless sensitive to the singular lack of support his cricket foray had received in New Delhi, with no BJP leader bar Union Law Minister Ram Jethmalani defending his position. For the moment, the matter rests there. As with past BJP-Shiv Sena confrontations, the verbal duel has given way to something of an undeclared truce. But there are good reasons to believe that the peace will not last long, even if the next casus belli may not be a cricket match.

THE real reasons for Thackeray's aggressive Hindutva posturing lie in the dismal failure of the "Saffron Week" in October, an initiative launched to hold the Shiv Sena's rural cadres together. Although Chief Minister Joshi, along with Raj Thackeray and Uddhav Thackeray, personally presided over the enterprise, plans to set up an office in every village in Maharashtra and expand the Shiv Sena's formal membership collapsed.

A Shiv Sena demonstration in New Delhi on November 27 against Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's endorsement of the Pakistan cricket team's proposed visit to India.-RAJEEV BHATT

Aggressive Hindutva consolidation offers one way out of the present difficulties. But the State's BJP leadership is aware that this would jeopardise its efforts to project the party as a responsible party of governance.

The Congress(I) is delighted by the developments. Party heavyweight Sharad Pawar gleefully points to Thackeray's waning influence."First he says he will not allow the Pakistan team to enter India, then he says he will not let them enter Mumbai, and finally he will say they will not be allowed to play in Bandra (Thackeray's neighbourhood)."

Ganesh Naik, who was dropped from the Ministry and who claims the support of 22 independent MLAs now supporting the Government, is scheduled to float a new party ahead of the next Assembly session in Nagpur in December. Should his claims be correct, the Congress(I) could well have a stab at power in the State before election time. When that happens, it is evident, neither the Shiv Sena or the BJP will wish to drown in each other's embrace.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor