A leader in his labyrinth

Print edition : September 02, 2000

An increasingly hostile political ally and the prospect of tough battles on the legal front have heightened the predicament of Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena.

ONLY a few weeks ago, images of a triumphant Bal Thackeray were on the front pages of the newspapers. As he walked out of the court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate B.P. Kamble on June 25, the Shiv Sena chief must have felt that his centrality in Maharashtra politics was beyond assault. But the magistrate's decision to terminate criminal proceedings against Thackeray has proved just a temporary reprieve. Now under pressure not just from the legal system but parties of his own coalition, the S hiv Sena chief has never been as vulnerable as he is now. It is almost as if Thackeray's life has indeed come to resemble that of a character in a Salman Rushdie novel: as if the colours of the June photographs have faded overnight, into a worn sepia tin t.

Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray announces the formation of a party-run trust for former soldiers headed by Lieutenant-General (retired) P.N. Hoon (right), the former Western Army Commander, in Mumbai on August 16.-VIVEK BENDRE

Oddly enough, the Shiv Sena's friends have been in the forefront of efforts to bring about its demise. On August 20, Bharatiya Janata Party leader and former Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde turned a public rally at Kalyan into a platform to launch an extraordinary attack on the Sena from the Hindu Right. Munde complained bitterly that the Sena had chosen not to participate in a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)-sponsored strike to protest the August 1 killings of Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir. "Weren't the Hindus killed by militants at Amarnath our brethren," he asked, "or does the Hinduism of the Shiv Sena only surface when their chief is being arrested?" "Ours," Munde told party workers at the rally, "is not opportunist Hindutva, for unlike the Sena, we have stuck with this ideology even in bad times."

Munde's charges, coupled with the promise that the BJP would fight alone in civic elections scheduled for September 17, stung the Sena. Even more galling was the fact that the BJP had succeeded in ensuring a bandh on a respectable scale on August 3 despi te the Sena's decision not to participate in it. The bandh's success in Mumbai, a traditional Sena stronghold, had underlined the decline in the organisation's credibility even among its core constituency. Clearly, Thackeray's arrest had done little to r evive its fortunes. The Sena's decision not to participate in the bandh was, sources say, based on legal advice. Sena advisers had argued that defiance of a Supreme Court judgments against participation in enforced bandhs could aggravate Thackeray's situ ation vis-a-vis the judiciary.

Given Munde's record of hostility to the Sena, his remarks in Kalyan might under other circumstances have been attributed to purely personal factors. What became clear at the Kalyan rally is that the former Deputy Chief Minister's sentiments are widely s hared in the BJP. Senior party leader Ram Kapse, whose speech preceded Munde's, reminded his audience that the Sena had failed to implement the promises it had made in its 1995 election manifesto. "Who," he asked, "will vote for a party which has failed miserably on every count?" The party's State vice-president Rajaram Salwi was enthused enough by these sentiments to attack his own colleagues. "We were given promises." he said, "but nothing was done for the sons of the soil." "The people," Salwi concl uded, "expected better from the BJP."

IT is increasingly clear that the relationship between the Sena and the BJP has reached breaking point. The BJP seems clear that it wants an independent political presence in Maharashtra, an aspiration that its new State president Pandurang Phundkar has expressed through the slogan shat pratishat Bhajpa (cent per cent BJP). The slogan had its origins at a meeting held in late June, when top BJP leaders had met to discuss their approach towards the Sena. While then-BJP president Kushabhau Thakre i s believed to have argued for a pragmatic relationship, Munde and his mentor Pramod Mahajan, the Union Information Technology Minister, opposed this line. Both asserted that the BJP's long-term prospects in Maharashtra, and its ambition of coming to powe r in New Delhi unencumbered by coalition allies, were contingent on the party becoming the sole representative of the Hindu Right.

Unfortunately for the Sena, it is simply no position to respond to the BJP's unconcealed predatory intentions. The Sena's lack of options became clear to its leadership in the build-up to Thackeray's arrest, when their supremo ordered the party's represe ntatives in the Union Council of Ministers to submit their resignations. Although the BJP's central leadership did little of substance as a consequence to aid the Shiv Sena chief, Thackeray chose not to force the issue. Mahajan, sources say, bluntly told the Sena supremo that if he persisted with an adversarial posture, he would find two governments, not just one, determined to bring about his downfall. Now, with the Maharashtra government having won the second round of the legal battle to prosecute Tha ckeray, the Sena's options are even more limited.

On August 8, the Bombay High Court admitted a petition seeking a review of Additional Metropolitan Magistrate Kamble's order throwing out charges filed against Thackeray. Thackeray and two associates had been prosecuted for inciting communal hatred throu gh articles and editorials published in the Shiv Sena newspaper Saamna during the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993. High Court Judge Vishnu Sahai left little doubt about what he thought about the Magistrate's controversial order. Kamble's decision to thr ow out the case, he said, had been made "in indecent haste". The order itself he described as "improper". In his oral remarks Justice Sahai said the Magistrate had "misconstrued" the word "cognisance" as it figured in the Indian Penal Code. The Magistrat e's contention that the prosecution was barred by the statute of limitations, Justice Sahai suggested, defied the plain language of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Although Justice Sahai did not commit his observations to paper saying that he did not wish to prejudge the case, the tone of his comments left few people in any doubt about the import of his remarks. It is not yet clear, however, when arguments on the i ssue will finally be heard in the Bombay High Court. Justice Sahai declined to grant a stay on the implementation of the magistrate's order, on the grounds that Thackeray's counsel were not present in court. Nor did he agree to expedite the hearing of ar guments. The Maharashtra government has, however, been given permission to appeal to the Chief Justice of the High Court for expedited hearings, a move officials say they are considering. The Shiv Sena counsel Adik Shirodkar attempted, however, to put on a brave face, arguing that the High Court order had "no effect on us". The admission of the State government's review petition, he said, was "a necessary part of the process".

Legal observers say that given the political stakes in the case, the High Court's final decision is almost certain to be challenged in the Supreme Court. And that is precisely the Sena's real problem. Ongoing hearings there on the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry could also lead to fresh cases being filed against Thackeray. Over a dozen criminal cases against the Shiv Sena chief had been withdrawn in the face of widespread criticism, by the government which took power in 1995. All of them a re at least as serious as the twin cases for which Thackeray was arrested on June 25. Proceedings in the Justice R.S. Librehan Commission of Inquiry, which is investigating the demolition of the Babri Masjid, could also prove a future threat to the Sena chief, who had publicly claimed that the outrage was authored by his party cadre on his express instructions.

WORST of all for the Shiv Sena chief, the BJP's rebellion appears to have shut down his sole route of escape, a political coup that would bring down the Lokshahi Aghadi (Democratic Front) Government. In the wake of his legal triumph of June 25, Thackeray had proclaimed that the overthrow of the Lokshahi Aghadi was imminent. His recent pronouncements have been more guarded. At an August 16 press conference, Thackeray would only say that "the rains have been good; the crops have come out; we are hoping fo r a good harvest". The press conference was held to announce the formation of a Shiv Sena trust for soldiers, headed by Lieutenant-General (retired) P.N. Hoon. Thackeray refused to say whether non-Hindu soldiers would be benefited by the trust. And Hoon, who retired as Western Army Commander, was unable to name its trustees.

Hoon's desperate recruitment to the Shiv Sena's cause was an ill-concealed effort to shore up its Hindutva credentials in the wake of the August 4 bandh debacle. In fact, the Sena's chances of reaping any harvest larger than the services of a retired Gen eral are minimal. The organisation's sole real source of support within the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has been former Maharashtra Chief Minister Sudhakarrao Naik, who has been campaigning energetically for the removal of Deputy Chief Minister Chha gan Bhujbal from office. But Naik simply does not appear to command the numbers needed to bring about a split within the NCP, and has publicly said he wishes to see the Lokshahi Aghadi finish its term. Some of his supporters have in recent weeks been spe aking of the possibility of setting up a new party, the Maharashtrawadi Congress, a sign they simply do not have much influence within the NCP.

None of this is to suggest that Bhujbal is without his own problems. Some senior figures within the NCP, notably the dissidents grouped around Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, have been campaigning energetically for his removal ever since the early failure of the effort to prosecute Thackeray. NCP chief and former Union Minister Sharad Pawar is known to have been more than a little unhappy about the prosecution move from the outset. Interestingly, Bhujbal's name was missing from the August issue of the NCP's hou se magazine, the Rashtravadi, as well as invitation cards issued for a function where the journal was released. Opinion is divided on whether the omission of Bhujbal's name was by accident or design, but the fact that it occurred has provoked more than a little speculation. At the same time, Bhujbal's decision to prosecute Thackeray has won him not a few friends among the more avowedly secular elements in the NCP and the Congress(I), the Lokshahi Aghadi's largest constituents.

Most important, however, is the fact that the BJP's postures in Kalyan suggest it has no interest whatsoever in bringing down the Lokshahi Aghadi. Any accommodation with Thackeray at a point when the Sena is arguably at its weakest would put a summary en d to the shat pratishat programme, thus ending the BJP's ambitions to secure an independent platform for itself in Maharashtra. Having seen the poor mass response to Thackeray's arrest, and the public disgust with the Sena's threats to make Mumbai burn, BJP leaders sense a real opportunity to emerge as representatives of a less lumpen, more refined Hindutva. And while some elements in the BJP have in the past suggested the prospect of a BJP-NCP alignment, their numbers in the Assembly, coupled wi th the anti-BJP postures of Lokshahi Aghadi constituents like the Samajwadi Party, simply do not make such an arrangement workable.

The predicament of Mumbai's self-proclaimed tiger, then, perhaps more closely resembles that of a hare with the hounds closing in. And though the pack itself is riven by dissension and contradictions, it shows no sign of losing scent of its prey.

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