The saffron strategy

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

State BJP president Gopinath Munde performing maha arti during the Ganpati festival in the Mumbai suburb of Chembur, as his party colleague Kirit Somaiya (left) and the Shiv Sena's Subhash Desai watch. - SHASHI ASHIWAL

State BJP president Gopinath Munde performing maha arti during the Ganpati festival in the Mumbai suburb of Chembur, as his party colleague Kirit Somaiya (left) and the Shiv Sena's Subhash Desai watch. - SHASHI ASHIWAL

The August 25 blasts have given the Shiv Sena-BJP combine a pretext to promote its communal agenda and poll strategy through maha artis, while the State government watches in silence.

IF the Opposition parties in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena (S.S.) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), did not have a cogent election strategy for the forthcoming State Assembly polls, then the twin blasts in Mumbai on August 25 have certainly provided them with a peg.

Ever since the blasts, the S.S.-BJP combine has swung into action, attacking the ruling Democratic Front (D.F.) on every count and seizing the opportunity to foment communal tensions. The first indication of this came with Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani's perfunctory visit to the blast sites. Addressing the press and the public in the Zaveri Bazar area, dominated by the Gujarati community, he had no hesitation in pointing a finger at Pakistan and saying that "our neighbour" is not doing enough to control terrorism. As proof of its sincerity in controlling terrorism, Advani said Pakistan must hand over the 20 terrorists, including those wanted in connection with the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai.

Instead of its usual knee-jerk reaction of calling a bandh, the Shiv Sena showed a surprising degree of circumspection when its leader Bal Thackeray agreed to the State government's appeal not to call a bandh. "We cannot have serial bandhs in response to serial blasts," he said. Instead, the Sena and the BJP led a silent march, with black bands tied around the participants' mouths, from the Gateway of India to Mantralaya, the State Secretariat. Banners carried by the protesters, who included Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Bannerjee, called for a dismissal of the State government.

However, it was just a matter of time before the S.S.-BJP decided to use the blasts as an aggressive introduction to their unofficial poll campaign. The 10-day-long Ganpati festival, which began on August 31, has been co-opted for the S.S.-BJP's political campaign. Many of the 3,000-plus mandals in the city make a clear political statement, often with heavy communal undertones. Two Ganpati mandals in the Andheri-Marol region of Mumbai are replicas of the Gateway of India explosion - (complete with a taxi and dummies to represent victims) and the Zaveri Bazar blast (the replica has a mural depicting the scene of brutality). Other mandals have chosen equally provocative themes representing other blasts in the city as well as the Akshardham temple massacre in Gujarat. Amidst all this, there is one example of cross-border harmony. The Arthur Road mandal has chosen to use Noor Fatima, the Pakistani girl who underwent heart surgery in Bangalore, as an example of hope for the festive season.

Despite its initial reluctance, the Sena has chosen to join the BJP in its maha artis. According to the newly elected State BJP president Gopinath Munde, maha artis will be held all over the State to "focus attention on the Sushilkumar Shinde-Chhagan Bhujbal government that has failed in its primary task of providing security to the people".

On the second day of the Ganpati festival, September 1, the SS-BJP used a maha arti in the northern suburb of Chembur to rekindle their alliance as well as to launch a campaign against the D.F. government. The function, which came exactly a week after the twin blasts, was led by Munde and senior Shiv Sena leader Subhash Desai. A frenzied crowd of at least 3,000, mostly Sainiks and BJP supporters, greeted the two leaders who arrived together. The maha arti soon turned into a political rally with party flags outnumbering diyas, and BJP Member of Parliament Kirit Somaiya egging on the crowd with anti-terrorist slogan-shouting. Other leaders who attended the supposedly religious ceremony were city BJP president Vijay Girkar and a sprinkling of local Sena and BJP MLAs.

The political aspect of the maha arti became even more evident when Munde and Desai moved to an improvised dais that overshadowed the Ganpati idol, and appealed to the crowd not to rely on "the incompetent government, the incompetent Chief Minister (Sushilkumar Shinde) and his incompetent deputy (Chhagan Bhujbal)."

The official purpose of the maha artis, according to the organisers, is to rally people against terrorism. "It is a maha arti that everyone is invited to - Muslims, Christians, Dalits. It is for the people of Mumbai," said Munde. Both the Sena and the BJP have repeatedly said that the maha artis are not meant to intimidate the Muslim community, as had been the case after the serial bomb blasts of 1993 when this form of worship was invented by the saffron parties and used both as a political tool and as a tool of intimidation and Hindutvawadi aggression. The reason given in 1993 for the maha artis was that they were meant to draw the attention of the authorities to the traffic problems caused by Muslims attending namaz in mosques spilling out onto the roads. Ironically, the present-day maha artis disrupt traffic but they are portrayed as integral to a traditional form of worship.

The S.S.-BJP's immediate goal is the fall of the D.F. government. Indeed, both the parties need the support of the Muslim community and cannot afford to alienate it prior to the polls. Even if they fail to win over Muslim voters, they at least hope to turn them against the D.F. alliance, especially the Congress(I).

However, speeches made at the Chembur maha arti, an unusual feature, indicate something else. "Why do we have the blasts in Mumbai when the riots happened in Gujarat?" asked Desai rhetorically of the crowd. "It's because we have a weak government and Gujarat does not. The Narendra Modi government knows how to deal with terrorists while the Bhujbal government doesn't." The subtle threat in that statement shows that the Sena is for the moment a wolf in sheep's clothing.

In pursuance of its pre-poll strategy, the Shiv Sena had initially planned to use the Ganpati festival as a launch pad for its "Mee Mumbaikar" campaign. The campaign plans included themes such as education, health, sanitation and greening of the city, all with a view to inculcate a sense of pride and belonging in Mumbaikars. A brainchild of Uddhav Thackeray, the Sena's new working chief, it was ostensibly meant to revive the social consciousness that `Lokmanya' Tilak had injected into the Ganpati festival when he made it a public celebration. In the aftermath of the August 25 blasts, the themes remain the same but the emphasis has drastically changed from one promoting the idea of being a proud citizen of Mumbai to an aggressive assertion of Hinduism.

THE blasts have exposed the `wheels within wheels' situation of politics. Old political friendships and enmities have come to the fore. Bhujbal, who is also the State Home Minister, continues to be the Sena's most hated man for his defection from the party years ago. So, even though Shinde is the Chief Minister, it is Bhujbal who comes under fire for the intelligence failure in anticipating the blasts. (Besides, Shinde and Thackeray are known to have a longstanding friendship.)

Never one to miss an opportunity to hit out at his former partyman, Thackeray said, "No one wants to work under Bhujbal because he heads the most corrupt department (police) in the State." Immediately after the blasts, Shiv Sena leader and former Chief Minister Narayan Rane called for President's Rule, while Munde expressed his lack of faith in Bhujbal and the Mumbai Police and called for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry.

Intra-party tension has also surfaced, with Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) members calling for the replacement of Bhujbal. NCP President Sharad Pawar has been under considerable pressure from the Maratha lobby, which has always resented the priority Pawar has given to Bhujbal. It is unlikely that Pawar will oblige it and divest Bhujbal of the Home Department. Despite being a strong supporter of the NCP president, Bhujbal maintains excellent relations with the State Congress. He also has a large number of supporters who would follow him should he choose to defect to the Congress.

THERE is no doubt that the blasts have highlighted two failings of the D.F. government. The first is its inability to prevent the S.S.-BJP from carrying on an aggressive Hindutva campaign. Industrialist Rahul Bajaj has referred to this `inability' of the government as its inclination to appease the majority community. Unable to prevent the S.S.-BJP combine's provocative actions, the D.F. government has been left with no option but to ignore the maha artis.

Secondly, the blasts have highlighted how political interference has weakened the Mumbai Police. And Bhujbal has been blamed for this weakening. "Posts are available for a price," said a police source. "There are too many problems. Nothing moves without political patronage. It has killed the professionalism in the force. Good officers have been sidelined and many have opted to quit. Some are so disillusioned that they are emigrating."

Highlighting the inadequacies of the Mumbai Police after the blasts, the source said, "The most efficient police force cannot prevent terrorist activity, but there certainly could have been a better network of information. What would have happened if the taxi driver had not survived the Gateway blast? What leads would the police have worked on?"

Groups working to promote communal harmony have expressed apprehension about both the D.F.'s seeming inability to stop the saffron agenda as well as the politicisation of the police. But until their fears are taken seriously, the Ganpati mandals and the law-keepers remain at the disposal of political agendas.

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