The Congress is the best friend of the Thackerays

By forcing Mumbai University's vice-chancellor to withdraw the Canada-based Parsi author Rohinton Mistry's book, "Such A Long Journey", from the syllabus, the young man has shown that he is a true inheritor of the family's hallmark of pettiness and insularity.
Those who believe that young people with fresh minds and new ideals are the
harbingers of change will be disappointed. But when a family functions like a mafia outfit, as the two Bollywood films on the Thackerays - "Sarkar" and "Sarkar Raj" - showed, then the claustrophobic atmosphere of small-minded chauvinism infects whoever is associated with it.

The urge for a new beginning is perhaps also negated by the fact that the Thackerays - Balasaheb, his son Uddhav, nephew Raj (who has formed his own party) and Aditya - have faced almost no major obstacles in their pursuit of aggressive policies directed mainly at the immigrants in Mumbai.

Right from 1966, when Balasaheb founded the Shiv Sena, his cadres have had an unchecked run of intimidation and even assault on "outsiders" for - in the Sena's view - depriving local Marathis of their livelihood.

There are two reasons why the state government's response to their violence has only been in fits and starts and has never caused any serious discomfort to the Thackerays for breaking the law. One is that the ruling parties like the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which are in power at present, have tended to use the Sainiks for their own political advantage.

For instance, the Congress used them in the 1960s and 1970s against communist trade unions. As a result, the Left has hardly any presence in the state today although Mumbai could once boast of being the home of a leader like S.A. Dange, the Communist Party of India's chairman. Similarly, the socialists, too, have been weakened although they had in their ranks prominent individuals like Madhu Dandavate and Mrinal Gore.

What the Congress could not always do on its own to safeguard its reputation, it achieved by utilising the streetfighting capabilities of a fascist outfit like the Sena. Although the latter outgrew its usefulness for the Congress and became something of a Frankenstein's monster, it never posed a serious political challenge because of its narrow base comprising mainly the Marathi urban lower middle class.

The second reason why the Thackerays have thrived is that despite the limited nature of their base, it is still a constituency which the ruling parties cannot ignore or afford to antagonise by entangling the family in legal difficulties. Only a charismatic, high-minded leader of obvious popularity could have reminded the pro-Thackeray elements about the damage they are inflicting on Maharashtra's image by their intense provincialism. But neither the Congress nor the NCP has such a leader in their ranks.

This deficiency of the major parties explains why the chief minister lost no time in endorsing the Shiv Sena's stance on Mistry's book by calling it "objectionable". Although a Congress spokesman in New Delhi timidly decried such "censorship", both the party in Maharashtra and the state government know that their essentially pro-Shiv Sena line is in no danger because of electoral compulsions.

These stem not only from the need to keep the Marathi manoos (people) in good humour but also from the fact that keeping both the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) - which is Raj Thackeray's outfit - politically viable helps the ruling parties by dividing the parochial vote between the two parties.

But even as the Congress and the NCP play their opportunistic games with the Shiv Sena and the MNS, there is little doubt that Maharashtra's reputation is taking a beating. After the latest incident, for instance, few will regard the chief minister as a man of education and discernment or Mumbai University as a haven for academics.

That there are no fundamental differences between the apparently secular and liberal Congress and the sub-nationalism of the Thackeray outfits is evident from the ease with which the former has accepted defectors from the Shiv Sena like Narayan Rane and Sanjay Nirupam. The NCP too has accommodated Chhagan Bhujbal who had once - when he was a Sainik -  said that the statues of Mahatma Gandhi would be replaced by those of his assassin, Nathuram Godse.

Given the bonhomie between the guardians of law and order and the lawless elements, it is hardly surprising that despite the Supreme Court's lifting of the ban on James W. Laine's biography of Shivaji, the state government has done nothing to ensure that the bookshops can sell its copies. One can expect a similar reluctance on the part of the authorities to assure the shops that selling Mistry's book is safe. For all its protestations, the Congress is the best friend of the Thackerays.

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