Vantage point

Monday, November 16, 2009

Attacking another Marathi Icon? Really?

In the early and mid-90s, Shiv Sena's popularity and appeal was on the rise in Maharashtra. Several columnists and authors have noted with surprise how even non-Marathi Hindus in Bombay seemed to speak approvingly of what the Sena did during the 92-93 riots. They were also seen as clean, in contrast with the corruption-ridden Congress.

It all changed of course, when they came to power. Once in power, the Shiv Sena showed itself to be no different from the Congress. They made a deal with Enron, the very company that they had railed against while campaigning. There were other corruption scandals. And although the Sena did some good for the infrastructure, like building dozens of flyovers and starting the Bombay-Pune expressway project, by and large, they didn't impress the public much. By the time their term neared a close in 1999, it seemed unlikely that they would retain power.

As it happened, Vajpayee had the rug pulled from under his feet after Sonia's miscalculations. And another general election was announced, the 3rd in 3 years. All signs indicated that the NDA would gain seats. And Bal Thackeray, in what was a fairly canny move, decided to dissolve the assembly months before its term ended, so that the Vidhan Sabha elections would happen on the same day as the Lok Sabha elections. He hoped that the pro-NDA wave would help him retain power.

But as we all know, it did not happen. In one of the most fascinatingly nuanced behaviors ever displayed by an electorate in India, Maharashtra gave the BJP-SS alliance the majority of the Lok Sabha seats, but gave the Congress and NCP most of the Vidhan Sabha seats. The national media's analysis was largely spot on. The Sena failed on proper governance, indulged in corruption, and in general, seemed to have taken for granted that their reich would last a 1000 years.

There was one more element that played a significant role in the Sena's defeat, but only Marathis will remember it vividly. The Pu La Deshpande factor. Pu La Deshpande, the literary genius, a selfless and austere humanitarian, and an independent spirit, was (and continues to be after his death), something akin to a god for most Marathis. He became so loved not only because of his exemplary writing of all hues, but also because of the personal example he set - although he made millions, he donated it all to charity (and actual impactful charities, not religious ones) and lived a simple life in a small apartment. His writing and his life was an inspiration to everyone. Imagine what Tendulkar is to Indian cricket and multiply it by a factor of 1000. That is what PuLa means to Marathis.

The Shiv Sena government established an award.... I think it's name is Maharashtra Bhushan Puraskar. Basically, Maharashtra's equivalent of the Bharat Ratna. The first recipient was, duh, PuLa. In his acceptance speech, PuLa made some remarks that were mildly critical of the Shiv Sena government. Nothing too hardcore, but a rebuke nonetheless.

Bal Thackeray flipped his lid. He made some rude and uncharitable comments about PuLa, something like "jis thali mein khatey ho, usi mein chhed karte ho", the implication being that since Shiv Sena was giving him the award, PuLa should not have said anything critical about them. Now, PuLa had always been an equal opportunity critic. He called it like he saw it. During the emergency, he was at the forefront dissenting against the Congress. And when he saw the Sena making mistakes, he criticized them for it. Bal Thackeray thought this was somehow treachery.

Not only did he lambast PuLa, which was bad enough, but he also made a ridiculous comment that did not go down well with people. He said something like - "When the government decided to institute this award, they wanted me to be the first recipient. But I very generously refused and said that PuLa should be honored instead. If I wanted, I could have got that award. But instead I gave it to him. And he repays us by criticizing us?"

No matter how popular Bal Thackeray was at the peak of his popularity, it was not even close to being in the same league as PuLa's popularity. So his petulant comments earned him uniform backlash from all segments of Marathi society. And played a significant role in eroding the Shiv Sena's support, and eventually losing them the election.

Clearly, Bal Thackeray has forgotten the lessons learnt from PuLa-gate. Now he has decided to attack Sachin Tendulkar, for what are extremely benign comments, even if one was to look at them through the Sena's prism. He has declared that Sachin has hurt the marathi manoos. Hah! Bal Thackeray, after losing 3 elections in a row, the most recent one so comprehensively, does not have even the hint of an authority to speak on the behalf of the marathi manoos.

And if he has forgotten how attacking one beloved Marathi icon played a big role in Shiv Sena losing power, he will be reminded of it very soon as this ill-advised second act could play a role in precipitating the Sena's complete wipe-out in the near future.

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