The only time that I met Bal Thackeray was about 13 years ago when he hosted a press conference at his home, Matoshree, which is a large unremarkable building with the ominous charm of a godfather in residence. About 50 journalists waited in a room. I had newly arrived from Madras and was enjoying a nice warm fear in my stomach. He was among the most powerful men in the country then and his power was a perceptible sort of power. When Thackeray appeared, some rose to their feet but many remained seated, which was a shock to me. He sat on a throne and surveyed us. Two women in front of me kept chatting. He pointed to them and said they had no manners. One of the women, probably frightened by Thackeray addressing her directly, started yelling at him accusing him of not knowing how to speak to a woman. He looked around embarrassed and helpless, and tried to mask it with a manly grin, exactly the face of my father when defeated by my mother. That was my first impression of Bal Thackeray—a man disoriented by the rebuke of a woman (who reached home safely, too).
Despite that experience, I believe that his power is real and even enduring. He is partly a consequence of the incompetence of the state Congress. But Thackeray’s power is also a result of his ability to voice his childish grouses that excite a vast majority. He sets the level of a debate so low that you have to digress entirely from the issue to sound intelligent to yourself. Most often, his foes get trapped beneath the low bar. This was evident when Thackeray abused Shah Rukh Khan for saying kind things about Pakistani cricketers. It was an insignificant issue but Thackeray had cast India’s top actor in his scheme and everybody fell for it. We fell for it when we started angrily defending Shah Rukh, praising his courage for something that should not ideally need any courage at all.
Rahul Gandhi, too, fell for it when he made that juvenile statement about how the National Security Guards who defended Mumbai during the November terror were from different parts of the country. Instead of stating the obvious and sounding like the anti-matter of the Shiv Sena, Gandhi would have seemed wiser if he had promised that in the state which is run by his party (along with the NCP) people who break the law will not be provided security.
It is extremely obscene for our government to provide security to men who do not follow the law. People in hotels, trains and railway stations are killed by terrorists because they are easier to kill. Terrorists would find it harder to kill politicians, as they discovered when they attacked the Parliament. In fact, that is partly the reason why ordinary people are killed—because politicians are harder to blow up. We can grudgingly accept that the lives of some men are more important to the state than ours, but it is outrageous that while we are exposed every day, criminals are given protection. Rahul Gandhi could have made that point but Thackeray had him where he wanted the prince.
English-speaking people are now telling each other, “Mumbai belongs to all Indians.” Some are fantasising about a day when Mumbai would become a union territory, a wish as imbecilic as our other great aspiration—The Benign Dictator. The Sena and the MNS have once again made us talk like them.
The first man ever to say, “Mumbai belongs to all Indians” was Raj Thackeray. When he created the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) and aspired to distinguish himself from his mother ship, he spoke to a Marathi channel and said things like, “If you build a bridge, can you say only Maharashtrians can use it?” A few political shocks later, his song changed. So, the point is, we are aware that the Sena and MNS do not always know what they are talking about, yet we can’t help replying to them. That amuses them.
Ironically, the most intelligent things I have ever heard from a Maharashtrian politician have come from Bal Thackeray’s editorials in Saamna. He once said that people who want politicians to do good work are naïve because they have no idea how difficult it is to do good work. He said Shiv Sena does not have a single competent person who can turn things around. He implied it was easier to be just a loathsome politician than to be a reformer. Other days he makes us bark.