The Shiv Sena may be on the back foot but it is far from finished, writes Mahesh Vijapurkar.
I do not buy the argument that the Shiv Sena is in its death throes. Any suggestion that it is would be fanciful, self-serving.
But yes, it is now on the back foot.
Here are the telltale signs which the world has seen and not drawn the logical conclusions:
For one, effective policing, backed by political will, neutralised Sena's practice of street level intimidation to enforce its will. The Shah Rukh Khan film, My Name Is Khan, was screened on the opening day and thereafter, it is business as usual at all theatres, multiplexes and single screen theatres. One can watch the movie in peace without bothering about the Shiv Sainik.
Secondly, so preoccupied and frustrated was the Sena at this debacle ensured by Mumbai Police Commissioner D Shivanandan and his force that they even forgot to flog their usual anti-Valentine's Day campaign. Not a voice was raised and those who wanted to celebrate love that day did so quietly. It showed that the people can will a change in a political party.
However, it would have been useful if the people had come out openly as they do on Valentine's Day and were a bit vocal and ostentatious, for that would have been a good way of thumbing the nose at the bully. But since it fell on a Sunday, and youngsters celebrate it around colleges, it was muted. But never mind, it was unhindered, which is good. May this be the norm henceforth!
But the bully now knows his place. It went unnoticed, almost unobserved by its votaries who were intimidated by the Sena cadres by attacking shops selling Valentine's Day gifts and cards and threatening youth who express their affections more openly than the middle-aged and the elders. If only they had openly defied the Sena, one more blow would have been delivered. A mass upsurge of people flaunting red roses would have been nice and that would have made the Sena cower a bit.
It was an opportunity lost to tell the bully that it can be repeatedly humbled. The terror attack in Pune on the eve of Valentine's Day can be no excuse. Or was it that without the Sena-triggered hullabaloo, Valentine's Day passed off uneventfully for society but meaningfully for those who affirm their love on that day quietly?
Now, Bal Thackeray has said 'Let the Australians come, let the Pakistanis come' and withdrawn his order against the players from Down Under. He finds it pointless to fight the cause of patriotism, he said, for "people are not interested in such issues." This is a combination of realisation and an expression frustration at having been shown his place.
People, the Sena should realise, don't always like to be told, the point driven home with the use of muscle and of late, they have understood that politicians do things not for the common weal but to serve their own self-interest. To them, a politician is a businessman who uses votes as his capital. This suspicion seems to have come about even with regard to the Shiv Sena.
But, let me caution, it is too early exult because any political party, including and especially the Shiv Sena, is not going to give in easily and become dormant. Yes, indeed it has been on the back foot since the party split with Raj Thackeray taking away a faction with him as well as the agenda. Now it has been pushed to the wall by public opinion.
What one has to watch out for is the vehemence with which this party seeks to re-emerge as one which can indeed call the shots on the streets again, which is its alternative to the institutionalised democracy that this country believes in -- debate, discussion, consensus and then choice. Its attempts at revitalisation could be speckled with menacing violence. That is the only language and means it knows.
It has been a serious enough setback for the Sena to pull out the aging Bal Thackeray to talk directly to the cadre without the intermediation of Uddhav Thackeray, his 'thought-carrier', by using video conferencing. It would be interesting to see what issues it would raise in its bid to re-emerge strongly, for even the Marathi manoos seems a little vexed with it now.
That Marathi manoos seems sure that Mumbai would not be sliced off from Maharashtra, merger of Belgaum into Maharashtra unlikely ever and people in Vidharbha, save the discredited leaders of the region, not being very aggressive about statehood. So the causes have disappeared except for the paranoia about migrants.
It is a party with a lot at stake, catering to both the lumpen and the counter-elite whose interest it now seeks to foster. That is why it is not likely to give up easily. The entire political future of Uddhav Thackeray now depends on how he manages to revive the Sena after its loss of face. Not being able to make the people cower on the streets is a serious debacle for the Sena, more serious than the loss of parliamentary or the assembly seats. Once it is shorn of its muscle, it is without its unique selling point.
But in a true democracy, politics of the streets, the intimidation and violent retaliation and the presumption that "we are always right" have no place but till the moment people decided to come and watch the film, albeit in fewer theatres than was originally intended, it seemed as if the Sena would win again. Fortunately, it was not to be. The police managed to keep them off the streets and people who like to exercise their choice, decided to buy tickets for the film.
But it would seem the Sena is now a big blunderbuss, unable to get its act together and is writhing in agony now but my suspicion is that it would seek to return to the centrestage, which in its case is to be the bully on the streets again. The only antidote would be for the people to act and the police to be supportive but to expect that in the long term is too much. It is not everyday that a Rahul Gandhi visits Mumbai and uses subterfuges to mock the Sena. Also, there are enough of them in Bollywood to pay obeisance to the Sena warlords to escape disruption of their industry.
What is intriguing is that the entire episode against the film was said to be against Shah Rukh Khan for his view on the non-inclusion of Pakistani players in the Indian Premier League and not against the film. So to get at him, the Sena had to humble the film with him in the lead. The double standards of the party in allowing several leading lights, especially those associated with Bollywood, including Amitabh Bachchan in the Aman ki Asha programmes sponsored by a media house got scant attention.
While Shah Rukh Khan spoke of inclusion of people in a team, the other programme proclaimed fostering amity and peace with our neighbour. Perhaps the Aman ki Asha was not so visible a programme for the Thackerays to be bothered about. Whether he did or not is beside the point: to me, it was double standards. And nothing that reveals a chink in that party should be ignored till such time it mainstreams itself by conduct that is civilised and constitutional.