"I find him so cute," my friend said when Bal Thackeray commented just before Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari's visit to Ajmer Sharif that his prayers at the sufi shrine will not be answered. "Well Thackeray presumes Allah - and never mind either God or even bhagwan -- will listen to his own prayers about not answering Zardari's prayers!" I retorted rather tartly.
"Hey, even I am no supporter!" my friend quickly retreated. "But sometimes, when he is not inciting violence, his bombast can be harmless but yet it finds its mark. I don't think anyone, least of all Zardari, cares about what Thackeray says anymore. But was that statement not aimed at bringing to mind Pakistan's role in terrorism on Indian soil?"
So a tiger without teeth or nails Thackeray might well now be. But I remember the time, when I was doing a mid-career course for journalists in Paris in the 1990s, how the lone Pakistani in my batch eyed me with suspicion and almost shrank from me when I was introduced to him as hailing, well, not just from India but also from Bombay.
We ended up being best of friends later (ganging up against the `common enemy' (Americans -- who else -- and Europeans on the course), chatting away with each other in a very sub-continental mix of Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi throughout the day (even our Sri Lankan colleague could not pick up on that chatter), making ours a very exclusive club of just two or three (our Nepali colleague happily included). It was then that he confessed he had been sorely disappointed to see my name on the institute's list. ``I prayed that you wouldn't be able to make it. I was dreading a whole year of you.''
"Well, your prayer was obviously not answered!" Asked why he should ever have demonised me so, he said, "Well you come from Bal Thackeray's city, don't you?"
"But you are nothing like him."
"Have you met him, then?" I asked, now thoroughly confused.
"No. But he is the most well-known Indian in Pakistan and the most hated, apart from your defence analyst K Subrahmanyam, that is."
As he told me, every statement of Thackeray's was dutifully reported in Pakistan and they took his anti-Muslim rhetoric very seriously indeed.
"You are right about him being anti-Pakistan. But he has some very personal reasons for not being wholly anti-Muslim. He blows hot and cold over Indian Muslims; it's like a love-hate relationship with them," I said. But my colleague couldn't quite understand.
I do not know how much of Thackeray's latest bluster against Zardari was reported either in Pakistan or even in New Delhi. However, as I surfed the news channels on Sunday, I caught, in passing, one commentator say that India and Pakistan should not allow "elements like Hafiz Saeed or even the Shiv Sena" to derail the peace process between us and also deal with the two appropriately.
I am no votary of Thackeray but a critic of his in no uncertain terms. But even I was rather taken aback to see his name being mentioned in the same breath as that of the wanted Pakistani terrorist.
Pakistan might have no evidence against Saeed's anti-India activities and we might have plenty against Thackeray's anti-social ones. But, I believe that still does not make the Shiv Sena a terrorist organisation of any kind. I would never have believed that I would, one day, rise to the defence of the Sena supremo but that `expert' on TV needs to be told that Shiv Sainiks are just a bunch of rabble-rousers who, when they sense opportunities to their advantage, grab it -- not just with both hands but also with both feet and legs. Yes, beating up and kicking people around is all that they can do - ask them to mount a terrorist attack like 26/11 (or even fight at the frontiers, as ex-supercop Julio Ribeiro will tell you) and they will chicken out at the very thought.
Bullies all, they may say boo to a goose but they will run from bullets and bombs. And that is what my friend had meant: Thackeray, simply, still has a lot of nuisance value. That's all.
However, Balasaheb ought to know by now: Zaradari went to Ajmer not to supplicate but to thank God. For a prayer already answered. Hmmm?