Decades before I finally met Dr Ramesh Prabhoo – when I was researching for my book on Bal Thackeray – I had some second-hand experience of his humility. A rather young and brazen colleague, who just recently became a journalist, thought he could hold the then Mayor personally responsible for a pile of garbage gathering a stink before his house.
I was horrified when I heard his side of the conversation on the phone. He had called up Dr Prabhoo on his personal line and said “If that garbage does not disappear within two days, I will have to report it.’’
Chhagan Bhujbal had just preceded Dr Prabhoo in that office and I was sure, in typical Shiv Sena style, my young colleague would get a blasting earful. But the Mayor was humble and polite in offering to look into the matter personally. My colleague thought he had scared the Sena leader. But whoever was personally acquainted with Dr Prabhoo would know that his was not the typical Shiv Sena style of brash arrogance. In fact, Dr Prabhoo was the antithesis of everything that was the Shiv Sena at the peak of its powers in the 1980s. He was humble, understated, an educated achiever (he was a medical professional), hailing from a family of Congressmen (his father-in-law was the governor of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana around the same time that he was getting noticed in the Shiv Sena).
This unlikely Shiv Sainik was personal physician to Bal Thackeray from the 1970s to when they fell out in 2004 -- and that falling out was the result of a betrayal by the party of a man who had stood by Thackeray through thick and thin and also offered himself up as the sacrificial lamb for Thackeray’s experimentation with Hindutva. At the 1987 by-election to the Assembly from Vile Parle, Dr Prabhoo did not say much but Thackeray at his campaign made the defining, and definitive, shift from region to religion.The defeated Congress candidate went to court and, a decade later, Dr Prabhoo ended up as the first person, along with Thackeray, in independent India to be disenfranchised and barred from contesting elections for six years for having based his by-election on religion. That ruined his career.
For by the time the ban was lifted, Uddhav Thackeray had grown in influence within the party. Balasaheb had promised a ticket to his personal doctor the moment he became eligible again but Uddhav would have none of it. And here we saw a retaliatory streak emerge in this quiet self effacing man – he contested as a rebel and ensured the defeat of the official Sena candidate, refusing to withdraw despite several appeals by Bal Thackeray.
Many years later, I was surprised to hear the note of quiet requital in his voice as he told me, “I did not win. But I made sure the Shiv Sena did not win either.’’
I would have thought he would have been full of bitterness about Thackeray but when I asked him what had attracted him to a party like the Shiv Sena in the 1960s – the party then was goonish and full of lumpen elements – his face lit up like a thousand candles as he said just two words “Bal Thackeray.’’
I failed to understand how he could have reconciled the violence that defined the Shiv Sena in those days with his Hippocratic oath of saving lives. But then, there was the streak of quiet defiance in the good doctor who went out to save the lives of tens of Muslims in his constituency, even as his party was targeting members of that community during the 1992-93 Bombay riots.
Before joining Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Dr Prabhoo had briefly joined Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party. It would have been the right party for a man of his considerable intellect. But as he told me then, “Have you taken a look at that party lately? Every one there is a leader. No one is a worker. No one wants to build the party but every one of those leaders wants to become the next chief minister.’’
That quite encapsulates what the the NCP is even today. But then Dr Prabhoo never wanted to be the chief minister. All he ever wanted was for the Sena to honour Thackeray’s promise. And for the Thackerays to acknowledge his sacrifice of a lifetime – in his lifetime. It was a wish destined to remain unfulfilled.