The Shiv Sena is an organisation which owes its initial membership to the considerable literacy among the Marathi manoos. All that Bal Thackeray needed to provoke and urge Maharashtrians to unite against outsiders was a cartoon magazine called ‘Marmik’ and some notices in that fortnightly to swing locals towards his party.
In later years, though, Thackeray actively discouraged much reading or education among his supporters because he was afraid with that education would come a questioning mind – the same kind of mind that had questioned the presiding Congress governments in the 1960s and swung towards the Shiv Sena. Thus by the mid-1980s, the Sena supremo was a much handicapped man – his supporters were not reading at all and, if they were, the newspapers they preferred were all secular and liberal (like the Lokstatta and Maharashtra Times) which did not at all endorse Thackeray’s by then highly divisive politics.
It was not surprising then that Thackeray soon set up the `Saamna’ for a captive readership and the newspaper played a significant role during the 1992-93 riots – in fact it would not be too far-fetched to say the newspaper was eagerly awaited each morning by Shiv Sainiks awaiting further instructions from Thackeray who was not beyond publishing lies and exaggerating the extent of the violence indulged in by the opposing groups and inciting Shiv Sainiks to do their worst. He almost got arrested for his incendiary writings but then the Sena tiger was always the Big Cat with nine lives!
In later years, then, it was not surprising that Shiv Sainiks should turn back in large numbers to papers like the ‘Loksatta’ for real news and views while they continued to scan the Saamna for instructions from Thackeray for their next course of action. As party mouthpieces go, the Saamna, even if lacking in professionalism, has executed itself well over the years – during the last years of Thackeray’s lifetime it was believed that the paper’s editor, Sanjay Raut, had turned himself into an alter ego of the Sena tiger and could assess and judge exactly what Thackeray would have wanted said – even when he was under a ventilator, raging against other newspapers who reported that he was under that ventilator!
But now the newspaper has taken a delightful anti-establishment turn and is less a mouthpiece than a mirror held up to governments past and present. While it was expected that the Saamna would rail against the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra or the UPA at the Centre, what has come as a surprise in recent months is the paper’s consistent knocking of the BJP-led government both in Bombay and in New Delhi. There is not a minute of respite that the paper offers its ally and it has no holy cows – the Saamna these days is knocking Narendra Modi as much as it is Devendra Fadnavis and I notice that neither leader knows how to reply or contain the newspaper, though, I am told, BJP president Amit Shah has banned Raut from all joint meetings of the two parties.
For, from Modi’s ‘parachute’ visit to Pakistan to Fadnavis’s ineptitude in handling the drought situation, it is the Saamna which has been leading the media critique. It even forced the exit of the state’s attorney general Shreehari Aney for his repeated attempts at trying to break Vidarbha and Marathwada from Maharashtra. Now, while the BJP was savouring its success in the recently concluded elections to five states, the Saamna punctured that euphoria by pointing out that while the BJP might say it had 100 per cent success, what it really got was just one per cent – it did defeat the Congress in Assam but if just opening an account in West Bengal and Kerala was the aim, Modi and Shah would not have made the election a prestige issue.
The Sena’s real emphasis was on the fact that while the BJP might be able to best the Congress, it still was no match for regional parties in various states (read Shiv Sena in Maharashtra). That’s as measured an analysis as I have ever read in the Saamna and, I believe, shorn of Thackeray’s extremism, the paper has finally come of age. Reading the Saamna as a political journalist was once a cumbersome duty. Now it is a sheer delight.