Just a little over a week after the passing of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, it is already obvious that the Congress, which was responsible for setting him up as their very own Frankenstein’s monster, is determined to put an end to his deification, once and for all.
There has been much criticism from within the Congress for the homage paid to Thackeray by Congressmen – like that done by Sanjay Nirupam, a former Shiv Sainik but now a Congress MP. Of course, Nirupam had lowered the scale of the chhat pooja he sponsors every year for the city’s Bihari population in deference to the passing of his former leader, as he should have. However, some Congressmen are peeved that instead of offering the first namaskar to the Sun god, Nirupam chose to first offer shraddhanjali to Thackeray instead. But that is just a quibble, given that there were other Congress functionaries, too, who paid public homage to Thackeray.
That, though, might be the end of the story so far as Thakceray and the Congress are concerned. For, clearly, the Maharshtra government is now in no mood to allow a memorial for Thackeray at the Shivaji Park where the Sena chief was cremated on November 18. The Sena has already put up a bust of Thackeray’s wife, Meenatai, on the opposite side of the statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji there. Meenatai died in the mid-90s when the Sena was ruling the government in alliance with the BJP and many had raised queries about her contribution to public life to deserve such a public display of reverence.
I recall a bureaucrat telling me once soon after her death, “Meenatai is receiving all that reverence for simply being Thackeray’s wife. I wonder if Thackeray himself will receive even one-tenth of the public homage that his wife is now being given.’’
Well, we must wait and watch. However, things are enormously different now from what they were in 1996-97. The Sena-BJP then ruled both the Brihanmumbai Municipai Corporation (BMC) and Maharashtra. It was at the crest of its power and no one could object to even the unconstitutional activities of the party. Now, though the party is virtually at its nadir, halved by the Sena supremo’s nephew Raj Thackeray who has been clearly cut out of the family picture by the mother party, which is itself stumbling in the dark on various counts.
Then, again, although Sena continues to rule the BMC, there is a high court ban on any activity at Shivaji Park. In fact, even Thackeray had to seek permission from the court every year to hold his annual Dussehra rally at the venue. This year the court had clearly stated that this will be the last time they would allow such an activity at Shivaji Park.
Moreover, there is a dispute between the Maharashtra government and the Bombay High Court over the purpose of Shivaji Park. The court considers it to be a playground and the government believes it is a recreational space. Their battle over its uses is an ongoing one. So even in the natural course of the dispute, it might be a long time before the Shiv Sena might be able to move its resolution for the memorial before the government.
However, the more noteworthy fact here is that, for once, both the Congress and the government are firm about not indulging the Shiv Sena any further. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has said that nothing will be done against the law and the will of the courts. If they agree that Shivaji Park is a playground, a memorial cannot be built there anyway. But even if it were to be decided in favour of a recreational ground, Chavan is clear that it is against the law to build such memorials over green spaces, even though the government might occasionally allow political rallies and other social events in these grounds. He has stressed that allowing Thackeray’s funeral on the grounds was not against the law.
Usually, Congress governments have been more than willing to bend the law and look the other way for Thackeray. So throwing the rule book at the Shiv Sena now has to be a new turn in their relationship. Clearly, Chavan is a different genre of politician who does not allow political expediency to come in the way of good governance. But it could also be that the Sena is now both toothless and clueless, making it easy to set the terms for GenNext.
RIP Balasaheb, wherever you may be.