Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde's 'hail fellow well met' style can be very deceptive. People tend to forget that he was both a cop and a law officer before he became a politician and that while he may have a beautiful smile; he also has some iron teeth.
Shinde was counted as a friend by Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and yet it is under his stewardship that the Maharashtra government outwitted the Sena tiger over security issues which Thackeray never dared raise again. The Sena chief was always a source of headache to successive Maharashtra governments - including one of his own - over his choice of grounds to hold election rallies. He was superstitious: luck would be on his side if he launched campaigns from the Chowpatty sands and ended them at Shivaji Park.
Chowpatty was a huge security risk, considering the open seas on three sides. But Thackeray could not care less about how he was protected so long as he got to hold his rallies where he wanted. The Maharashtra government could have clamped down on its own but then Shinde, when chief minister, read Thackeray's psyche correctly and decided to, well, not take a decision on his own. There was a clear purpose behind that vacillation.
"I chose to get a ruling from the courts once and for all," Shinde told some of us later. A chief minister's decision could have been interpreted as limited to that one time and helped the Shiv Sena look victimised. Shinde knew he could expect the courts to ban political rallies at Chowpatty for all time if the government presented before it a long litany of the security breaches that may happen, the outcome of which could cause mayhem. Years later, that court ruling came in handy to the government to deny Raj Thackeray permission during an extremely difficult and delicate moment in community relations after the Azad Maidan fracas of August last year. Of course, the Thackerays might defy governments and be seen as bold and courageous, but they could hardly take on the courts and risk being thrown into the slammer for contempt.
So it should not be surprising that this man with a happy-go-lucky demeanour - and one who could not stem his tears before the cameras when his party returned to power in Maharadhtra in 2004 under his watch -- should yet be able to accomplish the executions of not one but two terrorists in the span of two months, smoothly and without much collateral damage. Although, of course, the decision to execute both Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru in such secrecy would have been a cabinet decision and not just Shinde's alone, with help from a thinking president, I am much taken in by the irony of history - that a man who can put his foot in his mouth once too often will be the one to go down in the records as having sent a strong message to both Pakistan and home-grown terrorists that India means business and will not tolerate any acts of terror.
How different would that seem from the 'loha purush' LK Advani's record - of having mismanaged the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft - which could have been grounded in Amritsar - from Nepal to Kandahar in Afghanistan and of having released dreaded terrorists who then ended up taking so many more lives, including that of American journalist Daniel Pearl? Or of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who dares to call India a banana republic for executing a terrorist who had no regrets about his involvement in the attack on Parliament but who gave such Kashmir militants the fillip in the first place by the manner in which he handled the home ministry and his daughrer's kidnapping during the VP Singh government of the late 1980s? Those are the two acts by two separate governments, a decade apart, which gave India the image of being soft on terrorism. Pakistan might have laughed then and, when Shinde spoke of saffron terrorism last month, the BJP, too, raged about it; but I don't think either of them saw this one coming.
I would not be surprised, then, if they spring another surprise on the nation by hanging former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh's killers next. The tricky ones to execute, though, could be Rajiv Gandhi's killers: Tamil Nadu's political parties will be tougher to handle. I wonder how Shinde, a master at the balancing act (he has also beautifully reconciled his loyalties to both Sharad Pawar and Sonia Gandhi) will get around J Jayalalithaa and, indeed, Karunanidhi!