Sometimes Bal Thackeray can get too big for his boots - and trip over them. There can be no better example of this than when he claimed to have demolished the Babri Masjid - or, at least, claimed pride in its demolition by his Shiv Sainiks.
I have said this before but it bears repeating: on December 6, 1992, I had called Thackeray's residence, Matoshree, within minutes of the mosque's demolition as the wire service I worked for at the time put out a story that the domes were brought down by Sena activists gone wild.
Thackeray was utterly flummoxed. He sought some time "to consult my editors" (at the Saamna) and confirmed that the agency had indeed flashed that report. But he was not going to let the facts of the day hurt his image as the 'Hindu Hriday Samrat' (emperor of Hindu hearts) by denying the truth - that it was a lie put out by senior BJP leaders who knew exactly what consequences would follow.
Thackeray knew very well that his Sainiks had done nothing, as claimed. They had arrived very late in Ayodhya (on December 5) only to discover that there was not a single comfy bed available anywhere in that temple town for the night. Instead, they were shown to some tents pitched in an open maidan - they found that disregard for their comfort and status extremely demeaning. Thackeray, not being one to take such insult lying down, ordered them back to Bombay instantly. They boarded the next available train the same evening.
So the day the Babri Masjid was demolished, Sena leaders and a host of their workers were in Calcutta en route to Bombay and could not have been atop the domes of the mosque. This was something confirmed to me by Shankar Gaikar of the Maharashtra unit of the Bajrang Dal when the Shiv Sena-BJP government released the report of the Srikrishna Commission that had probed the 1992-93 Bombay riots that followed the demolition of the mosque.
Justice Srikrishna held Thackeray responsible for stirring the "boiling cauldron" of hate that resulted in the riots and Gaikar was mad that the Sena tiger should get the credit when "not one Shiv Sainik was present in Ayodhya atop the dome. It was us (the Bajrang Dal) who were in action there and this man just wants to eat up the cream." (Which I reported for my newspaper, The Indian Express, at the time.)
It was obvious to me even then that neither Gaikar nor Thackeray understood the import of their respective claims. But Thackeray was not really lying. His statement was very nuanced. Knowing the truth behind the attempts by some senior BJP leaders to escape blame for a criminal act, he had told me, "If (and he stressed the 'if') my Shiv Sainiks have brought down the mosque (he knew very well they hadn't), then I can only be proud of them."
He held that claim until the special court probing the demolition sent him a summons and a warrant. Now, if Thackeray is afraid of anything in his life, it is being thrown into the slammer. So he hastily retracted his claim at a public rally soon after. Naming the BJP leader (now deceased) who had stuck him with the blame for the demolition, he said: "The BJP leaders were cowards. They did not have the guts to face the consequences and so they took my name. I am not afraid of anything and so I said 'if' (etc) …"
That is, indeed, the truth. I also have it from a fellow journalist who was in Ayodhya on the day that when she protested to LK Advani about the outrage, he handed her some sugar - "lo, munh meethaa kar lo". That's something she subsequently told the Lieberhan Commission, too.
So, as I see nemesis catch up with Advani, I only half agree with the Central Bureau of Investigation that is now also calling for Thackeray's trial in the case. The BJP used the Sena for its militant style but when they found the Bajrang Dal could do the same things even better, they quite threw Thackeray to the wolves. They have little use for him today beyond helping Advani realise his ambition to become PM.
Now, though, all those chickens might just come home to roost - for one or both.