Democracy, truly, is a great leveller. For me, the more tickling pink part is that at such times irony dies a thousand deaths when traditions are overturned and stated positions are thrown out of the window.
The best part of Narendra Modi’s ascension was his visit to Rajghat to pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated by an RSS ideologue for allegedly being a traitor to the Hindu nationalist cause. Now the inheritors of that philosophy are acknowledging the Mahatma as the Father of the Nation.
The second leveller was Modi’s invitation to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend his swearing-in ceremony. While there is nothing wrong in this, for ideologues of the extreme Right it must be galling to have the man who presided over the Kargil War to be invited by a leader who does not need to pander to the expectations of those they describe as ‘sickulars’. After all, former PM Manmohan Singh turned down Sharif’s invitation to attend his swearing-in ceremony last year. Singh’s grounds were nationalist: he said he would not visit Pakistan until it stops all terror activities. I wonder if Sharif has come any closer to doing that.
However, what got my funny bone the most is the empty rhetoric of the Shiv Sena that suddenly does not know which way to turn. Had this been Singh or even Rahul Gandhi inviting Sharif over, the Sena would have dug up cricket pitches, stormed TV studios where Pakistani artistes might be working, burnt effigies or destroyed slums perceived as Bangladeshi settlements. Instead what we got was a deafening silence from the Sena cadre and a rather muted attempt at a roar from Uddhav Thackeray threatening to nuke Pakistan if they did not stop their terrorist activities.
The nuclear button, though, is not in the Sena’s hands and I doubt if Modi will oblige the Sena on this. I suddenly feel sorry for Bal Thackeray’s heirs — after the Marathi manoos, if the Sena had a raison d’être, it was in its opposition to everything Pakistani. Over the years, Bal Thackeray had toned down his extreme opposition to Indian Muslims to call for a secular monument in Ayodhya when he found they had voted him to government in 1995. He called for their disenfranchisement when they swung back to the traditional parties a few years later but even in this flip-flop he was consistent in his opposition to Pakistani terrorism and Bangladeshi immigrants. With the edges of the regional rhetoric blurred over the years and finding not much resonance beyond a few pockets in Maharashtra, the one thing that continues to define the Sena, even more than the BJP, is its anti-Pakistani stance.
Thackeray was described as a “vivekheen Hindu” by the VHP’s Ashok Singhal when he had called for junking the temple in Ayodhya but when a few months later he trashed former PM AB Vajpayee for wooing the minority community, the late Rafique Zakaria, a noted scholar, told me, “Thackeray has never had to be in power and does not realise the compulsions of governance. His diktats to his chief minister in Maharashtra made it very difficult for that government to maintain a proper balance and when you are in power at the Centre it becomes even more imperative to be inclusive. He can never understand why it is important to take our neighbours along, including Pakistan and Bangladesh because the Gulf nations, which are Islamic, are critical to our oil interests. So while the BJP might be extremist in opposition, it is national interest that determines its responses in government and that includes friendly ties with Pakistan. The Shiv Sena will sooner or later have to come to terms with it.’’
I guess the time for that is now. Personally, I am a hawk so far as Pakistan goes and empathise with the Sena’s position: It can neither swallow this slight to its self-esteem, nor quite spit it out. I am glad I am not standing in its shoes today.