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Mini-Me and Dr Evil

Raj Thackeray fails to realise that what used to work in the 1960s and 1970s ceases to exist in the current times, writes Vir Sanghvi.
By Vir Sanghvi | None
UPDATED ON JUN 07, 2012 04:17 PM IST

In 1979, when we launched Bombay magazine, we asked many city celebrities what they liked about India's greatest metropolis. Most gave platitudinous answers but Dev Anand was candid. He loved the cosmopolitan air of the city, he said. But he was concerned that too much 'Maharashtrian influence' would dilute Bombay's pan-Indian character.

It was, in itself, a fairly unexceptional statement and we carried it as he said it. But soon after the issue hit the stands, Manohar Joshi, then a mere Shiv Sena leader rather than the former Lok Sabha Speaker and former chief minister that he is today, phoned me. The Shiv Sena was outraged by Anand's stand, he said. The film star had insulted the Maharashtrian people. Come, come, I said to Joshi. We live in a free country and Dev Anand is entitled to his views. Joshi was unfazed. And I am entitled to bring my boys to your office to register our protest, he said smugly.

I understood the euphemism ("register our protest") and the implied threat and phoned Dev Anand. There could be trouble, I warned.

Anand called Bal Thackeray, explained that he meant no disrespect and apologised for any inadvertent hurt. Thackeray was mollified and a disappointed Joshi was asked to call his 'boys' off.

The incident came back to me last week as I returned to a Bombay that was both cold (people were actually wearing sweaters!) and insecure. Traffic had been stopped. Taxi drivers had been beaten up. The office of the taxi union had been trashed. And there was a second chill in the air: a fear of the violence that would follow if Raj Thackeray was arrested.

The provocation for this uncertain climate was an attack launched by Raj Thackeray on another film star. But while Dev Anand, in 1979, had said something that the Shiv Sena found offensive, Amitabh Bachchan, Raj's current target, had been happy to follow the Sena line, obligingly genuflecting before Bal Thackeray ("our father figure", the Bachchans called him) and turning up at Shiv Sena-organised events.

But still, Raj found reasons to complain. Why was Amitabh Bachchan brand ambassador for Uttar Pradesh when he made his living in Bombay? Why was he opening a school in UP when he could do the same in Maharashtra? And so on.

The attack on Bachchan was the cue for a generalised attack on north Indians. Taxi drivers from UP and Bihar (though, oddly enough, not the Punjabis who constitute a large part of the suburban taxi trade) were assaulted and Raj's thugs roamed the streets destroying property belonging to north Indians.

The papers offered an explanation. Raj had fallen out with Uncle and former mentor Bal. He was punishing Bachchan for his closeness to Bal Thackeray and was trying to find an issue for his own nascent (and so-far largely inconsequential) political party.

This was accurate enough. But it was also true that in the time-honoured tradition of the Thackerays, Raj was picking on a high-profile target (a film star, ideally) to get some publicity for himself. In the 1980s, during his brief stint in politics, Amitabh Bachchan used to say, "People attack me because my name sells. It keeps their names in the headlines." Almost three decades later, that is still true.

But Raj is more than just a follower of the Thackeray tradition. Just one look at him is enough to recognise that he is a bonsai version of Bal, a sort of Mini-Me to the real Dr Evil. He has the same mannerisms, the same facial features, the same straight-faced sarcasm and even the same cartooning style (without the old boy's talent, though).

Clearly, he also has the senior Thackeray's penchant for chauvinistic violence. Years ago, Bal Thackeray once proudly told me how his 'boys' had gone to Churchgate station and beaten up various south Indian shoe-shine vendors in the name of Marathi pride. When I looked appalled and made a logical objection ("Are you saying that you want Maharashtrians to polish shoes?"), he quickly invented a new and largely absurd justification. "Do you know that under their boxes they all had bottles of Vat 69? All Madrasi smugglers!"

We may laugh now at the senior Thackeray's nonsense but Bombay can be a terrifying city to live in when the Thackeray family sends its 'boys' to the streets. And for all his elder statesman pretensions, there is no doubt that the Thackeray legacy is built on the blood of innocents and the destruction of other people's property.

Just as the old man found fame and fortune organising lynchings (first south Indians and, then, Muslims), Mini-Me hopes to be able to repeat that feat on behalf of his own party, a sort of Mini-Party to the older Sena. To an extent, it has already worked. Would you be wasting your Sunday morning reading about Raj Thackeray and his thugs if they hadn't run wild on the streets of Bombay?

I'm not sure, however, that it will yield Mini-Me the sort of electoral dividends that Dr Evil earned. The Shiv Sena was a creature of its times. Founded seven years after the state of Maharashtra, it exploited Maharashtrian inferiority complexes about living in a city where the Gujaratis were the middle class and the Maharashtrians were the proletariat. (The best recent analysis of that phase was Kumar Ketkar's piece on why Thackeray can never support Narendra Modi in The Indian Express, a fortnight ago.) The south Indians who streamed into Bombay in the 1960s and 1970s were easy to portray as interlopers who would grab the jobs that were now the due of Maharashtrians.

As Maharashtra developed, this inferiority complex faded. Maharashtrians began to make fortunes in the city of Bombay. National political parties started to pay more attention to Maharashtrian concerns. And Bal Thackeray found that Marathi chauvinism had a limited market. Cunningly, he shifted to straightforward Hindu communalism, pitching the Sena as a lower caste version of the Brahmin-dominated RSS. (Thackeray has never been wild about Brahmins.)

To be sure, there have been minor irritants. A few years ago, Shiv Sainiks attacked out-of-towners who were taking a competitive exam and in north Bombay the Sena worries that non-Maharashtrian voters prefer other parties. (Its solution, the promotion of Sanjay Nirupam as its north Indian face, was worse than the ailment. Fortunately for Thackeray, he has now unloaded him on the Congress.)

But on the whole, most Maharashtrians consider the who-runs-Bombay battle won. A compromise has been reached. The city will preserve its cosmopolitan character but all real power will be vested in the hands of Maharashtrians. Moreover, Maharashtra has grown in stature compared to other Indian states and if locals need a political hero of their own, they'd much rather look to Sharad Pawar than to a bunch of chauvinist thugs.

So why is Raj Thackeray going on and on about north Indians? Partly, it is to hit the headlines and in that limited sense, he has been more than successful. Partly, it is because Mini-Me follows the Dr Evil formula so completely that he does not realise that times have changed and so have the rules. A platform that worked in the 1960s and 1970s has no relevance in the 21st century.

And partly, it's because he is a Thackeray. He believes that if he can hold a city to ransom, if he can threaten innocent citizens with violence, then we will be forced to sit up and take notice of him.

Of course we should take notice of him. But the way to do this is by enforcing the law, by locking up his thugs, by clamping down on the violence, and by telling him that it doesn't matter what his surname is: one false move and he'll end up in jail.

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