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Location: Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Monday, July 10, 2006

Cowardly Maharashtra government bends before Bal Thackeray

Testicular fortitude is not an affliction usually attributable to the Congress Party in Maharashtra so the Vilasrao Deshmukh government caving in before Bal Thackeray's hoodlums is par for the course.

While the drunken louts of the Shiv Sena trashed shopping malls, Volvo buses and McDonalds outlets in Bombay (Mumbai) yesterday, Deshmukh sent Police Commissioner A N Roy to bargain for peace with the Thackerays. One can imagine the police commissioner walking in before Thackeray, cap in hand shoes respectfully left outside while the aged tiger seated on a gilded throne grants him an audience.

Successive police commissioners under Congress governments in Maharashtra have bowed and scraped before Bal Thackeray allowing him to assume a larger-than-life image in Bombay. So Roy's flexible spine must have come as a big ego boost to the crazy old man who is seeing his life's work dissipate before his ageing eyes.

And what did Roy wangle from the Thackerays? A promise to rein in his hoodlums provided they were allowed to scot-free for the damaged they caused to Bombay all through Sunday. Though no lives were lost, several heads were broken and millions of rupees worth of property destroyed in a few hours of madness.

The mayhem took precious little to be unleashed. Some muck thrown on the bust of Meenatai, late wife of Bal Thackeray. That the bust was located a few hundred metres from the party's headquarters must rubbed the Thackerays the wrong way. After all India is a country where statues of Mahatma Gandhi provide a nice perch for crows. Just outside Churchgate Railway Station in Bombay, statues of freedom fighters are used as mannequins by roadside vendors peddling clothes.

But then Meenatai by virtue of just being the wife of Bal Thackeray is special.

Few would have noticed the 'insult' if Uddhav, son of Bal Thackeray, hadn't expressed his anguish. Broken hearted supporters bristling under newfound efforts to civilize the Shiv Sena decided that it was old times once again that called for some stiff doses of pyromania.

The first to burn was a Volvo bus, the air-conditioned model of middle-class comfort, so near and yet so far for the middle-aged thugs past their sell by date in the new Bombay. Several of these symbols of India's fast liberalizing economy bore the brunt of the Shiv Saniks' existentialist angst today.

The past decade has seen the once lean, mean and hungry tiger of the Shiv Sena grow fat on the spoils of office. Bal Thackeray, who kicked off the party at the Shivaji Park 40 years ago, is no longer the poor cartoonist of old. He and his family are immensely rich, the silk shawls and imported SUVs are testimony to that. His one-time lieutenants have moved up the ladder as well and become experts in backroom deals.

Thackeray's streetfighters who were left out of the picnic however decided to flex some of their muscles on Sunday. Out were the blackboards, the Sena's equivalent of the jungle telegraph. The clarion call to the faithful beckoned for shopfronts to be trashed, pubs preparing for the world cup final to be smashed.

Sunday's turbulence has surely come as a dose of viagra injected up the Sena's middle-aged veins. Elections to the Bombay Municipal Corporation are due next year and with little to show for its 20 years in office, the party is looking for opportunities to reverse its flaccidity. It remains to be seen if Sunday's orgy is a curtain-raiser to some good times or just a painful memory of the past that slipped away.

The Thackerays must now be hoping that the ruling front in Maharashtra continues to be as generous over the next few months. Then the tiger would be seen to roar even though it wouldn't be audible to too many ears!

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