Terror is a double-edged sword, as the Shiv Sena is discovering. What used to be the most effective weapon in their arsenal is, ironically, turning against the self-styled soldiers of the trident-wielding Lord. There was only a slight reprise of the usual theme of violence and intimidation, even in the face of gross provocation. Instead, this time it is the Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray who is in retreat. Though, whether the courts will sanction his arrest and whether the Maharashtra government keeps its promise of snaring the Tiger is still up in the air.
Whatever the outcome, it's clear that Thackeray's popularity is on the wane. Mumbai has still not gone up in flames, as was threatened. The Vilasrao Deshmukh regime, in an almost audacious move, sanctioned Balasaheb's prosecution in a case that is seven years old. Faced with a body blow to his invincible image, the Sena chief could have moved the courts to decide whether the belated revival of the case could be condoned. Instead, he resorted to the old formula of threatening the worst. Till he retreated, making his fear of being arrested public.
Compared to what could have happened in the past, there have been just a few sporadic incidents disrupting public peace. The Sena is left with few who sympathise with its leader's predicament. People are unconcerned, except for some who fear the Sena's wrath - that too is rapidly diminishing. That perhaps is responsible for Thackeray diluting his position. The Sena, which had threatened that the country would burn if Thackeray was so much as touched, is now being asked by the man himself to remain calm and not indulge in any "murkhpana". The Sena boss has said that he doesn't want a riot, least of all a communal riot.
To add to the Sena chief's woes the Supreme Court, hearing a petition on the Srikrishna Commission report, has directed the Centre and the state government to clarify their respective stands on the report. It also pulled up the latter for not acting swiftly enough on the commission's recommendations. Now the state government can justify any further action against Thackeray by projecting that it's acting in compliance with the apex court's directive. Says ncp leader Sharad Pawar: "We'd promised the court in a pil regarding the revival of the Srikrishna report that we will proceed with the case and we're doing so."
For Thackeray, the isolation is real. Sena leaders privately admit that the sainiks are no longer as committed as they once were. The rift in the Thackeray family and the emergence of Smita Thackeray as an extra-constitutional power has created cracks. Worse, Sena ally bjp is not kindly disposed towards Balasaheb.
In fact, Thackeray is said to be upset that the bjp did little to thwart the Maharashtra government's move to arrest him. According to party insiders, the fact that the resignations of three Sena ministers from the Union cabinet did little to alarm the bjp has morally demolished the Sena and its leader. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee apparently told them off: "Your quarrel is with the state government. Why are you resigning here?" Moreover, the Vilasrao Deshmukh government is unruffled by Thackeray's call to the Centre to invoke Article 356 to dismiss it. Avers a calm CM: "We have undertaken this task and we'll see it through."
But what prompted the move to arrest Thackeray? According to sources, mpcc president Govindrao Adik and CM Deshmukh met Sonia Gandhi in Delhi a week before the case against the Shiv Sena boss was reopened. This was preceded by a Muslim leaders' delegation visiting Sonia Gandhi from Maharashtra who complained that anti-Muslim sentiments prevailed in Maharashtra despite Congress rule and little was being done by Deshmukh's government to act on the Srikrishna Commission recommendations. Sonia reportedly conveyed these apprehensions to the Maharashtra CM.
Returning to Mumbai, Deshmukh sought out his home minister Chhagan Bhujbal. His painstaking work of hunting out a file that Deshmukh had inherited from his predecessors Manohar Joshi and Narayan Rane came in handy. This file contained requests from the Bombay Police to prosecute Thackeray for certain incendiary editorials in Sena mouthpiece Saamna during the build-up to the communal riots in 1992-93. It is the single case that was forgotten when Joshi withdrew 13 others against Thackeray, when he took over as CM from Sharad Pawar, that has proved to be a good stick for Bhujbal to beat his ex-guru with.
To show that they were not targeting Thackeray alone, Deshmukh and Bhujbal also sanctioned the prosecution of Abu Asim Azmi, president of the Samajwadi Party's Mumbai unit, for making communal statements. But Azmi has already been arrested for his offence under Section 153 and released on bail. His lawyer and SP spokesperson Majeed Memon sees no reason why the offence should now be upgraded to 153(A), which is non-bailable, simply to equate it with Thackeray's.
Azmi, however, has reacted rather calmly to the entire episode. There was no evidence of fire-breathing at the SP rally in Mumbai early this week addressed by party president Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mulayam's stand was that he would not pull out of the coalition. And Azmi added: "We have received five kicks from the Sena but only four-and-a-half from the Democratic Front. Let it be said that Azmi is being sacrificed at the altar of Thackeray."
BHUJBAL's threat to slap section 153(A) on Thackeray in case his party mouthpiece Saamna carries any provocative messages - "and we will not even need to set up another commission of inquiry like the Srikrishna one, this time" - has led to a sea-change in attitude. Saamna, for the past week, has been full of only news. No views. It must be excruciating for Thackeray to be so responsible. And not even get to vent his rage against his former protege.
Half the battle has thus been won by the state government. The other half will be fought when the paramilitary forces, now being deployed around the city, are completely in place. The Union home ministry did not accede completely to the Maharashtra government's request for the deployment of the raf and the crpf. Ministers of state for home Kripa Shankar Singh and Manikrao Thakre flew to New Delhi on Thursday to request Union home minister L.K. Advani to release the remaining forces. "The arrest will be effected when these forces are in place," said Singh. "We do expect some violence, though not on the 1993 scale. With these forces we will be able to control the outbreaks."
But will the state government go back on its stated commitment to arrest Thackeray? There are enough rumours that suggest that a compromise is on the anvil. But others like J.B. D'Souza, former Maharashtra chief secretary, has no doubt that what has begun must "come to an end with the arrest of Thackeray. The government is too far committed now to withdraw. I am glad that the law enforcement machinery is finally moving and that it is all coming through".
Is it? The Maharashtra government has made tough noises but it has stopped short of arresting Thackeray. If Bhujbal pulls it off, he will be a hero of sorts. If he fails, it will perhaps give Thackeray a chance to bounce back with a vengeance.