TWENTY-ONE months after the Shiv Sena-BJP combine marched into Mantralaya, an extraordinary thing is happening. Middle-class Maharashtrians, who dared not question Bal Thackerays antics for reasons of kinship, admiration and fear, are beginning to wonder if the Hindu Hriday Samrat really has their interests at heart.
Such introspection, in the euphoria of a surprise victory, would have been unthinkable just a year ago. The rethink has been prompted by Thackerays response to the murder of Ramesh Kini, the anti-corruption crusade by Anna Hazare and the outburst of writer P.L. Deshpande.
By attacking the very ethos dear to middle-class heartsjustice (Kini), morality (Hazare) and culture (Deshpande)the Sena is alienating its core constituents. "Those who brought them to power are beginning to feel the brunt," says Mahanagar editor Nikhil Wagle.
Blame it on Thackerays tongue. When Hazare sought the resignation of agriculture minister Shashikant Sutar and irrigation minister Mahadeo Shivankar, on charges of corruption, he called the much-revered Magsaysay award winner mad. When Deshpande (known as Pu La) alluded to thokshahi (dictatorship), without naming the Sena or Thackeray, while accepting the Rs 5 lakh Maharashtra Bhushan prize from the government, Thackeray said he shouldnt have accepted the award in that case.
A furious response forced Thackeray to deny his charge against Hazare and dilute his criticism of Deshpande. He was referring to Madhav Deshpande, not Pu La, he said. But, clearly, the Sena supremo has been forced on the backfoot. "He never reckoned with the appeal of Hazare and Deshpande," says activist Dilip DSouza.
But most critics agree that the Kini case saw the middle-class worm turn. Sheila Kinis spirited attempt to seek justice touched a raw nerve in Thackeray. The language in the party mouthpiece Saamna plumbed new depths although during the same period he won a Rs 500 prize for best writer from the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh.
"Thanks to the Senas open contempt for the legal system, the thin line between provocation and offence snapped," says Thomas Hansen, a Danish expert who has studied the growth and spread of the Shiv Sena.
When Thackeray alleged that an unnamed high court judge demanded Rs 35 lakh to look sympathetically at the Kini case, the court reporters association was emboldened enough to dart off a letter to the chief justice demanding action. "If his family is above board, why should he make such a song and dance over the CBI being handed the investigation?" asks a former Mumbai Sena vibagh pramukh, who was among those taken to task for not rushing to the defence of the first family.
"Balasaheb has no control over his tongue. He doesnt realise that we are no longer in the Opposition but in government. That what he says could destroy its image," adds a senior Sena minister.
While the Senas voteshare has been constant at 29 per cent in the 1990 and 1995 assembly polls (the Congress share has fallen by eight points to 31 per cent), Sena leaders realise the damage recent incidents could do. The Sena- BJP alliance suffered a setback in this months civic polls, winning just 755 of the 3,024 seats up for grabs in 174 councils. The Sena bagged 425 to the Congress 324 but lost its Konkan stronghold, where the Enron project is located.
Kumar Ketkar, editor of the Marathi daily Maharashtra Times, says the urban educated,liberal Marathi middle class has never been with the Sena-BJP combine. And Raj Thackeray, the Sena chiefs nephew, says the civic polls only show that party workers have failed to keep in touch with the people.
But the fact that criticism of the Sena is coming from within, has not gone unnoticed. Most of the 400 complaints against the two ministers whose resignations were obtained by Hazare came from Sainiks themselves. Clearly, Thackeray is under pressure. The wit and rhetoric that made him the darling of the media and the middle-classes when the Sena was in the Opposition have begun to ring hollow. A process of disillusionment has started within the ranks of a party not founded on ideology.
Although columnist Iqbal Masud points out that there hasnt been a single riot since March 1995, the dissolution and reinstatement of the Srikrishna Commission says a lot. The honeymoon of the Manohar Joshi government has ended in a mire of unfulfilled electoral promises. Thackerays grand plan to provide jhunka-bhakar (cereals) at subsidised prices has flopped; instead of dealing with Mumbais crowded trains and congested roads, the government has opted to please the citys elite with hovercraft services. Other plans on the anvil: a floating hotel, golf courses and a new airport.
Labour leader Datta Samant says that not a single mill has reopened after the alliance came to power although the government claimed it would not allow the sale of mill land. Worse, the Maharashtrians of Byculla,
Worli, Parel and Lalbagh, who were part of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement and later went along with the Sena, have been displaced and thrown out of their jobs. "In a span of 21 months, the government has managed to peddle every square inch of available land in the state through some scheme or the other. Real estate has become the governments favourite cash cow," wrote Vely Thevar in the Bombay Times.
THE slum redevelopment schemethe only Sena promise that has taken some kind of shape with the setting up of a statutory authorityis still to get off the ground, although the housing minister claims 100,000 houses will be ready by next Dussehra.
And corruption charges are mounting. The Marathi press, including Saanj Dinank Editor Kapil Patil, the latest member of the anti-Sena brigade, has almost en bloc turned against the government. Chhagan Bhujbal, the former Sena leader, now with the Congress, refers to Thackeray as "T. Balu", a reminder of his anti-South Indian stance not long ago.
Grassroot Sena leaders say the decision to put up businessmen like Muk-esh Patel and Parvez Damania in polls has sent the wrong signals. They add that in staging the Michael Jackson show to woo the urban young, Thackeray may have lost the old.
For his part, Hazare says the Sena-BJP regime has obtained a doctorate in corruption in just two years wher e it took the Congress 45 years to graduate. He offers a variation: "The Congress made money like it was a Test match; the Sena is playing it like a one-dayer." CPI(M) leader Narasiyya Adam claims that the only difference between the Congress government and the Sena-BJP alliance is that while the former collected the loot in the darkness of night, the latter does so in broad daylight. Another variation: "The Congress ate with one hand; Sena does it with both." Adds a political observer: "Instead of showing the will to fight corruption, this government is showing the will to resist it. " Thackerays younger brother, Ramesh, who opposed the Michael Jackson show, too has jumped on to the corruption bandwagon. He has sought accounts of the Rs 75 lakh collected in the name of their father, Prabodhankar, for a housing scheme.
Observers say the Senas political naivete is at the root of the mess the party finds itself in. In spite of nearly two years in power, its ministers are plainly unaware of how the wheels of government machinery move. For instance, free education for girls was announced, without specifying the age and income limits. "An average Sainik is the Ganeshotsav-organising type, not one who would know the nitty-gritty about Enron," says a bureaucrat at the Slum Redevelopment Authority. "A guy who used to set up pandals is now some bigtime minister. Boys who would hang around him in shakhas now hang around him in Mantralaya."
But the Senas harakiri has been to the BJPs delight. Although the high courts observation that the Enron issue was used to achieve political ends will dent its imagegiven its ferocious opposition to the projectthe BJP is doing its bit to add to Thackerays troubles. The Kini case is said to have got this far mainly since Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde is in charge of the home portfolio; the party has backed Hazares demand for anti-corruption panels; and much of the flak against Thackeray for his outburst against Deshpande came from Pune, a BJP city.
There are other signs that the BJP is not merely watching but also acting. Joshi, who shares Thackerays contempt for bureaucratic routine, complied with a BJP request last fortnight to name Subhash Malhotra as Mumbais new police commissioner, in place of R.D. Tyagi, Thackerays chosen one. Joshi also announced a three-year ban on transfers, a tacit admission of Hazares charge against two ministers.
Hazare, en route to Mumbai, is reported to be getting the same kind of crowds that Khairnar drew in his campaign against the corruption in the Sharad Pawar government which cost the Congress the state. With the CBI report on the Kini murder awaited, Wagle says: "The downfall of the Sena-BJP regime is imminent." But then, arent voters notorious for short memories?