The spectacle of lakhs of followers of Bal Thackeray silently congregating for his funeral and leaving without any violence was hitherto unseen. Just when people were beginning to wonder if the Shiv Sena was changing came the attack on a hospital in Palghar following a Facebook post by a young girl. Mahesh Vijapurkar on what to expect of the Sena after Bal Thackeray.
When Shiv Sena cadres and supporters gathered in their lakhs at Shivaji Park to mourn the death of Bal Thackeray and witness his funeral, it was a spectacle hitherto unseen. There was a palpable numbness even to an onlooker, a quiet that was so foreign to a large, in this case unprecedented gathering of Shiv Sainiks. One even wondered if it really was of sainiks who can and do get emotional about their leader.
It seemed as if, even in their grief, the mass had kept a restraint when the massive bandobast was aimed more to control any untoward incident. An apprehension that the followers could get out of hand just as they did when Thane's Sena top gun Anand Dighe passed away seemed to lurk. They had then lain waste a large hospital where he died forcing the owners to shut it down permanently.
As they melted away after the pyre was lit, it seemed so unreal. There were claims that the entire city and the state had shut down out of respect for the departed who, no doubt left his indelible mark and a huge following. No doubt they did but the underlying sense of worry of what would happen if people went about their work unmindful of the demise also was a factor. That always has been why its bandh calls were heeded.
Only, this time, there was no call. For that day and the next.
When by the evening television stations reported that wholesale markets, jewellery stores, taxies and rickshaws were not to work the next day, a Monday, the Sena clarified that they had not called for a bandh nor had supported any. Within minutes, all organisations which had planned to shut down announced it would be business as usual. The taxi unions said they would ply if things were peaceful.
This is a pointer to how the non-sainiks view the sainiks and their party because of its vigilantism of the past. And sure enough, the party was at it within hours by ransacking a hospital in Palghar because the owner's niece and her friend had tweeted about the need for cities and towns to shut down. The two were swiftly arrested, a mindless magistrate, unaware of the law, even gave them bail when he ought to have questioned the need to arrest them.
Even the media -- both print and television -- had kept the coverage positive, only mildy referring to certain well-known trademark traits of the party cadre and party leaders. It was as if they content to keep the coverage somewhat hagiographic given the event. But all these seemed in vain because soon enough, the Palghar incident brought the Sena observers out in strength questioning its adherence to strong-arm methods, and the police stupidity.
The transition from a party prone to be easily outraged, to a sombre -- of course befitting the tragic occasion -- presence and back again to a raging street gang in Palghar was shocking. One had thought that Uddhav Thackeray, who had hoped to make street activity a minimal part of the party's tactics upon taking over as the executive chief, was succeeding. But when party spokesmen backed the Palghar assault as appropriate it-for-tat, it seemed the tiger's stripes were still in place.
If only the leadership, Uddhav Thackeray exempted because of the weight of his personal loss, had at least upbraided its Palghar shakha pramukh for its retaliation to the Facebook posts, the sympathy for the party given its terrible loss would have lingered. Even those who had misgivings about the state funeral accorded had remained quiet hoping that once this transition to a Sena without its founder in its midst would now be sure that the change has brought forth no change.
That over four decades the Sena morphed from an organisation for securing the rights for the locals to a political party which even swept to power, graduated from the control of a few municipalities to rule the entire state. Though its leaders held constitutional positions, including that of a Speaker of the Lok Sabha, its passion for the rough and the ready has not been dulled.
It seems content to remain in its own trap which is its penchant for vigilantism and its own value system. This may ensure its control of the streets but not burnish its future as a political party in an increasingly modern society where sensitivity to democratic norms matters.
The best behaviour at Shivaji Park on Sunday then was momentary, a flicker in the history of the party. The stripes remain.