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Commentary/Dilip D'Souza

Dear Varsha Bhosle,

I was away. Came back. Read your column analysing Bombay's civic election results ("And justice for some"). Read the e-mail in response too. Envied you your fan following. Thought-provoking, all of it. Provoked the thought, in fact, one that I'm sure you will appreciate: How can I let this smooth analysis go by unchallenged?

As you know, we have shared pages -- both paper and Web -- for some years now. I am alternately charmed and annoyed by what you write. I mean that -- the "annoyed" part -- in the best possible way, believe me. Because you make points that take some thought to respond to. The points annoy me, but the challenge of responding to them is stimulating. Because there's reason in what you write.

Having said all that, let me grant you your analysis of why each of these had very little impact on the elections: 1) the Ramesh Kini affair; 2) Bal Thackeray's anti-judiciary statement and subsequent court-case; 3) Thackeray's anti-P L Deshpande ranting; 4) Anna Hazare's allegations of corruption at the state government; 5) Thackeray's remarks on Mahatma Gandhi. I have no quarrel with what you say about any of them.

I do, however, have small, medium and large objections to your analyses, respectively, of: 7) the Sainiks's trashing a newspaper office; 8) the religious fundamentalism of the party; and 6) the remote-control arrogance of Thackeray. To work, then, in that order:

'Most Marathis,' you wrote about numero 7, '... feel that Mahanagar's insinuations about Thackeray's relationship with his recently widowed daughter-in-law were detestable.' And later, 'By not maintaining decorum, and being blatantly partisan, the press itself has lost credibility.'

Detestable, right. Decorum, right. And what words may we use to refer to Thackeray's own paper's insinuations about a recently widowed Sheila Kini's relationship with her uncle? The time when it said M F Husain should paint Prophet Mohammed 'copulating with a pig' ? The time it printed a stomach-turning front page photograph of Sainiks blackening the face of the Haffkine Institute's director? When it called on its readers to pull Anil Dharker out of his car and thrash him with chappals? The countless times it has spread lies and abused people in vile language?

What's it, do 'most Marathis' not find this stuff detestable? Is this some new form of decorum that I don't know about? If Mahanagar's detestability and lack of decorum offend, does Saamna's not? As for being 'blatantly partisan', I find it difficult to think of a phrase that applies more aptly to Saamna. Can you?

Aside: this was Dharker's crime. He published, as editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, an article mildly critical of Shivaji. You did say, referring to Gandhi, that 'people are up to their years with the holiness business' and 'there's a limit to Establishment-enforced sanctity.' Is that true only of Gandhi?

On with the job. Religious fundamentalism, numero 8. You mentioned Behrampada, how it voted in a Shiv Sena candidate. Congratulations to the Sena for working hard to win hearts there. 'Let bygones be bygones,' their people told Behrampada's residents, 'let's work together.' It's not surprising Behrampada chose the Sena over the Congress: After the Congress so shamefully refused to protect them in the conflagration of four years ago, that party deserved no less -- much more -- than to be flung out on its ear.

But spare a thought for the truly agonizing choice those 'largely unlettered' (which they are decidedly not, but I'll let that pass) Behrampada people had. The Samajwadi Party, largely a nonentity in Bombay, led by that man famous for locking up and thrashing legislators in UP, was hardly an option. So do I vote for the party which cheered and led the killing, burned our homes down? Or do I vote for the party which stood by idly?

'We'll be the first to protect you if you are attacked,' the Sena told Behrampada. Fine words, but who attacked them in the first place? The Sena. At least, some in Behrampada must have thought, at least we know that these were our attackers. The Congress? We voted for them and they turned their backs on us when we needed them the most. So how can things possibly be worse? Let's try the Sena.

To a lesser or greater degree, all of us in this city had the same choice to make, but it must have cut the deepest in Behrampada.

Numero 6. 'People can't help but respect a straight-shooting politician', you wrote. I couldn't agree more, Varsha. We long to see even one forthright man in politics who says what he means and vice versa, who stands up and takes responsibility for his words and actions. Balasaheb recognised that longing years ago. He has spent those years carefully cultivating a public image of himself as just that man.

Maybe that's why, when Anita Pratap's famous Time magazine interview was published ('Kick them out,' he was quoted about Muslims, and 'There is nothing wrong if Muslims are treated as Jews were in Nazi Germany'), Balasaheb was quite upset. First, he claimed he had spoken off-the-record. Then, he was misquoted. Most recently, he denied having said any of those things, though he had not cared to supply either Anita Pratap or Time with these denials. Surely this cannot remind you of what only every single other politician does, can it? This is straight-shooting, after all!

Similarly, maybe forthrightness is why hundreds of court cases against Balasaheb are never pursued and eventually withdrawn. Maybe that's why Justice Srikrishna is finding that getting the files about those withdrawals from the government is harder than pulling teeth. The government claims they are secret and cannot be made public (Balasaheb concurred, saying he 'wanted to fight for a principle').

Maybe 'straight-shooting' is the reason the Srikrishna Commission is the one and only effort at any justice for the riots four ears ago, and even that effort is regularly delayed, was even shut down altogether once. 'Farce' was the word you used about the Srikrishna Commission, and rightly so, but call me when the murderers of over a thousand of your fellow Bombayites in 1992-93 are punished. We'll talk about farces then.

And maybe responsibility is why Balasaheb likes to remain remote-controller rather than chief minister, pulling the strings of government as he chooses, but accountable to nobody.

You see, I used to think these words -- forthrightness, straight-shooting, responsibility -- meant you said what you believed and then stood by it. That you had the convictions, the fibre, to back up your deeds. But, as with 'decorum', I'm finding words have strange new meanings these days.

So much for your smoothly argued points. So why did the Sena win the elections? 'Isn't it also true', you asked, '... that they delivered?' Indeed they delivered. They have weighty accomplishments to their name. Renaming Bombay to Mumbai tops the list (don't take my word for it, Manohar Joshi himself called this his government's 'greatest achievement'). Claiming to have built 5,000 free houses -- of the nearly one million that was an election promise two years ago -- for slum dwellers is up there too. Where these 5000 are, we have not been told.

"OK, smarty pants," you're probably thinking, "you tell me: Why DID they win the elections?"

Because a carefully cultivated image, a narrow chauvinism, a scapegoat for ills (even a scapegoat that has mutated from Tamils to Gujaratis to Muslims over the years) -- these things sell very well indeed. You couple them with a Congress heading for deserved oblivion, with a 'third force' that should call itself a 'third farce': you have a recipe for electoral success.

But you do disservice to yourself, Varsha, when you interpret that electoral success as evidence 'that they delivered', or of 'straight-shooting.' The political games worked for the Sena, is all.

'The Sena has brought pride back to Maharashtra', you can hear from some of the 'Marathi mansa.' Where had it gone, I ask. How has it come back now, I ask. What pride is this anyway, I ask. Are we to feel pride because rioters, looters and murderers are running around freely on our streets, in our trains, bumping into you -- you, Varsha -- every day?

I haven't had answers. Have you any?

Your fan, always,


Dilip D'Souza also contributes a column to The Sunday Observer.

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