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Campaign Trail/Ayaz Memon

Bombast and banter, but minus the demagoguery

It's a nippy Saturday late January evening when Bal Thackeray arrives in Aurangabad, halt number two in his hectic election campaign. One of the major erstwhile Maratha strongholds, with a large dalit and Muslim base too, Aurangabad has swung the Shiv Sena's way in the last few years, a fact reiterated by the 100,000 plus crowd which throngs the Sanskruti Maidan in the heart of the city, waiting expectantly for the party supremo to make his appearance.

In the last election, the Shiv Sena along with its ally the Bharatiya Janata Party had demolished the hold of the Congress in Maharashtra, winning 33 out of the 48 seats. This time Bal Thackeray has promised more. The plane carrying Thackeray is late by an hour, and the restlessness of the mammoth crowd grows by the minute till finally the high-powered campaign party from Bombay mounts the stage. There are ripples of applause for Uddhav Thackeray and Raj Thackeray, a modest round for Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, but it becomes fairly obvious who is the star of the evening.

A tumultuous roar, accompanied by the simultaneous blowing of conch shells greets Bal Thackeray when he mounts the dais. In the audience, a bearded man tugs at his chin thoughtfully as the evening's drama begins. The lesser mortals will speak first, the main draw last as is the practice at all Shiv Sena rallies, but Riaz Ahmed, rickshaw driver by profession, is prepared to wait till midnight if necessary to hear Bal Thackeray this time. "Mujhe sunna hai woh Babri Masjid ke baare mein kya kehte hain (I want to hear what he has to say about the Babri Masjid),'' he says. Riaz Ahmed is not a minority voice on this count at least. Almost everybody it seems, from Aurangabad to Agra, from Bombay to Mathura, from Dhule to Delhi has been befuddled by Thackeray's apparent volte face on the issue that has rocked independent India like nothing else in its 50 year existence; by his amazingly simple answer to a problem which appeared to have no end.

Will he propagate the 'Let's build a national monument at Ayodhya' here too, or has his bluff caught up with him?

It's been less than a fortnight since Thackeray stunned the Indian polity with his newfound conciliatory approach towards Muslims. Soon after the election dates were announced, Thackeray dropped a bombshell which resonated throughout the country."There's no point in fighting over the Babri issue anymore, let's build a national monument there instead, let's live and let live,'' he said, or words to that effect, stumping both friend and foe alike.

For those used to Thackeray's methods, this seemed like predictable bluster during election time, something which would fall by the wayside as the battle hotted up. For the uninitiated it seemed like hogwash too because it found no basis in his words and deeds in the past. But the Shiv Sena leader surprisingly repeated the sentiment when he opened his campaign trail in a rousing meeting in the heart of the sugar belt at Kolhapur on January 18. By the time he reached Aurangabad six days later, he had reaffirmed this at least half a dozen times more, had also met the Pakistan high commissioner to India, Jehangir Ashraf Kazi, leaving cadre and critic equally perplexed.

What had seemed like meaningless political rhetoric, had assumed the dimension of a clarion call. At the Sanskruti Maidan, the cacophony, which had refused to be muted as sundry speakers including Manohar Joshi, went about their business of beseeching the voters to plump for the party which has promised Shiv Shahi in the state, dies down the minute Thackeray rises to make his speech. For a moment there is pin drop silence, then a roar of Jai Maharashtra! rents the air as the Sena supremo opens his address with his typical greeting.

Thackeray cuts through the formalities quickly, then directs his thrust on the plank which has gripped the attention of the entire country. The Babri issue, he exhorts, is over. The Hindus, the Muslims, all Indians need to look ahead, get past this stumbling block, he adds.

His explanation is bereft of demagoguery and, even if delivered in his inimitable bombast and banter, is located almost entirely in realpolitik. "The Muslims cannot be wished away, they are almost 20 per cent of the country's population and we cannot afford any more communal riots.'' There is, of course, the puerile and predictable rider attached to this in which the test of Indianness of Indian Muslims is whether they applaud Pakistan when India loses to them at cricket. But Thackeray, aware that this has been repeated ad nauseum moves on quickly to more profound revelations.

"Babar was a Mongol, not an Indian,'' goes one, "The Muslims can pray in any mosque they like, we will assure them this,'' goes another, and so on, culminating in the vision for Ayodhya -- the disputed area to be earmarked for a beautiful garden in which will be a national monument in memory of the legendary freedom fighter Mangal Pandey.

The gameplan seems so simplistic, as to be almost diabolical. The audience listens with rapt attention to this dramatic shift in political ideology, perhaps is even too stunned to react. Thackeray, shrewdly sensing that philosophy must be married to gamesmanship as it were, then shifts gear to enter a mode which comes so naturally to him and which the audience loves so dearly.

The next half hour is a like a vaudeville show. He imitates Sitaram Kesri's bow-legged teetering gait, he makes lewd cracks at social worker and activist Medha Patkar, he pokes fun at I K Gujral, he mocks Laloo Prasad Yadav, he condemns Mayawati, he rails against Sharad Pawar and then settles down to spew venom, vitriol and scorn on the Congress Party's new saviour Sonia Gandhi. The raw energy of his speech, his glibness and his extraordinary ability to mime, mimic and ridicule has the audience in splits, and screaming for more. After an hour of non-stop adlibbing, Thackeray, who had a bypass operation two years ago and turned 71 two days earlier, finally winds up.

The audience, spellbound and cohesive all through the Sena supremo's speech, disintegrates rapidly. There are animated discussions between clusters as the crowd struggles to leave through a narrow gate. Traditional Sena supporters believe that Thackeray has scored yet again. Anirudh Joshi, a 30-year-old who runs a printing press is convinced that the Sena will sweep the state. "They will win easily,'' he says.

And what does he think of Thackeray's proposal to build a national monument at Ayodhya. "That's his view and we have to see what the government does about it. But it is an interesting development.'' Not far away, Riaz Ahmed the rickshaw driver prepares to leave the Sanskruti Maidan too. His reaction to the same query is devoid of words. He tugs at his beard and walks off deep in thought or doubt, or perhaps both. After all this was the same man who had boasted that it was a Shiv Sainik who had led the destruction of the Babri Masjid, and exhorted his followers to destroy Muslims in the riots which followed a little over five years ago.

Thackeray's credibility quotient in circa 1998, however, is not to be judged by his past record, rather by his present convictions, according to close associate and Maharashtra's Minister for Culture and Transport Pramod Navalkar. "He sincerely feels this now,'' says Navalkar in Bombay a couple of days later. "He has come to the conclusion that not religion, not politics, not the courts have been able to resolve this problem. Somebody had to take the lead and Balasaheb has done this. It is an adventurous step aimed at nation building and not for vote gathering alone.''

For the moment, however, Bal Thackeray will settle for only the votes.

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