He could never laugh at himself…
Bal Thackeray, discharged from hospital early this week, has expressed a desire to campaign at the coming Assembly elections. The last time that he appeared in public, at the Shiv Sena’s annual Dassera rally last October, it was almost painful to see him slowly brought up to the stage, supported by innumerable attendants, gasping for breath and slow in his speech and thoughts, needing prompting off and on again. I am not looking forward to a repeat performance. For I would like to remember him as his fiery old self, blustery and unrepentant at all times.
I never agreed with Bal Thackeray’s politics but I must admit I enjoyed sparring with the old man. I have always insisted that he does not have a sense of humour – for that is an ability to laugh at oneself as much as anything else. On the contrary, he was always great at poking fun at others without being able to appreciate occasions when the tables were turned on him.
Like the time when I like to believe I did. The Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra had been barely in existence for a year when Atal Behari Vajpayee was sworn in as Prime Minister in New Delhi. His government lasted for just 13 days but they were enough for him to strike a major blow at his ally and Thackeray has hated Vajpayee ever since.
Soon after coming to power in Maharashtra, the Manohar Joshi government had abolished the Srikrishna Commission looking into the 1992-93 Bombay riots and Vajpayee revoked that order to revive it again. Thackeray was literally speechless. The decision came early in the morning and I tried reaching Thackeray for nearly 12 hours (11am to 11pm) before being told by the board at Matoshree, his residence, that there was no “electricity’’ and so the line could not be connected to Balasaheb. “Call back at 11 am tomorrow and he will speak to you.’’
That got my goat. “Tell Balasaheb from me that he is the editor of a newspaper, too,” I snapped back. “And he knows well enough that we cannot hold the story. I am going to press without his reaction, whatever the consequences may be.’’
In a real rage at having been so bounced all day when he had no intention of ever speaking to me or anyone, I decided to get even with him and wrote my story saying, “ More than 12 hours after the Vajpayee government decided to reinstate the Srikrishna Commission, Bal Thackeray was so traumatised and in such a state of shock, that he was simply rendered speechless…’’
It was now my turn to get Thackeray’s goat. The next day’s Saamna reported, “Some in the media believe that I am a fool, that I am unable to understand anything; that I am unable to react… etc.’’
“Well, aren’t you?’’ I asked when he sent for me the day after and protested.
“You could have waited a day,’’ he said.
“Oh, no. I couldn’t,’’ I replied. “I don’t know if your secretary gave you my message but I would like to stress that as the editor of Saamna, you ought to know that these things don’t wait. I had to go to press with or without your reaction. And considering that you had a whole day and more to formulate it, someone should have had the honesty to say you don’t wish to comment.’’
“I do now,’’ he said. And came up with such nasty comments for Vajpayee that it turned my ears red. Needless to say, I couldn’t go to it with print.
“Next time, speak to me before you write anything,’’ said Thackeray as I was leaving.
“Then don’t insult my intelligence by saying that there is no electricity at Matoshree. You actually expect me to believe that Matoshree would go without electricity for more than 12 hours and your government would do nothing about it?’’
Thackeray suddenly had a sheepish look on his face. But even through the embarrassment of having been caught out, he did not lose anything in his response. “I may not have the electricity, Madam,’’ he said very imperiously in the most authoritative tones. “But I have all the power I need!’’
My annoyance dissolved as I almost doubled up in laughter. “If only you could have come up with something like this yesterday, Balashaeb,” I said, “we could have saved all this trouble!’’
But as I played my tape back after that interview, I realised from the virulence of his comments against Vajpayee that he could never have – because he could never have laughed at himself. Never could, never did. And, with all the mess – some would say, laughing stock — he has made of his family and the Sena, perhaps never will.