Happy Birthday, Netaji!
As Bal Thackeray turns 83 on Saturday (January 23), I cannot help recalling the politics of birthdays that I have witnessed over the years.
The first political birthday party that I ever attended was that of S B Chavan (father of Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Ashok Chavan), sometime in the late Eighties.Sharad pawar had just merged his Congress(S) with the Congress(I) and become Chief Minister the previous year. And though Chavan Sr was inducted into the union cabinet as Home Minister, I think he was mighty miffed at having been summarily displaced to accommodate the Maratha warlord.
The move opened up a chasm between the so-called `loyalists’ in the Congress and those who were Pawar’s acolytes. The bickering and nitpicking went on for months, until Chavan’s birthday arrived on July 14 the next year. Without making any overt moves that might seem as a campaign against the party high command (it was still Rajiv Gandhi then), Congress loyalists thought they would use Chavan Sr’s birthday to put Pawar in his place.
The party was held at a star hotel in South Bombay and a huge chocolate cake was rolled in to stand under the chandelier in the main ballroom of that hotel. The hosts had invited all and sundry, including journalists, except for one very important person – Chief Minister Sharad Pawar. They were full of glee as Chavan was fashionably late at his own birthday party and crowed at how awful Pawar might feel when he read about it in the papers the next day.
The birthday boy arrived an hour after he was scheduled to cut the cake and we all gathered round him as he held the ribboned knife in his hand and prepared to set the ball rolling. Even as those around him clapped and sang the birthday tune, I turned round to see why there was an unusual hush around the edges of that room.
Sharad Pawar was standing at the door and, even as Chavan cut a slice, Pawar moved slowly towards the centre of the room. And before Chavan could lift the slice and feed it to the person nearest him (I forget who), Pawar was standing with an extended hand to greet Chavan a happy birthday. A chagrined Chavan had to feed the cake to Pawar, instead; they hugged and exchanged pleasantries even as many of the Congress workers stood around in consternation..
Chavan graciously invited him to join the party but Pawar demurely declined. He had another important meeting to attend, he said by way of explanation, but had just dropped in as he was passing by the hotel en route to this other function. He left in minutes but it took several more for the others to regain their composure and continue with the now subdued celebrations.
Next day, as I and another colleague nosed round Pawar’s office, we were told in confidence by a close confidante that Pawar had heard about the plan to cut him out of the party and was damned if he would be defeated by a bunch of `upstarts’ or provide a lot of grist to the mill of journalists who would have a blast the next morning. So he decided to play party pooper-of-sorts (because that is what he had turned out to be the previous night).
We were told that Pawar had arrived at the time given out for the cake-cutting ceremony but sent a sniffer upstairs to find out how things stood. He decided he would not be kept waiting for Chavan inside the hotel and asked his cavalcade to circle round the locality of the hotel several times until Chavan himself had rolled in (he had posted some cops as lookouts). Pawar then timed his entry perfectly to nonplus Chavan and his supporters with, “I heard you were having a party for your birthday. So I decided to drop in myself and greet you in person.’’
And then he went home. Satisfied that he had nipped any mischief in the bud. Chavan never had another birthday party like that one again, though his constituents would celebrate the day in his hometown off and on over the years.
And as far as I remember, Pawar has only ever had one birthday party – when he turned 60 nearly a decade ago. There was a five-star event with the who’s who of India represented the previous evening. But it was his public rally the next day that saddened me the most. For, even then it was no secret that he was dying to be Prime Minister. Atal Behari Vajpayee was in office at the time and Pawar was at pains to explain to his supporters that it was still not too late for him. “In this country no one becomes Prime Minister before they are 70,’’ he said, though that was not strictly true – Indira and Rajiv Gandhi each had been much younger. “Look at P V Narasimha Rao, he was half way through his seventies before he became PM; even Vajpayee now is past 75. I am yet only 60. There is still plenty of time.’’
I wondered if his support base was shrinking and he needed to say that to stop them from abandoning him altogether. Ten years later he is still not PM and I wonder how much more time he would now need to get to that high office.
But it is not just Congressmen who are fond of birthdays. Manohar Joshi had had himself presented with a 60-diamond necklace on – what else? – his 60th birthday in a very public ceremony in Bombay wherein he laid claim to a flawless career stating proudly that no one could find a breath of scandal against him. Bal Thackeray, then about to turn 75, was at the time besieged with allegations that his nephew Raj Thackeray had murdered middle-class professional Ramesh Kini and he did not take that comment kindly. Joshi was out of office within weeks and Thackeray barred anyone from going to town on his own birthday. Joshi has never had another party again.
Nearly a decade later, Thackeray is still off a public celebration of his birthday. Shiv Sainiks, though, have organised blood donation camps, free distribution of grains et al to mark the event but the Sena patriarch has decided to remain out of public view.
I think he is the wisest of them all. I am told he is superstitious – kahin nazar naa lag jaye!