A bully and a coward

Over the years, I must say, I have come to the conclusion that Bal Thackeray is consistent about just one thing – his inconsistency.

In my first interview with the Sena tiger in the Nineties, I was pretty impressed when Balasaheb told me in no uncertain terms, “I am afraid of no one. I do not have any reason to mince my words. I do not withdraw my comments or pass them off as having been misquoted.’’ Quite a man of his convictions, I thought, even though most of the world might not agree with him or his words.

Yet, I noticed over the years that while he was indeed unafraid of anyone but the judiciary (afraid of contempt charges that might get him arrested) and never withdrew his statements, per se, he definitely changed positions and did about-turns quite unabashedly, as many times as it suited him politically.

Look at his stand over Muslims in India. He first had them set on fire during the 1992-93 Bombay riots. Then, when he realised they were still voting for him in large numbers (they were then angry with the Congress over the demolition of the Babri Masjid), he called for a secular monument in Ayodhya. He was not bothered even when Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad poured scorn on him and called him a `vivekheen (brainless) Hindu’ for his troubles.

But when, at the next elections, he found that Muslims had made up with the Congress again he wasted no time in calling for their disenfranchisement.

Next instance: when the Shiv Sena first (and the only time so far) came to power in Maharashtra in 1995, he again minced no words in describing himself as the Sena-BJP government’s remote control. After a media outcry on the creation of an unconstitutional authority and a lot of scorn and ridicule poured upon his then Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, he allowed his party men to explain that all that he had meant was that he was the `High Command’ of the government. “Even the Congress has a High Command. So why can’t I be one for my party?’’ That was quite a reasonable position to take and the media was forced to get off his back.

Third example: at a public rally to celebrate his coming to power, he said North Indian settlers in Bombay will be denied ration cards. This time the BJP, which was hoping to win the parliamentary elections the next year with the help of its core voter base in the Hindi heartland, got after him. Within days he had issued a statement saying all that he had meant was that those coming in newly to the metropolis would not be allowed to apply for ration cards. There was some more arm-twisting by the BJP which was not fully satisfied by this modification of his terms. But by then he had painted himself into a corner on this one. So he held his silence — until North Indians consolidated behind the Congress in 1999. Then he started his tirade again, this time targeting the Congress’s Kripashankar Singh. “A bhaiyya can become a Home Minister in Maharashtra. But can any Maharashtrian get a similar position in UP or Bihar?’’

But so long as he confined his xenophobia to North Indians, his core voter base of the Marathi manoos could understand. What they didn’t was his targetting of Sachin Tendulkar some months ago when he told off the latter for describing himself as “a proud Maharashtrian who was an Indian first’’.

So now he is making up to both his Maharashtrian voters and to Sachin Tendulkar. But this time his retreat is so obvious — and as desperate. Most newspapers had sidelined Mamata Banerjee’s railway budget for Sachin’s double century during the Gwalior One Day International against South Africa. But Saamna went quite overboard, giving the news three-quarters of the front page, from masthead to the bottom and then a full page inside. But what really exposed the desperation was the headline: now describing Sachin as a “friend’’ when he had been clearly declared as an enemy just a few short weeks earlier.

There was more: “Karoon karoon karnaar kon, Sachin shivaya aahech kon (Who else could do this? Who else is there but Sachin)!’’ screamed the headline.

I think the tribute to Sachin had to be quite extra-ordinary given the nature of his accomplishment but that the Saamna would now bend over backwards to heap praise upon a man it had only recently condemned and threatened to attack took even me by surprise. It says much for Sachin Tendulkar, of course: only this Marathi manoos (and Indian) could have brought another like Bal Thackeray to his heels, without uttering even a single word. But it also shows up the Sena tiger for what he really is: a man without any convictions, a demagogue who says — from a position of strength — what he thinks the people want to hear and then has no courage to stand by those statements when they boomerang — and he senses his position to be slipping.

What do they call a man like that? A bully, of course. And, thus typically, a coward!

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