A flavour going out of season

Bal Thackeray was jailed for a few days in the 1960s when Morarji Desai took on the Shiv Sena for its disruptive ways – the party had just been launched in Maharashtra and the Sena’s first protest, of course, was to join up the movement to integrate the Marathi-speaking Belgaum in Karnataka with the rest of Maharashtra. Sainiks lay down before Desai’s motorcade and he trampled all over them. The rest, of course, is history.

But the Sena tiger hated his prison experience. Ever since, Thackeray has been afraid of just one thing in his life – the judiciary. He fears that anything he might say about the courts and the judges might incur contempt and back he might go to jail (though, at his age, I think that is now highly unlikely).

And somehow it is only the Courts that are able to get the better of Thackeray – even his superstitions. Thackeray believes if he launches his campaigns from Chowpatty off Marine Drive in Bombay and ends them along with BJP leaders at Shivaji Park, he wins the elections – as he did a series of municipal corporation elections and even Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in combination with the BJP. So he was not going to let go of them easily.

That’s when the then Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, in 2004, decided he would go to Court to get a decision on whether he should allow Thackeray’s rallies at Chowpatty or not. It was not a conspiracy against Thackeray but the government of the day believed he was a high security risk campaigning at Chowpatty. They would have been pulverised by the voters had anything happened to Thackeray on the beach; yet Thackeray was in no mood to listen, believing the government was keeping him from campaigning at his favourite opening grounds to deliberately make him lose the elections.

It may just be a coincidence but ever since the Courts decided there should be no VVIP exposed to terrorists from across the sea in the manner they would at Chowpatty, Thackeray has been losing one election after another.

He still did have half a chance, though, in Shivaji Park as his lucky mascot. But now the Bombay High Court has again snatched another candy from the Sena tiger – if its decision to ban public noise at Shivaji Park goes through, Thackeray’s luck might go out of season altogether.

Which makes me rather sad – somehow Thackeray and Shivaji Park are synonymous to me. I have covered countless of the Shiv Sena’s rallies at Shivaji Park. Congress and Dalit rallies at the same venue were never the same.

It was not just for election rallies that Thackeray preferred the Shivaji Park, though. Firstly, it was ideally named to suit his party’s own essence (both are named after Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj), so it almost seemed as though they were made for each other. Then Thackeray had addressed his first annual Dassera rally at the Shivaji Park, an enormously successful one it was and so that became the site for these rallies for at least four decades after.

I recall these rallies usually happened mornings (I used to hate to get up that early and get to the Shivaji Park by 10 am). Then two things happened: Thackeray’s sainiks got into a communal riot one afternoon while returning after the rally in high spirits (both the abstract and the real kind) and Thackeray himself began to have a problem with Goddess Durga.

Bombay’s Bengali Society has a club house off Shivaji Park and one of the metropolis’s biggest poojas is held in a corner of the huge grounds each year. On Vijaya Dashmi day, Thackeray’s speeches clashed with the conch shells and chantings as the Goddess was being bid goodbye. One year, full of the arrogance of being in power, Thackeray lost patience and over the public address system he began to mimic the chants of the priests in a rosogolla Bong accent. Predictably, the Bengali community of Bombay was not too pleased. They complained to the authorities. Now, with the Sena itself in charge, their Chief Minister Manohar Joshi could not afford to get into a row with another community which worshipped the Goddess with as much reverence as Thackeray did. Next year, Thackeray’s rally shifted to the evening and stayed with evenings (which was a big relief to late risers like me).

Its been sometime, though, since I have been to Thackeray’s rallies (perhaps because he has not been addressing too many of them of late). One of the major reasons why I have stopped is that I hate to see Thackeray the way he is today: frail, wound down but keyed up by his aides to be able to trot out a few lucid lines – quite different from the times he used to thunder to the crowds as their `Hindu Hriday Samrat’, receive a thunderous applause in return with firecrackers going off for at least fifteen minutes before he could resume his speech.

That does not happen any more because even the Shiv Sainiks know by now that their sarsenapati has nothing new and, in any case, not much to say any longer. Moreover, whatever little he has to say, he says through a DVD these days – quite different from the flesh and blood experience of yore.

So I guess it is just as well that there will be no public rallies at Shivaji Park any more. It marks the end of an era in more ways than one – something so essentially Bombay is now clearly looking at a full stop.

And Uddhav Thackeray, I can see, will have his work cut out finding his own turf and his own lucky grounds.

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