The Old Order Changeth…

There’s something distinctively feeble about the tiger’s roar these days. And perhaps many of the recent fat cats in the Shiv Sena have something to do with it.

When I had first started out a a journalist in the 1980s, I recall Bal Thackeray had supreme confidence whenever he said, “The streets will be flooded with blood if a hair on my head is touched by anyone!”

Not just that. His every wish was a command to the Shiv Sainiks and they were willing to give up everything for him at the drop of a hat.

Something has changed in the Sena and it is not just to do with the bad blood between Thackeray’s son and nephew, Uddhav and Raj. I have been looking at the issue for some time and the penny finally dropped as I got into a conversation with my cable operator this week.

Bigg Boss Season 4 had just been launched and my annual subscription for the conditional access system that operates in my area was coming up. With two Pakistanis on the show, it was to be expected that either Thackeray or his nephew Raj would try to disrupt the shooting. But before I could ask my cable man, he assured me, “Don’t worry about blackouts. We will not let that happen.”

“Wha…” I began but he did not let me finish. “Lots of people in this building have asked me if the cable services will be disrupted because of Balasaheb’s objections. At least mine won’t. Perhaps an hour or two when most of you are at work but for the rest of the time, there will be no blackouts.”

I was startled. But I noticed that while many Shiv Sainiks have tried to barge into the Bigg Boss House in Lonavla on at least two occasions this week, they haven’t succeeded in disrupting the proceedings. If they were serious, they would not have allowed a little thing like a police lathi-charge to stop them in their tracks. And, helped by my cable man’s insights, I think I know why.

The Sena was once a party of the lower middle classes, residents of chawls and hutments, who did not have much in life and had little to lose at any point of time. Then the inevitable happened: the Sena came to power in the mind-Nineties and, as is wont, the government began to benefit many of its own people. It is in those four-and-a-half years, between 1995 and 1999, that the Sena-led government gave out many licences to its own men, not just in the cable business but across entrepreneurships. Once allowed an opportunity, many proved as capable as others before them had been and quite a few of Shiv Sainiks are now builders/small manufacturers/ cable operators/shop keepers. In other words, they have acquired an interest, if not a vested one, in law and order.

Never mind the disruptions that the Sena and its offshoot, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, might want, there are now people in both parties who cannot afford to allow their businesses to shut down beyond a point. Hence, much of the protests from these two parties are now getting limited to tokenism. For, even if Thackeray and other leaders (who will not be the ones fighting on the streets) might genuinely want to disrupt normal life in Bombay or elsewhere to prove a political point, their one-time enforcers are either unwilling or unable to do so. Because such disruptions are now beginning to affect their own financial interests as much as that of the others they disrupted when they were both lean and mean.

So it is these fat cats who are making sure that their once-adored leader is a tiger no more. For, while Thackeray might still have the powers to disrupt life around him, he does not have any to make sure that his foot soldiers escape the retribution that follows their participation in street fights ordered by him. In fact, one old-time sainik gave me an insight into this around the time that the Sena was protesting against the release of Shah Rukh Khan’s film, My Name Is Khan.

“Who will bail us out if we are slammed behind bars? We have to spend our own resources getting out of jail and on the judicial process that follows. In addition, we invite the government’s wrath and endanger our renewals (of licences). Frankly, its just not worth it. Why offer a challenge to the Gods when the rest of our life is working out just fine?”

Clearly, the Shiv Sena is now a party in need of reinvention. And, may be, launching a youth wing on Dassera day next week for his grandson, Aditya, who could then be a magnet to youngsters attracted to Raj (so far the most youthful leader in Maharashtra), is Thackeray’s way of taking a last bow. The old order changeth – and it is clearly in need of that change. But I wonder if it will get as lean and mean as it was once upon a time or is that street-smartness now a thing of the past?

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