The last laugh is on Raj Thackeray

When Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan accused his Bihar counterpart, Nitish Kumar, of playing cheap political games, he was not far wrong.

Chavan has received a lot of flak for not reigning in Maharashtra Navnirman president Raj Thackeray over his recent comments on Biharis in Maharashtra being `infiltrators’. Raj had also raged against a letter from Bihar’s Director General of Police to his Maharashtra counterpart, protesting against the manner in which the state police had quietly entered Bihar and swiftly exited after arresting two Bihari teens who had been involved in desecrating the Amar Javan Jyoti, a memorial to Indian soldiers, during the August 11 Azad Maidan violence in Bombay.

Nitish Kumar made out as though the letter was leaked to Raj by the Congress-led government in the state. Much as I admire Kumar for what he has done for Bihar in such a short while, I tend to think that it could actually be the other way round. I am sure Kumar has as much respect for Indian soldiers as anybody else in this country. And I am also certain that, given the manner in which he has restored law and order in his home state, the Bihar chief minister could not be a supporter of criminal elements in the country.

Yet, he seemed offended that two Muslim youth, who cannot be seen as anything but miscreants if not quite criminals in the gangster mode, were being punished for their unforgivable crime. I agree with Chavan that Kumar is just playing to his own minority gallery. The manner in which he has gone for Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s jugular in recent months leaves me with the suspicion that he is positioning to break away from the BJP sooner rather than later (I suspect soon after the Gujarat elections, if the results are suitable to his scheme of things) and Kumar was just consolidating his `secular’ vote bank for that event.

I also cannot help but suspect that both Kumar and Raj have benefited equally from the entire controversy in their own ways. But while the Bihar chief minister’s actions and reactions were measured, the last laugh now seems to be on Raj Thackeray. The MNS president was carefully trying to build for himself an essentially Marathi identity through some misinformation on the net (read my column `anandan on Wednesday’ this week here: For a few votes more). But Singh managed to get hold of a book by Raj’s grandfather, Prabodhankar Thackeray, published by the Maharashtra government when Shiv Sena leader Manohar Joshi was chief minister, wherein Prabodhankar makes no bones about the fact that he migrated from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh to Pune in Maharashtra in search of work in the early years of the last century. While that shut Raj up effectively, it was left to his cousin Uddhav to defend the Thackeray clan’s anti-North Indian stance with an unconvincing argument that his grandfather had been speaking in general and not quite personal terms.

While some may accept that argument as both plausible and possible, sadly both history and the present day have conspired to let the Thackerays , particularly Raj, down again. After his incendiary speech about Biharis being infiltrators, MNS activists, earlier this week, went on rampage pulling down posters and shutting down cinemas exhibiting the Bhojpuri film `Ek Bihari, sau par bhari’ (one Bihari can defeat a 100 people). Starring the popular Bhojpuri actor, Dinesh Lal Yadav Nirahua, the film got record openings not just in Bihar but also in cinemas across Bombay, despite the fact that it had to compete with the immensely successful Salman Khan starrer, `Ek Tha Tiger’.

The question being asked now is: could that have been because Raj Thackeray’s own men had evinced an interest in that film? For, a day after MNS activists were arrested for vandalisation of the cinemas showing the film (on September 5), there emerged this letter from MNS MLA Bala Nandgaonkar, considered Raj Thackeray’s closest confidante and a MNS street fighter always in the forefront of such anti-North Indian agitations as well as other parochial campaigns that the party might undertake from time to time:

Written on his official government letterhead, Nandgaonkar makes an appeal to the organisers of a particular cinema house to help his friend, Kesarinath Mhatre, who was its distributor, to exhibit the film in the Super Cinema at Grant Road in South Bombay.
“I hope I will get adequate co-operation from you. Please consider this as a special personal request from me,” Nandgaonkar says in his nuanced letter, making it clear that it was as much an order as a request.

A sheepish Nandgaonkar has now apologised for penning and signing that letter. He told my colleague, Naresh Kamat, that he wrote the same only because he thought he was helping another Marathi manoos (Mhatre). But that excuse only goes to prove that MNS functionaries and their associates, too, indeed do not mind profiteering from Bhojpuri films — but they will not have Biharis live and work in Bombay. Who, then, might buy the tickets to watch these films? Certainly not Maharshtrians most of who do not even understand the `B: of Bhojpuri!

Obviously, this is not just hypocrisy but also duplicity for Raj is defended in various courts across the country where cases have been filed against him by a battery of North Indian lawyers – clearly he has enough trust in them to place his life and safety in their hands. They also defend him with great passion and his anti-North Indian rhetoric seems not to make an iota of difference to his North Indian friends, lawyers, spokespersons and business partners. They seem to all be profiteering from this mutual understanding, in far away Bihar and Uttar Pradesh or even closer home in Maharashtra.

Why should innocent Maharshtrian youth, then, be misled by such chicanery mounted by political charlatans and mountebanks? But it might already be unravelling for the MNS as some of the activists involved in the vandalisation of the movie theatres this week have expressed regret and stated on the record that they felt betrayed by Nandgaonkar’s letter which showed that their leaders do not practice what they preach.

So Raj Thackeray’s political skullduggery might already have begun the process of diminishing returns for both him and his party. He had once appealed to Maharashtrian parents to send their sons to him, “for I will keep them focused, in direction and safe”.

Those parents today are asking why their boys are now seen as no different from those Muslim youth who vandalised the Amar Jyoti Javan on August 11 (similar sections of the law are being applied against them). They are now the other side of the same coin that the MNS chief has labelled as coarse and anti-national.

But it is Raj Thackeray and his close confidantes who are now in danger of turning into khotey sikkey (counterfeit coins) for their own supporters/voters.

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