A couple of years ago, when there was a leadership struggle within the Shiv Sena, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi who wanted control of the party just as he had exercised his authority over its founder Bal Thackeray and manipulated the Sena tiger all his life, had taunted Uddhav Thackeray in the most demeaning terms. In the context of a memorial to Thackeray, he had said, “Had it been Balasaheb wanting a memorial for his father and the government had been playing fast and loose with him over grant of land for the purpose, he would have created a ruckus and flooded the streets with Shiv Sainiks. The government would have been unnerved into promptly granting him the land he wanted… That kind of courage is lacking in today’s leadership.’’

Uddhav had not reacted at all – unlike his father who would have roared and raged and threatened Joshi with dire consequences for virtually calling him a coward. But some months later he responded by denying Joshi a ticket to the Lok Sabha that he had wanted and completely marginalised him giving Joshi no role in the party functioning and virtually rendering him unwanted and undesired by anyone in the party.

But as the Shiv Sena completes fifty yes of its existence today (June 19), I cannot help but note that Bal Thackeray seems to have shrunk not just in spirit but also in size – on the posters that the party has put up on the occasion. While earlier he was always larger than life, now he occupies equal room as his son and political heir and Uddhav seems to have finally completely taken over the party and molded it in his own image.

Of course, there is no flooding the streets with Shiv Sainiks as Joshi would have wished but that toning down is not necessarily a bad thing for the party – and mor particularly for the people. But the worrying issue for the party is that while it may now be a watered down version of what Balasaheb’s party was, it has few ideas beyond what its founder had had at the establishment of the party in 1966 and it is thrashing about for a raison d’etre in the 21st century.

In the absence of such ideas, however, the party continues to do what it does best – oppose the government. But now it is no longer the question of opposing an ideologically opposite party. It is strange that the Shiv Sena is getting away with calling Narendra Modi names and trashing every policy of the government both at the Centre and in the state. The party took particular delight in declaring that the Modi magic does not work any more when the BJP lost a series of elections every where except in Assam, it poked fun at the BJP’s self-congratulation at its Assam win, it trashed Modi’s Pakistan policy and, in the state, it is constantly needling Devendra Fadnavis at his inability to control the drought situation in Marathwada, bitterly opposing his alleged attempt to reduce the influence of Marathi speaking people by breaking up the state into several parts including Vidarbha (which would then become largely Hindi speaking) and Marathwada (which would then be Dakhani or Urdu speaking). It is strange to say the least because all the time the Shiv Sena is an equal partner in both governments and while one understands the dependence of the Fadnavis government on the party, one wonders why Modi stands for such nonsense – more fun is poked at his government by the Shiv Sena than by the Congress or other parties on the left.

However, I believe the turning point in both the alliance and the Shiv Sena’s existentialist crisis will come only after elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. The Sena does not care about ruling at the Centre or in the state but control of the civic body is all important to the party which has not grown beyond four or five urban centres, the most important of them being Bombay which continues to be it core constituency.

But even if the Sena were to win the BMC — and it has a fair chance considering that its closest rival is the Congress which is so ridden with factions that it might be unable to put up a concerted fight despite the best efforts of its city president Sanjay Nirupam, there is nothing the Sena will be left with at the next elections to the parliament or the assembly if the BJP goes ahead with its determined effort to marginalise the party so that it ceases its dependence on the whims and fancies of the Thackerays and is able to pursue its own policies and agendas without the Sena becoming a stumbling block – like in the separation of Vidarbha from Maharashtra. But even though the party has now taken on the personality of its president Uddhav Thackeray and may have reduced Balasaheb in size and spirit, I notice in substance it continues to follow the outdated policies of it founder. The question the party must ask , however, is if in a half century, the Marathi manoos has not evolved at all and is still fighting for Class 3 and Class 4 jobs or has sunk even lower. For while Bal Thackeray was fighting for clerical jobs for his supporters, today’s Sena is in conflict with north Indian taxi drivers and peanut vendors – jobs that no self-respecting Maharashtrian wants as they take their place alongside the best across a globalised economy.

The fight of the Shiv Sena continues to be the fights of the 1960s and 1970s, shorn of violence and bloodshed and that has contributed to a sense of ennui and lack of conviction among the people that the Sena has their best interests at heart.

I believe, therefore, that despite its possible victory at the BMC elections, the Shiv Sena’s GenNext leaders will have to think fast on their feet and evolve into a party of governance if they do not wish to be left behind in the next half century. Meanwhile the ghost of Bal Thackeray will continue to haunt the Sena even if it wishes to reduce the tiger in both size and plasma.

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On Rajiv Gandhi’s 25th death anniversary, I recall the devastation I felt when I was recalled for duty past my dinner time. I stayed closest to my place of work – a news agency – and there were no mobile phones at the time. All my colleagues were on trains on their way back home in the distant suburbs and by the time they got the message and started back, much time would have elapsed. So I was startled when some stones began to hit my third floor window and some one came tearing upstairs to inform me that two of my colleagues (peons) were at the gates, desperately asking for me. I rushed down in my night clothes and when they informed me about the emergency, my mind just went blank. I charged upstairs in tears and changed back into street clothes and got into the waiting cab to be driven back to office.

That night, I single-handedly operated the photo-fax machine and uploaded the pictures to all subscribers. Soon there were photographers from all newspapers in the city making a beeline to my office to look at pictures that I might not have sent across to them. We were the earliest to have got that technology in the city and the papers were eager for some ‘exclusive’ pictures that all would not publish the next morning. I was the first, perhaps, to see the devastating photo of Rajiv lying on the ground with clothes torn off his back and Tamil Nadu Congress leader GK Moopanar sorrowfully spreading a blanket across him – that was a picture never released and I do not know if any one ever published that in so many years. I kept up the transmissions till other colleagues arrived at four in the morning after a bath and change of clothes and then stretched out on a desk, in complete exhaustion.

Today as I see hash tags on social media avowing that Rajiv Gandhi was the one who first launched digital India and changed the way a nation came into the 21st century from the 19th century we were stuck in. I am also reminded about how my career graph shaped up parallel to India’s communication revolution. In 1984, I was assigned to cover the Lok Sabha elections in remote towns and districts – I remember strap hanging in the buses to reach the villages and then having to locate the nearest post office from where I could send either a telegram or a teleprinter message. It was a very painful exercise and there was no guarantee that the report would reach my head office the same day – some reports took three days between writing and publication.

The next election, in 1989, after covering Rajiv’s election rally in Solapur on April 14, after he flew to Mhau to commemorate Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, I trotted off to the nearest post office, again looking for another teleprinter machine and operator. The post master of that village post office was surprised. “Why do you want to send your message through teleprinter?” he asked. “We have a fax machine, Madam. If there is a supporting machine on the other side, your report will be there in minutes.”

We did have one and all I needed to do was make a long distance call to the news editor to make sure my report had not arrived garbled at the other end. In 1991, fax machines were everywhere and made use of with ease but by 1996, I was using a laptop – though I had to go looking for a working telephone to connect. By 1998, though, I had the luxury of e-mails but they might still take hours to reach the recipients. The situation improved through the elections of 1999 but by 2004, there was no doubt that my reports would be on the desk of my editor within minutes. In 2009, I was still using a lapop but now with the ease of a data card and in 2014, I did not have to tug along heavy computer bags. A tablet sat snugly in my handbag and the policemen checking me for security as I entered meetings of Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi knew exactly what it was. “Just switch on the tablet in front of us and switch on and off your mobile phone so that we are sure they are not wired for bombs,” they said. I obliged and they waved me through.

I agree the ease of communication today is entirely owing to Rajiv Gandhi – I still remember a visit to Russia in 1992 where foreign correspondents working for British and American newspapers told me India was an important transit point for their messages – the former Soviet Union had still not improved their communication facilities and only the lines to India worked. So they sent their reports to their New Delhi bureaus which faxed them onwards to their native countries. That was not just lack of development or backwardness – Soviet bosses believed in not giving too much freedom to communicate to their people lest information become a weapon in their hands against governments. Rajiv Gandhi, though, never thought of anything as bizarre as that. I remember attending one of his events where he earnestly and passionately told listeners, “The industrial revolution bypassed India. We cannot afford the information revolution to do the same.’’

There is much that I admired about Rajiv Gandhi but what I am very greatful to him for is this – I had to book fixed time calls to communicate with my parents when he first became Prime Minister. Gradually, I could get to a STD booth and wait in a long line to call my parents. Then one of these booth owners offered me the facility of the conference call so that I could sit at home and immediately connect with my parents. Then I got my first mobile phone in 1996 and suddenly I could talk with them whenever I wished.

Can anyone in the younger generation even imagine a life without that mobile phone? He/she has only Rajiv Gandhi to thank for that.

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I may be wrong but I have a fair idea of who has been trolling journalists not supportive of Narendra Modi – a fellow journalist and a female one at that, masked behind an anonymous handle. By and large it is paid trolls of saffron parties who operate behind anonymous identities, liberals, generally, have the courage to not hide their identities. Read more

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Recently a BJP ideologue from Gujarat, Hemant Fitter, called me to express his anguish. “I will never vote for the BJP again in my life. It will be ghor paap (a cardinal sin) if I do so and I will have to burn in hell.”
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Nearly a decade ago, I found myself appointed, out of the blue, to the advisory panel of the Censor Board. I did not known why I should have been there, I was no film critic nor a political affiliate of any group or party. Read more

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I wonder how many people in India know that before Shakshi Maharaj who wants every Indian woman to produce four children and former RSS sarsanghchalak K Sudershan who had wanted us to produce five and remain barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen all our lives, there was a creature called Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania who had had the same idea about women in his own country? Read more

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Paris. My most favourite city in the world where I spent two years in the 1990s studying for a diploma in journalism and making many friends, among them a large number of Muslims mostly immigrants from the Maghreb – the former French colonies of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Read more

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As the reconciliation talks between the Shiv Sena and the BJP got underway on Friday, my colleague Sayli Mankikar tweeted rather tongue-in-cheek – reporters hanging outside Matoshree with Odomos. Last time many of them had caught dengue! Read more

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Writing on Children’s day, I cannot help but recall a childhood/teenage wish that will never be fulfilled, at least not in this life – I wish I had been born old enough to romance Jawaharlal Nehru. Read more

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Years ago after a rather scintillating interview with Bal Thackeray, I thought I had a sort of `scoop’ of the century. The Shiv Sena was ruling Maharashtra in alliance with the BJP and the 13 day government of Atal Behari Vajpayee had just reinstated the Srikrishna commission probing the 1992-93 Bombay riots, which had earlier been dismissed by the state government. Thackeray was livid. He sent for me when I called him for a reaction – it was worth every minute spent at Matoshree to watch him letting off steam. I recorded the entire interview. Read more

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