April 13, 2010

Bal Thackeray and Subramanian Swamy: Two Crusaders of the Hindu Right

The Daily Times
April 09, 2010

HUM HINDUSTANI: The two crusaders

by J Sri Raman

Swamy and Thackeray are past masters at political lynching, though Thackeray’s followers may get physical about it as well. And both continue with their series of crusades, regardless of either results or reactions

The dissimilarities between Bal Thackeray and Subramanian Swamy are many and manifest. There is, however, no mistaking their striking similarity as practitioners of the politics of dementia.

The main dissimilarity consists in the fact that the Shiv Sena chief enjoys a nationwide notoriety, while very few know of Swamy as the F├╝hrer of the Janata Party. Even fewer are those who know of the existence of such a party. Thackeray, with his saffron apparel and strings of beads, can still mobilise scores of musclemen in Mumbai streets for causes beyond others’ comprehension. Swamy, in his ‘angavastram’ (shoulder cloth) of ornamental borders, presides over a practically one-man party and prefers to conduct his campaigns in courts, with select media substituting for mass supporters of any size.

On the face of it, the fundamental similarity between the two politicians of blackmail from Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu lies in the loyalty of both to the lie called ‘Hindutva’, a philosophy of religious bigotry to which the average Indian citizen of the majority community does not subscribe. What makes Thackeray and Swamy birds of the same feather, in fact, is the method behind their madness. Both are past masters at political lynching, though Thackeray’s followers may get physical about it as well. And both continue with their series of crusades, regardless of either results or reactions.

By normal standards, for example, the Shiv Sena should be sulking in a corner now, after the resounding snubs it received on its latest campaigns. Thackeray himself took on Sachin Tendulkar, asking the master batsman not to get ‘run out’ by asserting non-Maharashtrian Indians’ right to live and work in Mumbai. Sachin hit the Sena for a six by reiterating his stand, turning the entire nation into a cheering stadium. The goons turned to another glamour boy, Shahrukh Khan, and mounted a furious campaign against his latest film, ‘My Name Is Khan’, to punish him for wanting Pakistani cricketers in the Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament. The film became an instant box-office hit.

The never-say-die Sena has been quick to seize its next issue. The announcement of Sania Mirza-Shoaib Malik wedding plans was just the kind of opportunity it had been waiting for. The party’s slogan-shouters and stone-throwers were back in the streets. They clamoured for the deportation of the only Indian woman in world tennis if she defied the Sena and wedded — yes, you guessed it right — a Pakistani cricketer, even if he was no contender for the gala IPL event.

Thackeray has received no support in the matter from any section of political opinion — not even its otherwise staunch ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), trying hard to look liberal without losing its traditional base. The Sena can, however, be counted upon to soldier on. So can Swamy.

He returned from Harvard in the mid-70s to embrace ‘Hindutva’ and enlist in the Jan Sangh, the more brazenly communal parent of the BJP. Through over the three decades of political turbulence since then, legions espoused the lost causes Swamy has endorsed. Swamy is often accused of defamation but never gets deterred by such charges. In fact, he grew so used to them that he wrote an article captioned ‘Defamation litigation: a survivor’s kit’ way back in 2004.

We can leave it to professional muckrakers to peruse and profit by the manual. Nor need we be detained by the diverse issues and individuals involved in his past campaigns. The latest instance of his intervention in public affairs should suffice as an illustration of his mission and methods.

The case of Nalini Sriharan, the target of tireless Swamy, is 19 years old. Forty-five-year-old Nalini is the unlucky one who did not get away after the assassination of former prime minister by a human bomb on the night of May 21, 1991. Many of the sympathisers say she played only a peripheral role in the affair, and none of her detractors claims she played anything like the primary part in the assassination. She was originally sentenced to death, but the sentence was suspended. This was reportedly done at the behest of Rajiv’s widow, Sonia Gandhi, who did not want the daughter born to Nalini in jail orphaned. By all accounts, Nalini has been a model prisoner and used her days in captivity to pursue higher education through correspondence courses.

In an e-mail interview in August 2008, she said she “regrets” Rajiv’s killing. She called him a “great leader” and his death a “loss” to the country. In April 2008, Rajiv’s daughter Priyanka Vadra met Nalini in prison. Priyanka said later that she had “forgiven” the convict, while Nalini reportedly talked of her “sins” being “washed away” after the meeting.

Nalini has also been quoted as saying that “the real conspirators” had not been brought to book. New Delhi, which has always held the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) responsible for the assassination, was never able to force its top leaders including Velupillai Prabhakaran and Anton Balasingham to face the law of the land.

It is a plea of Nalini for premature release that moved Swamy into a paroxysm of patriotic rage. He is claimed to have won a victory with the rejection of the plea on the ground that the prison authorities perceiving no ‘regret’ in her and the state government of Tamil Nadu (where she is incarcerated) talking darkly of a threat to law and order in the event of her release though the Tigers may be an extinct species.

In a television debate, Swamy was nearly in tears as he talked of what Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination meant to the nation. Watching him, few could recall that Swamy had been among the belligerent campaigners against Rajiv on the ‘Bofors scam’, on which successive regimes — including non-Congress ones — have been able to prove nothing. It is another matter that as the law minister in one of these governments (under Chandra Shekhar as the prime minister), the same Swamy tried his best to stall investigations into the case.

The rejection of Nalini’s plea does not quite rob Swamy of this particular issue. In September 2008, he had taken the stand that commutation of her death sentence was ‘vitiated by illegality’. There is nothing to stop him from going to the court and questioning the commutation again.

He is sure to find strong support from Thackeray, who has also been fighting against commutation of another death sentence — with an even greater ferocity than those glamour boys and girl have faced. The Sena chief has never forgiven former President A P J Abdul Kalam for not rejecting the plea for clemency to Mohammad Afzal or Afzal Guru sentenced to dearth in the ‘parliament attack’ case.

No noose is bad news for the nation — that is a common message from the two colourful politicians. The people may not agree. But the dramatics of the Thackerays and Swamys are, perhaps, the price a country has to pay for democracy.

The writer is a journalist based in Chennai, India. A peace activist, he is also the author of a sheaf of poems titled At Gunpoint