Column: Two funerals and the politics of fear

Mon Nov 19, 2012 12:27pm IST

Supporters of the Shiv Sena party carry a portrait of right-wing Hindu nationalist politician Bal Thackeray before his funeral procession in Mumbai, November 18, 2012. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

Supporters of the Shiv Sena party carry a portrait of right-wing Hindu nationalist politician Bal Thackeray before his funeral procession in Mumbai, November 18, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Vivek Prakash

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(The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not represent those of Reuters)

By C. Uday Bhaskar

Two funerals -- one in Mumbai and the other in New Delhi -- dominated India's collective consciousness on Sunday and they inadvertently point to the politics of fear that animates the political spectrum and the corrosive cronyism that has become a euphemism for the rags-to-riches story of some buccaneering business tycoons.

Both narratives augur ill for India's socio-political and socio-economic trajectory. The spate of corruption scandals that periodically erupt on prime-time television with high-decibel intensity -- but alas ineffectively -- are testimony to this malignant ecosystem that has been nurtured by the prevailing politico-bureaucratic combine.

Bal Thackeray, the 86-year-old Shiv Sena leader was consigned to the flames in Mumbai where thousands of his ardent supporters bade him a tearful farewell. A cartoonist who turned to politics in 1966, he became an astute practitioner of "hate-politics", wherein he stoked the domestic "Maharashtrian" identity and held Mumbai (then Bombay) to ransom.

Deftly positioning himself as the determined guardian of the spirit of Shivaji, the 17th-century Maratha ruler, Thackeray soon became a champion of the Hindu right wing and began a long career of the politics of intimidation of the non-Hindu Maharashtrian. Bombay, India's most cosmopolitan city and the financial capital, was soon compelled to conform to the Thackeray diktat.

In the early decades, it was the professionally enabled, middle-class South Indian immigrant who became the target of Thackeray's ire. Soon, the Muslim and more recently the Hindi-speaking immigrant worker from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were made to feel unwelcome and unsafe.

Admitting that he admired Hitler and was in favour of Hindu terror groups to "teach" Pakistan a lesson, Thackeray successfully practised his political brand of fear, hatred and exclusive Hindu identity. He was able to bring Mumbai to a halt by encouraging his devoted "sainiks", Shiv Sena party members, to go on the rampage if the Thackeray order was not complied with. This ability to intimidate was in evidence even after his death.

Mumbai came to an uneasy halt when news of Thackeray's faltering health spread and almost 50,000 police personnel were deployed to prevent any public disorder. That the financial capital of India can come to a halt in such an unctuous manner and that almost every Indian politician and celebrity, including film stars and sportspersons, rushed to pay homage is reflective of the trepidation that the Thackeray brand of politics continues to exude.

India is preparing for state and national elections over the next year and it will be instructive to monitor the manner in which the ideologies of "majoritarian exclusivity" are mediated in the political discourse of the day, for they have significant implications for the internal security dynamic of the country. The post-Thackeray jostling for power in Maharashtra and Mumbai will offer some cues about how identity is objectively and equitably accommodated -- or cynically manipulated.

The other funeral in Delhi was that of controversial liquor baron Gurdeep Singh, better known as Ponty Chadha, who was killed by his brother on Saturday in what is being perceived as a deadly family feud. Chadha's astronomical rise, from being a small-town businessman in Uttar Pradesh to a vast empire valued at over 20,000 crore rupees that spanned liquor, real estate and films among other ventures, has been ascribed to his close and opaque connection with the political apex and the bureaucracy.

Whether Indian business viability and successful entrepreneurship will remain inexorably linked to shady and shadowy political and bureaucratic connections goes to the heart of the prevailing anger over what is seen as all pervasive corruption and cronyism -- which again has very corrosive implications for the internal security of the country.

The scourge of black money and the malaise of money power and muscle power have tarnished the Indian electoral process and the world's largest democracy may also qualify for having the highest corruption and violence index. The cancer of corruption and bribery has weakened institutional integrity and credibility in India across the board -- from the political classes, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, police and even the media.

Both Thackeray and Chadha were symptomatic of deeply corrosive traits in the Indian socio-political ecosystem and their public profile warrants much deeper reflection and redress if India is to retain its normative profile and the resilience of its internal dynamic.

(C. Uday Bhaskar is Distinguished Fellow, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi)

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