Shiv Sena force-feeding: How chapati-gate threatens Modi sarkar's image
Coalition dharma cannot be cause for the BJP to seek refuge in a diplomatic silence over the Rajan Vichare episode. It must speak out against the Shiv Sena's hooliganism loud and clear.
What has been a troubled marriage in the best of times, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance could be headed for rocky days following the national uproar over Sena MP Rajan Vichare force-feeding a Muslim catering contractor as punishment for the poor quality of food at the Maharashtra Sadan.
On Wednesday, as Sena MPs trooped into the well of Lok Sabha, you could see L K Advani looking pained and Sushma Swaraj downright angry. A BJP member Ramesh Bidhuri from South Delhi who apparently made offensive comments in support of the Sena was quickly ordered to tender an apology. Advani would later tell television channels that what the Sena MPs did was just plain "wrong".
Vichare was not exactly a picture of consternation, but he did tell reporters that he realised only later, from the news channels, that the man whose mouth he had tried to stuff the chapati into was Muslim. "For hurting any religious sentiment, I am sorry," Vichare told Times Now.
The other Shiv Sena MPs were much less nervous. Krupal Tumane said it was the media that should apologise for the communal slur. Party president Uddhav Thackeray appeared to agree.
The Sena's lumpen elements may have assisted Narendra Modi's ride to New Delhi somewhat, but here are three reasons why he or the BJP can no longer afford to play silent observer to its ally's hooliganism.
One: The Saamna editorial today exemplifies everything about the Sena that's out of sync with Narendra Modi's India First slogan.
The redoubtable Saamna, the ever-strident Shiv Sena mouthpiece, has taken up the cause of the party MPs, painting the incident as a brave struggle for the rights of the Marathi manoos.
There's nothing of Maharashtra or its culture reflected in the new Maharashtra Sadan, despite the inflated bills and the alleged corruption in the construction contracts for the building, the editorial published on Thursday says. "Marathi men cannot rightfully stake claim to this space ... There is no drinking water, no cleanliness, no adequate canteen facilities..." It's natural for elected MPs to be angered, the editorial contends, adding that it is the Congress-NCP leadership that's giving the incident a communal hue.
The Sena edit writers appeared to have channeled their inner Kejriwal as well: "If raising our voice against anarchy is a crime then yes, our mards have committed this crime in Delhi..."
History is witness to Maharashtra being insulted in Delhi, it continues. "But if the Marathi manoos is treated as a nobody then the Shiv Sena will not tolerate that insult." In fact, the chappati should be forced into the mouth of the Maharashtra chief minister, chief secretary, the PWD minister (a barb at the NCP's Chhagan Bhujbal who was at the centre of allegations of corruption in the Maharashtra Sadan construction contract) and the resident commissioner, Saamna splutters.
Then, bizarrely, and dangerously, the editorial argues that while the media and opportunistic politicians have raised hell in Parliament over Vichare's behaviour, nobody has raised a similar furore over the rape of a minor girl in Afghanistan by a maulvi "right inside the masjid" or the Muslim teacher who raped a minor in a Bangalore school.
And finally, it says to those politicising this issue: "Tomorrow's rulers of Maharashtra are the Shiv Sena, let them not forget."
Needless to say, the BJP is likely gnashing its teeth silently at that imperious last line of the Saamna editorial and more. Already, the BJP in Maharashtra has distanced itself. "There was no official statement till Wednesday evening from the party to bail out its long-time poll ally," a Times of India report said.
Speaking to newspaper anonymously, a Maharashtra BJP functionary reportedly said, "We are shocked over the incident. The Sena doesn't seem to be able to give up its penchant for 'tod-phod' politics. We don't exactly know how to react when the Sena behaves in such a manner."
Two: The attempts to avoid condemning the Sena make BJP and the Modi sarkar look disingenuous.
The video footage makes it clear Vichare was shoving the chapati into Arshad Zubair's mouth even as he was pleaded that he was fasting. The seniors in the BJP have been guarded, however, insisting that while the conduct was uncalled for, no one should read no communal angle here.
Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said Vichare's behaviour is not in conformity with "what is expected of an elected representative" and added that he's glad the Sena had apologised (though no real apology has been tendered by any Sena member). Shahnawaz Hussain said he understands that the Sena MP did not know which faith the canteen official belonged to. He did not say, however, if the behaviour was acceptable if the victim was neither Muslim nor fasting. Meanwhile, Union minister Prakash Javadekar repeated what Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkiah Naidu said in Parliament, that the report needs to be substantiated first.
But Javadekar and Naidu, like many other senior BJP leaders, are being disingenuous. The Sena MPs' ruckus in the palatial Maharashtra Sadan complex took place on July 17. In Mumbai's Mantralaya, mandarins and politicians of all parties knew of the incident -- the victim had written a complaint letter to the Resident Commissioner who had duly reported it to his seniors in the Maharashtra government, and the IRCTC wrote to the resident commissioner as well. Bipin Mullick, the resident commissioner, wrote to the IRCTC officially the following day offering to visit the victim and the IRCTC decided to suspend its services at the Maharashtra Sadan -- all of which was duly communicated to the Maharashtra government. In fact, Maharashtra chief secretary JS Saharia was in Delhi and trying to placate the Sena MPs on the evening of July 17.
Flying in the face of the senior BJP ministers' claims that the report needed to be substantiated, a report from the Maharashtra Sadan manager on the entire incident had already been forwarded to the Maharashtra government.
The BJP is repeatedly tying itself up in knots in an attempt to avoid condemning the behaviour of the Sena MPs. This is hardly welcome for a party and government that remains vulnerable to allegations of communal bias.
Three: Shiv Sena's boorishness was sparked by its growing resentment against the BJP, which is now paying the price for it.
As The Hindu reported, the anger brewing among the Sena MPs lodged in Maharashtra Sadan during their Delhi stay for Parliament session was in fact over the allocation of the best rooms in the complex to BJP MPs. One of these MPs is Satyapal Singh, former Mumbai police commissioner who won on a BJP ticket from Baghpat in UP, but remains a regular at Maharashtra Sadan.
The report says, "According to Sadan sources, Sena MPs had been upset with Resident Commissioner (RC) Bipin Mallick for allotting BJP MP and former Mumbai police commissioner Satyapal Singh a suite which is generally reserved for the Maharashtra’s cabinet ministers and High Court judges." Two other BJP MPs from Uttar Pradesh have rooms allocated to them at Maharashtra Sadan too. According to the report, a Sena MP's wife was denied an additional room on July 16, a decision which was possibly the trigger for the July 17 ruckus.
A report in The Indian Express quotes from the manager's report on the incident to say the MPs had also protested against the allotting of a room to BJP Rajya Sabha member Ajay Sancheti "who has been allotted a bungalow in Delhi itself, stating that the room is many a time occupied by his PA and not the MP..."
The BJP was fully aware of the developments, and a cold silence between the two allies had reportedly grown over the last few days. In fact, days after the incident, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Mumbai where he met a large gaggle of BJP leaders after his engagement at the BARC, but skipped calling on Uddhav. While the Sena president is no Balasaheb, it is unlikely he took the omission well.
With Assembly elections in Maharashtra scheduled for October, seat-sharing talks between the two parties will begin soon, and already promise to be a heated affair, with the Shiv Sena riding on its newfound success in the Lok Sabha elections. The BJP, aware that the 18 wins out of 20 contested seats for the Sena in the Lok Sabha election is partly on account of the Modi wave, wants to recalibrate the 171-117 formula for the state's 288 Assembly seats.
Writing in The Economic Times, Kumar Ketkar says the BJP won't play second fiddle in Maharashtra any longer. The seat-sharing talks will have to focus on the BJP's demand for more seats, but also on the question of whose seat share will have to be cut to make room for the newcomers in the alliance -- RPI (Athavale), Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, Rashtriya Samaj Paksha and Shiv Sangram. The RPI has already upped the ante by asking for 30 seats.
"Now that the BJP feels it was the "Modi wave" that brought even the Sena members to the Lok Sabha, it does not want to give up the advantage. There is also a feeling in the Shiv Sena leadership that Modi is very cold towards Uddhav. Worse, he is politically and emotionally closer to Raj Thackeray. That is truly unforgivable for the Sena rank and file," Ketkar writes.
The Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra is destined to lose the coming Assembly elections, but that cannot be reason for the BJP top brass to seek refuge in diplomatic silence. Maintaining coalition dharma with Shiv Sena at the expense of BJP's and Narendra Modi's national image may prove to be an expensive trade-off in the long run.
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