Little Hitler calls shots
MOST profiles of Bombay strongman Bal Thackeray have him dressed in the saffron clothes of the Hindu sage and nationalist.
Saffron is the colour he has chosen as a statement of his Shiv Sena party's position on the militant right of the Indian political spectrum. It is also the preferred dress-code of the Shiv Sena street-thugs who intimidate his political opponents and terrorise Muslims, especially in the slums of Bombay.
He told a television interviewer this summer he was already the Hitler of the state of Maharashtra and wanted to be the Hitler of Hindustan.
The saffron flag flies proudly above his heavily guarded residence and headquarters. But this morning Mr Thackeray has dispensed with the symbols of Hindu resurgence in his personal dress and slipped into something more regal; appropriately enough. He has just emerged the clear winner after two days of intense political manoeuvring, reasserting his leadership, putting his chief minister, Manohar Joshi, firmly in his place, and bringing his partners in the state's fractious ruling coalition back into line.
Unelected, and proud of it, Mr Thackeray has shown once again that he, and no one else, calls the shots in Maharashtra and the state capital, Bombay. His leadership has never seriously been called into question, despite an angry outburst from Mr Joshi recently, when he was snubbed by Rebecca Mark, chief executive of United States power company Enron Corporation's Indian subsidiary who went straight to Mr Thackeray without meeting the chief minister.
Ms Mark said she had been delayed by traffic. But she also knew it was the Shiv Sena leader who had the power to restart negotiations on Enron's stalled Maharashtra plant.
The US$21 billion (about HK$162 billion) project was cancelled when the new government took power, claiming excessively high tariffs and saying the deal done with the previous state administration had no transparency.
Mr Joshi's Bharatia Janata Party, the Shiv Sena's coalition partner, has been more reluctant than Mr Thackeray to restart the talks, apparently hoping to get more political mileage for next year's national elections by opposing multinationals.
But Mr Thackeray, who a few months ago was taking the same anti-multinational line, and has led the campaign to keep out Kentucky Fried Chicken, now admits the state badly needs electricity. His aim in cancelling it had merely been to cut it down to size.
'This was the previous government's white elephant . . . now it is a chihuahua,' he says. 'You know a chihuahua? It is a small white lap-dog.' Bombay newspapers have reported, perhaps maliciously, that he only decided to revive the Enron project after his wife suffered a fatal heart attack last month during a power cut at his farmhouse outside the capital. In the darkness he could not find the sorbitrate pills she needed, and the telephone lines were also dead because there was no electricity.
But Mr Thackeray says he had decided before the tragedy and does not oppose foreign investment, provided projects are what the state wants and what the people need.
Nevertheless, Mr Joshi's anger at having to do the bidding of the self-styled 'remote control' reflects a widespread unease at Mr Thackeray's extra-constitutional power.
But Mr Thackeray is unrepentant. 'Never, never in my life,' he says, when asked if he would stand for parliament in next year's general election. 'I have influence just by sitting here.' Relaxed and wisecracking, the former political cartoonist and satirical journalist shows he has lost none of his sense of humour; provided the joke is not on him. Being a cartoonist, he says, has helped him in politics. 'In my public meetings I am most sarcastic and I retaliate almost instantly there and then,' he says.
TOUCH him on a raw nerve, however - on the subject of press freedom, for instance - and he becomes almost incoherent.
His party newspaper Saamna, meaning confrontation, has often been used as a vehicle for his attacks on Muslims and other outsiders and to stir up an atmosphere of communal hatred. Yet when the new magazine Outlook reported views he did not like, he used the newspaper to call on the party faithful to burn it. Inaugural editions of Outlook were torched last month outside its Bombay offices. Its advertising hoardings were blackened.
Mr Thackeray is outraged at Salman Rushdie's book The Moor's Last Sigh, which this week narrowly missed the prestigious Booker Prize and is openly satirical of him. Yet the Shiv Sena leader was an outspoken supporter of Rushdie in the days when he was in trouble mainly for blashphemy against Islam.
Mr Thackeray has said he will not allow the book to be sold in Maharashtra. But he did not have to ban the book or call his thugs out to burn it. The publishers themselves decided not to distribute it in the state to avoid conflict.
On that incident at least, Maharashtra's ruler is quite clear. It was not so much the book itself, but the author's criticisms of him in Bombay which went beyond the pale.
'Mr Rushdie has the right to write anything,' he says. 'But if he's in town, in Mumbai - that's Bombay to you - at least show some courtesy to meet me and be fair. Just try to find out what kind of man I am. Then I would accept criticism, whatever it may be.' But then, suddenly, the control slips. 'Why do you go on about press freedom and all that?' Mr Thackeray says, furiously denouncing 'holier than thou' journalists who criticise him and not others. Trying to justify having a critic beaten up, he says the man was not a bona fide journalist and had no right to call himself a scribe. Politicians who do not deserve the title should also be beaten.
'It depends upon their deeds,' he says. 'Words and deeds. You are making a mockery of freedom of the press.' Meanwhile, the Hitler boast still rings in critics' ears. The Shiv Sena leader says he has nothing against Muslims, only against 'pro-Pakistan Muslims, my nation's enemy'.
But not all his targets are Muslims.
Not even Hong Kong's Sindhi traders are safe. They should not expect too much of Bombay's leader if they are looking for a place to settle after 1997 and have not yet acquired a passport.
'I will not allow them to come,' he says vehemently.
'We have our own problems. This is not an orphanage, neither what you call a dharamshala [a refuge for pilgrims], where whatever people are kicked out from the rest of the world should come and get settled here.' There is a large Sindhi community already in Bombay, but their Hong Kong cousins have drawn fire for allegedly pushing up property prices in the city, the sort of accusation which would be grist to the Thackeray mill.
'When they were over there, have they ever thought of us and the problems we are facing?' Mr Thackeray asks, his tone fierce. 'The calamities we are facing? The drought? Did they come to donate? When there was an earthquake, nobody helped us. Nobody.
'And then when you are facing problems, you expect that we should accept you as our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers? You should not worry about the Sindhi community. They are capable of taking care of themselves.
'They were refugees [from Pakistan]. Today they are not.' Then he points a mocking finger and grins. 'When the Chinese come to Hong Kong, you will run to prefer me,' he says. 'That's human. Then you will be happy [to be here] with my terrorism, my so-called bullying, my dictatorship. You'll be much more happy because you'll be getting all the freedoms from me.'