There are many tricks of the trade that Sudheendra Kulkarni must have learnt in the course of his fruitful association with the Bharatiya Janata Party. One of these — and this is a trick that isn’t confined to the BJP alone, but extends to the whole political class — is to never let go of any chance to appear as the victim.
Whether in India, the US or anywhere else in the democratic world, victimhood sells. Indira Gandhi was particularly good at milking it dry. During the 1967 general election, a stone thrown from the crowd while campaigning in Orissa hit her. It was a despicable act and led to her nose being damaged. Quite understandably, she turned the tables on her opponents by spending the next few weeks campaigning with a heavily bandaged nose.
That, however, was in pre-television India and the impact wasn’t as great as it would have been today. But whether in 1967 or 2015, any physical assault on a politician has invariably rebounded on the attackers. Last week, for example, when the Conservative Party met for its annual conference in Manchester, delegates had to run the gauntlet of Left-wing protesters screaming “scum”, “pig” and other such endearments. A well-aimed egg hit a young Conservative delegate on the face and soiled his discreetly, pinstriped suit. A photographer caught the vivid image of a distraught, well-groomed lad trying to wipe the dripping yoke from his face. It must have brought laughs to those unwavering in their belief that the Conservatives were a blot on humanity and should be all rounded up and packed off to an inhospitable concentration camp somewhere in the Outer Hebrides. However, to most people it was a disagreeable act of intolerance. It was hardly surprising that the pro-Conservative media milked the incident to the last drop.
In the ecosystem of the Shiv Sena, last Monday’s dousing of Mr Kulkarni with black paint was the equivalent of sticking chewing gum on the seat of some unfortunate soul in the classroom. In the normal course, Shiv Sainiks are more inclined to vandalism and even beating up those they disagree with. That’s the nature of their politics and their activist base love all forms of direct action. It’s no different from the Hyderabad-based Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) that, a few years ago, disrupted a meeting to be addressed by Taslima Nasreen by hurling flower pots and even assaulting her. This act of thuggery, I am sorry to say, didn’t affect the MIM’s popularity in the ghetto. On the contrary, the Owaisi brothers have today emerged as national figures, courted lavishly by the “liberal” media.
Unfortunately for them, their “mild” and “symbolic” show of anger at a man who was hosting a Pakistani notable made fantastic television. Mr Kulkarni knew that too. Therefore, rather than retreat into a funk hole, he chose to play the victimhood card. And he played it with consummate finesse, ensuring saturation media coverage of both his press conference and the subsequent book release where he read out his own “aman ki aasha” version of neighbourhood relations. As the image of the black-faced Kulkarni resonated all over the world — yes, it had a traction well beyond our national boundaries — the Shiv Sena appeared unreasonable and petulant and its senior alliance partner, BJP, squirmed in embarrassment. An event that in the normal course should have been tucked away on page six grabbed the headlines.
On Twitter, I was attacked by an assertive non-resident Hindu activist (who thinks the BJP is too squeamish) for describing the attack as “disagreeable”. It was suggested that when Ed Miliband, the former Labour Party leader, had been pelted with an egg during this year’s British general election, he had merely laughed it off. The implication was that Mr Kulkarni should have done the same. Now, I can’t dictate how Mr Kulkarni should have reacted to his shirt and trousers being ruined by non-washable black paint. Maybe he didn’t think it was funny — a lapse that, at best, suggests he lacks the self-deprecating sense of humour that is the hallmark of the United Kingdom. The point is that India and particularly its media is inclined to be both extra pious and over-earnest. Whether, the country should shed this sanctimoniousness and champion the example of the Monty Python character Brian (in the film Life of Brian) on the crucifix — sing “Look on the bright side of life” — is not for me to say.
Whatever we may consider as the most appropriate and dignified form of protest, its effectiveness depends on the context and how it is perceived. Ensuring the cancellation of a Pakistani singer’s ghazal concert or ensuring the Sri Lankan cricketers don’t play in Chennai have both their takers and detractors. Last Monday, however, the Shiv Sena scored a monumental self-goal. The party may have successfully told the BJP where to get off and re-asserted its muscle power in Mumbai, but in the process it made a martyr of Mr Kulkarni and, most distressing, allowed the “liberal” media space to project Pakistan as a “normal” country with which India has a routine disagreement.
For Mumbaikars, who have borne the brunt of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, beginning with the serial bomb blasts of March 1993 and culminating in the 26/11 massacre of more than 300 innocent people, the puerile blackening of Mr Kulkarni’s countenance was, in effect, the whitewashing of the terror masterminds in Pakistan — and those who collude with them. The Thackeray family should undertake a crash course in public relations.
The writer is a senior journalist