Kudos to Air India for banning Shiv Sena MP

India needs to move beyond the Thackerays.

The frequently criticised Air India deserves a round of applause for letting the Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad and his party know that they cannot get away with outrageous behaviour all the time.

When the MP used his slippers 25 times to beat an elderly Air India official – the "honourable" lawmaker apparently kept count – for failing to provide him with business class facilities in an all-economy class aircraft, he was acting in keeping with what may be called the Sena's established code of conduct. There have been innumerable occasions when the Sena, and its rival parochial outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), have assaulted and blackened the faces of those they did not like.

Although such belligerence has been associated with the Sena since its formation in the mid-1960s, it has invariably succeeded in getting away with its egregious misconduct because the ruling parties in Maharashtra, first the Congress and then the BJP, chose to turn a blind eye to its depredations in order to keep it in good humour for use in partisan purposes.

The Congress, for instance, was suspected of propping up the Sena in the 1960s and '70s to undercut the communists in the state while BJP generally played second fiddle to the Sena from the '90s till now as the latter was a senior partner until the last Assembly election. Even today, it has been able to pip BJP at the post in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections.

The charmed existence of the Sena and the MNS, with the police handling them with kid gloves, made the two outfits believe that they were a law unto themselves. This cocoon of invulnerability has now been busted. Hence, the uncharacteristically restrained response by the Sena to Gaikwad's ordeal of being put on a no-fly list by not only Air India but all the other airlines as well. This quiescence is a far cry from the practice of raising a hand when required as a party spokesman boasted.

The Sena's predicament has been compounded by the BJP's unwillingness for the first time to stand by its saffron ally. Since the BJP is finally sensing an opportunity to become the No.1 party of the Hindutva group in Mumbai, it doesn't want to undermine its reputation by defending an obviously indefensible act.

In any case, the BJP has always been uneasy about Sena's bellicosity. But, now, the party is keener to distance itself from the scrappy regional outfit to safeguard its own growing image as a national party.

More than the divergent calculations of the BJP and the Sena, what was noteworthy about the incident was Air India's unambiguous assertion of its supposed autonomy. No one knows whether it would have been able to withstand any pressure from the civil aviation ministry if the Narendra Modi government had decided to support the Sena.

But since the BJP has taken a hands-off attitude towards the messy affair, the Air India has succeeded in enforcing its ban on the MP. So have the other airlines not only as a brotherly gesture but also as a deterrent to delinquent travellers.

For the Sena, however, it is a blow which will not be easy to live down. A party member may now have second thoughts if he feels the need to raise a hand against someone who has aroused his displeasure, as in New Delhi's Maharashtra Sadan when a group of Sena MPs forced a Muslim employee to eat a chapati when he was on fast during Ramzan because the "honorable" representative of the people was unhappy with the quality of the food being served.

The Shiv Sena and the MNS are not the only parties with a reputation for subjecting their opponents to physical intimidation. The Samajwadi Party of U.P. has a similar image which is in large part because it is a party of Yadavs, whose idea of masculinity is associated with physical strength and virility, according to J.S. Alter in the book, Power and Influence in India: Bosses, Lords, and Captains.

Since their limited bases – the Marathi manoos for the Sena and MNS, and Yadavs for the Samajwadi Party – forces these parties to remain confined to the "home" provinces, they appear to have no option other than that of flexing their muscles to make their presence felt vis-à-vis the larger "national" parties, especially by espousing the sons-of-the-soil argument.

The Sena and MNS have been particularly adept at exploiting local sentiments even if it has tended to show them in a poor light, which is at odds with Mumbai's cosmopolitanism and Maharashtra's cultural ethos. Their critics will say that it is fortunate that the two parties of regional chauvinism led by the estranged cousins, Uddhav and Raj Thackeray, respectively, do not get along. Otherwise, a combined outfit would have been a more frightening force. But the scene has changed for the worse for them because of the use of slippers with gay abandon by an infuriated MP.

(The views expressed are personal.)
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