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Sense of disbelief and worry over Sena leader Manohar Joshi's elevation

Norms and conventions can go to hell. After Hindutva icon Veer Savarkar's resurrection in Port Blair, ignoring his kowtowing to the British now comes Sena leader Manohar Joshi's elevation to the Lok Sabha speaker's post.

There is a pervasive sense of disquiet and worry over the serious implications of the nation's highest popularly elected legislative body being stewarded by one whose political and ideological upbringing is totally alien to such liberal concepts such as democracy, composite culture and secularism. If reservations on this count remained largely unarticulated within the House, and for obvious reasons, what did find an expression was the lurking "fear" of Mr. Joshi being remote-controlled by the Shiv Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray, whose authoritarian ways are legendary.

Deposing before the Justice B N Srikrishna Commission of inquiry into the Mumbai riots of 1992-93,Mr Joshi described the violence by his party men against Muslims in January 93 as "Constructive retaliation".Justice Srikrishna did not mince words in indicting him for his role: ''The attitude of the Shiv Sena as reflected in a Time magazine interview given by Thackeray and its doctrine of 'retaliation' as expounded by (Madhukar) Sarpotdar and (Manohar) Joshi... were responsible for the Sainiks vigilantism. Because some criminal Muslims killed innocent Hindus in one corner of the city, the Shiv Sainiks 'retaliated' against several innocent Muslims in other corners of the city''.

Also as then chief Minister of Maharastra Mr Joshi termed the commission report as "one sided and biased",on the floor of the state Assembly,and boasted on Telivision interview: "We have thrown the report into the wastepaper basket.''Mr Joshi withdrew as then chief minister,all the cases filed against Bal Thackeray during 92-93 riots by saying there was nothing inflammatory in them. While deposing before the Srikrishna Commission Mr Manohar Joshi justified the use of the word "Landya" for Muslims.

For his part, Mr. Joshi has of course been prompt in allaying such fears. Not to be missed, however, is the clear suggestion that Mr. Joshi was giving the assurance on the `remote control' issue only on the strength of Mr. Thackeray's own direction to him - that he be impartial and non-partisan in discharging his duties as the Speaker. "A speaker has to be impartial and independent. I have to maintain the dignity and honour of the office of the speaker. So I told Balasaheb (Sena chief Bal Thackeray) that I will have to distance myself from the organisation,'' said Mr Joshi. To this, Mr Thackeray said, 'Amen' and asked his protege of the last 34 years to acquit himself creditably in the new role. 

Thackeray said " Joshi would be given a free hand to function as the 13th speaker of the Lok Sabha. He is an intelligent person who could handle any situation very well. There is no question of remote-controlling him," .

"The political philosophy of my party and my personal views on politics and national affairs will in no way hinder my functioning as speaker,''declared Mr Joshi, adding, "The Lok Sabha speakership is a big honour.I accept the new post with a sense of responsibility.''

As for the other part impinging on parliamentary democracy-related concerns, the Shiv Sena's supremo, Bal Thackeray, has made little attempt to conceal the utter contempt he had for governance by people's elected representatives and for such liberal concepts as the rule of law, secularism and pluralism that are the defining principles of India's Constitution-ordained democratic polity. It is no secret that Mr. Thackeray, an unabashed votary of authoritarian ways, found the democratic processes and institutions useful only to the limited extent of gaining control over the levers of `power' and that he remote-controlled them wherever and whenever his party happened to acquire access, be it at the local,State or Central level.

It is really very difficult to imagine Mr Bal Thackeray sitting idly at home while a member of his outfit lords it over the Lok Sabha in the speaker's chair. Though Thackeray and his family members do not contest elections, their clout within the Shiv Sena ensures that elected representatives consult them whenever important decisions need to be taken. 

When Joshi was chief minister of Maharashtra, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray frequently boasted of his powers to ''remote control'' his nominee. 

Mr. Joshi's non-partisanship, even-handedness and impartiality will be on test given the circumstances under which the Vajpayee Government has picked him for the Speakership and the ideological affinity that exists between his own party (the Shiv Sena) and the BJP. 

Is his elevation to Lok Sabha speakership a move to escape the brunt of a legal case following a land scandal which involved his son-in-law? "I wouldn't like to comment on this,'' Mr Joshi replied.

In March 1999, the Bombay High Court criticised Joshi for abusing his powers as chief minister of Maharashtra in order to sell a plot of land in Pune originally earmarked for a school. The beneficiary was an outfit controlled by his builder son-in-law, Girish Vyas. The court said Joshi had ''pressurised officials'' to clear the illegal deal and rejected his protestations of innocence. ''We do not expect a chief minister to file an affidavit like a pettifogging official to mislead the court'', a Bench consisting of Justices Parkar and Srikrishna stated sternly. Stung by their ruling, Joshi then had quit his seat in the legislative assembly. 

Violent deaths continue to occur in Gujarat, while the sense of insecurity of the minority community is far from assuaged. The BJP's silence on the roles of outfits such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the killings as well as its determined support of Mr Modi have destroyed all its pretensions to even-handedness. 

The BJP does not feel it necessary to repair its image in this direction. Instead, it has brought in as speaker a member of the most chauvinistic party it has as ally, and that too to appease the Shiv Sena leader, Mr Thackeray.

Thus the Sena has been placed in a unique position: it has earned respectability entirely by default, through its representative who got lucky due to a vacant post.A respectability that must otherwise come with a lot of effort and application.

M H Lakdawala, Mumbai

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