Bombay's Muslims fear Hindu `dictator'

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The Independent Online
Bal Thackeray, a waspish cartoonist who considers himself a benevolent dictator, has just become one of India's most powerful men. Many Indians, especially the million or so Muslims in Bombay, would deny he is at all benevolent.

His Shiv Sena party, in alliance with the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has just conquered Maharashtra state in the latest polls. Mr Thackeray could be Chief Minister if he liked, but he prefers to give the job to one of his lieutenants, Manohar Joshi, whom he will run "by remote control".

The buttons Mr Thackeray presses are likely to scare Muslims in Bombay, India's financial city and Maharashtra's capital. He brags of having taught Muslims "a lesson" during the January 1993 riots, when Hindu extremists from Shiv Sena rampaged through Muslim shantytowns, torching huts and hacking people to death. "If their heart is in Pakistan and their body is here, we don't want Muslims here," he said recently.

One of his first moves will be to de-anglicise Bombay to its original Mumbai, the name of a Hindu goddess. Mr Thackeray also intends to turn it into a dry city. Dipankar Gupta, a journalist who has studied Mr Thackeray's tactics, said: "The Sena attracts people, especially youth, because of the message: `Don't mess with these guys'." Mr Thackeray portrays himself as a latter-day warrior, slashing down corrupt officials and championing local Maharashtrans against immigrants from other states. He wants to expel all Bangladeshis - who are Muslims - and force any out-of-state job-seeker to apply for a permit. For all its sheen of godliness, Shiv Sena functions like any other party in this brawling town, reportedly shaking down shops and businesses for cash.

Mr Thackeray relishes the almost religious fervour he aroused campaigning. He told a recent interviewer from India Today magazine: "An old lady took the dust from my footprint as I was about to get into my car and put it on her forehead. What can I do?''

However, now that Shiv Sena is running Maharashtra, Mr Thackeray may temper some of his more controversial pronouncements. He does not have many friends among the Israelis, who recently opened a consulate in Bombay, for he claims to admire Hitler.

The defeat in Bombay is a severe blow for the Indian Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao and his Congress party: opposition parties are using its dismal showing in Maharashtra and Gujarat to demand that Mr Rao resign and call early elections.

Some analysts predict, however, that Mr Thackeray's extremism and eccentricities might soon wear thin for his BJP coalition partners. The BJP is anxious to topple Congress in parliament and does not want its alliance with Mr Thackeray to turn into an embarrassing misadventure.

Bombay fell to Shiv Sena not so much because of Mr Thackeray's xenophobia but also because of corruption engendered by so many years of Congress rule. A recent poll of middle-class Indians in cities indicated most would prefer a dictatorship to a democracy so riddled with theft and graft. Mr Thackeray the cartoonist has adroitly drawn himself into that picture.