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THE DEBUT TRICK
- An aspirant for the limelight can make use of any cynical ploy

It’s become a familiar ritual now, the process through which some fundoo or the other, some goonda or the other, is established in public space as a legitimate political player.

It begins, as always, with power; and the road to power, as every goonda and fundoo knows these days, is paved with publicity. Some little hoodlum somewhere in our beautiful and bewildering country feels an unbearable surge of desire for power. His desire demands he take a shortcut to his destination. He needs to design, plan and execute a literally riotous launch event that will grab the attention away from so many competitors, the already successful Talibans and Senas.

The hoodlum looks about him shrewdly, searching for something to be officially and visibly angry about, a sort of vahana he can mount for his ride onstage. The vahana is an “issue” he can roar about in public; this “issue” could be anything from cricket to Valentine’s Day to kissing to mosques to Bangladeshis to churches to women to libraries to gays to pubs. All that’s required is that some vicious twist be given to whatever “issue” is picked. For this take on the “issue” to be truly divisive and destructive, and therefore effective, the hoodlum needs a sena. He also needs some mouthpieces, preferably the sort who will carry his message to the public without getting squeamish — at least not till the message has exploded in public space. Once the hoodlum has got together a ragtag bunch of like-minded aspiring hoodlums, and once he has got together the all-important media plan, he is set to become a fundoo-goonda leader on the rampage.

The new, as yet unknown sena, proceeds to create mayhem in our lives. They may object to some book they have not read. They may object to a film. This is usually more exciting since vandalizing theatres gives the sena more to do than merely burning books. They may object to the presence of certain people in the city or the state or the country — people from the North or the South or the East or whichever place or community it is useful to demonize right now. They may object to women. This is always a hit, because there’s no end to the kind of things they can object to when it comes to women. Women, this sena too has discovered, are vulnerable to a useful common virus called Pure Indian Culture.

Ugly words, hate and stones fly about, especially when the cameras have been set up. Newspapers, magazines, the radio and websites build up the excitement. Best of all, what has been said and done is played in an unending, mind-numbing loop on TV, so everyone in the country (or at least those who watch TV) have it all by heart.

A new fundoo-goonda star is born. Like firecrackers, the noise continues. Now there’s discussion, disbelief, argument, calls for law and order, appeals to remember the nature of our composite culture and so forth. People hold placards, bloggers fulminate 24x7, anchors turn into messiahs, PR experts discover alchemy and turn into political commentators.

The controversy gives way to newer news by and by. But even if it disappears from the front page — for the time being — it has two consequences. The first is that we are left with one more wound, a new scar on the collective skin of our society. The second consequence is that yet another brutish player has grabbed a bit of the public stage and set up shop.

There’s a tried and tested formula available now, a step-by-step guideline on how to make a hot fundoo-goonda debut. Consider just a few examples.

In January 2004, the Sambhaji Brigade appeared out of nowhere and pushed its way into the limelight. How did it do that? Its members decided to resurrect, in their own style, an earlier controversy related to a book on Shivaji by the American scholar, James Laine. The little known splinter group of the Maratha Seva Sangh claimed it was reacting to “a derogatory remark on Shivaji’s parentage” in the book. Since the publisher had withdrawn the book, and the author had apologized, and a historian at the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune had got his face blackened for figuring in Laine’s acknowledgments, the Brigade had obviously to plan something different. It got together a hundred-and-fifty youths and primed them for “direct action”. The youths were fed and taken to the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in jeeps. There they forced their way in, cut phone and power cables, smashed windowpanes, broke chairs and tables. In the process, the book-loving hoodlums mutilated manuscripts, stole relics, and destroyed whatever they could. They managed to hurt a few statues of gods and goddesses, even a portrait or two of Shivaji. But it was all worth it, because some footage-hungry TV crews — the kind who will not call the police — captured their performance.

In early 2008, a longer lasting and more ambitious stunt was pulled by Raj Thackeray to ensure that his outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena proved to be every bit as bloodthirsty as the mother organization it had broken away from, the Shiv Sena. Raj was not terribly original in resurrecting the son-of-the-soil versus migrants issue, but with the help of generous dollops of publicity, the MNS was able to intimidate the North Indian working class and student population of Mumbai, enrage people in the city and elsewhere, and even prod otherwise rational people into suddenly “understanding the frustrations of indigenous Maharashtrians”.

In early 2009, taking advantage of the increasingly fundoo-friendly climate in Karnataka, an unknown soldier of Indian Culture decided to cross swords with something called Pub Culture. Now culture is abstract and boring unless it can be cast in flesh, especially female flesh. Pramod Muthalik and his sena went into a pub and beat up the girls there. Some people spoke and wrote reams on whether women were indeed drinking more, on their right to drink and so on, inadvertently obscuring the violence that had actually taken place. All the great bogeymen of fears so beloved of our soil were unleashed: are Indian women no longer Indian enough? Are pubs eroding culture? And, of course, in a case of lateral thinking, should Hindu girls and Muslim boys talk to each other?

And finally, in the most recent case, we have Varun Gandhi playing Hindu warrior, allegedly spewing communalist venom in an “election campaign speech”. Given his distinguished lineage, this seems to be a departure from the formula — at least in terms of details. There is no special sena in this case, for instance, at least not as yet. But otherwise, in essence, in substance, there is an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. It’s the same old trick. Get some goons together, choreograph some violence — or at the very least, some tensions — making use of any vicious or irrational or nonsensical or fanatical line. Make sure the media have a ringside seat.

It’s getting harder to believe these fundoo-goondas believe what they say and do. Their stake in their “issues” is being revealed all the time as a cynical ploy to grab public attention.

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