Civic Polls: Shiv Sena’s homegrown weapon Saamana finds its mark 

The late Bal Thackeray’s newspaper <i>Saamana</i> retains its sting as its taunting editorials bite the BJP and energise the Shiv Sena cadre in the run-up to municipal polls in Maharashtra


NH Political Bureau

The Saamana, the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece, has been known to be rather cavalier with the truth. During the 1992-93 riots, Bal Thackeray wrote editorials about alleged violence indulged in by some minorities against the majority community which reporters found impossible to corroborate. The editorials built on the truth but exaggerated it to such an extent that it could have been justified for the government to clamp down on the newspaper.

Then Congress Chief Minister Sudhakarrao Naik did consider sending notices to the paper, but concerns about Constitutional obligations to freedom of the press prevailed. It was seven years before another Congress-led government would try to bring Bal Thackeray to book, but by then the case came up against the law of limitations—it was in July 2000 when then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and his deputy Chhagan Bhujbal of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) moved a case in a magistrate’s court. Thackeray decided to surrender and Mumbai resembled a garrison town, with paramilitary forces out on the streets to quell any violence after his arrest.

In an anti-climax, the magistrate dismissed the case in under two minutes on the grounds that it was past its sell by date.

Saamana has continued to flourish ever since. The difference now is that the editorials are written by its editor, Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, rather than a Thackeray. The party has also undergone a subtle shift in its orientation, and the paper is reflective of that change—less ready to incite, more satirical and biting but completely legitimate critiques in the best traditions of newspapers across the world. The sting has not yet gone out of Saamana’s tail.

However, while the past Congress government tolerated even incendiary writings by the paper, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not seem to be able to put up with even needling and taunting of its leaders by the Sena mouthpiece. Unprecedented in the annals of Indian democracy was the BJP’s petition to the State Election Commission to suspend publication of Saamana on voting days for the zila parishad (February 16) and corporation (February 21) elections.

Saamana was not suspended on February 16 and is unlikely to be suspended on February 20 and 21 either, after Union I&B minister Venkaiah Naidu, realising the outrage the move had caused, attempted some damage control by saying it was not in the BJP's culture to ban newspapers. But the incident proves the Sena has come a long way from the days when Bal Thackeray wanted certain twists and turns given to his agitations and came up against fierce resistance by the free media.

roar of the sena tiger

The Shiv Sena is a party that owes its existence to the Marathi readership of Marmik, a cartoon magazine on the lines of Shankar's Weekly that Bal Thackeray launched in the early 1960s. Thackeray founded Marmik after quitting the Free Press Journal in a huff when they refused to pass on to him the cheque from the New York Times sent to the paper after one of his cartoons unexpectedly won a prize for best cartoon at an international competition run by the US newspaper. Thackeray began by publishing lists of non-Maharashtrian—particularly South Indian—officers who outnumbered the locals in government and private sector jobs, in Marmik and famously taunted the Marathi manoos to “just read and sit back".

The formation of the Shiv Sena was announced in small print in one of the issues of the fortnightly and thousands gathered at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park to endorse Thackeray's first public rally in 1966. But as Shiv Sena grew into the 1980s, a fortnightly had its limitations when Thackeray was shifting emphasis from region to religion. He had undertaken to oppose the Maharashtra government’s publication of Dr BR Ambedkar's Riddles of Hinduism, wherein the father of the Indian Constitution raised certain questions about the treatment of lower castes even in the mythological texts of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. At a press conference after a huge morcha, there was a dispute about the numbers in attendance and reporters refused to colour their stories according to Thackeray's perceptions.

That is when the Sena tiger decided he had to have his own daily newspaper and barely a few years after its launch in 1989, Saamana came into its own during the 1992-93 riots and delivered to Bal Thackeray everything he had wanted from newspapers.

Over the years, Raut, the paper's managing editor, took to writing the editorials and rarely went wrong in reading Thackeray’s mind and what he would have liked to see in print the next day, even if it was the exaggerated truth. Now, though, the newspaper is emerging as Uddhav Thackeray’s official policy document and getting under the skin of the BJP, which is now upset not just at the news and editorials but also the in-house political advertisements being carried by the newspaper.

The Sena ran a brilliant newspaper campaign during the 2012 civic polls, describing the Congress as regressive with an evocative tag line that caught the attention of social media and continues to be used to troll the party: 'If Pro is the opposite of Con, then what is the opposite of Progress?’’ the Sena asked.

The Congress, which was ruling both the Centre and the state then, gritted its teeth and allowed it to pass without seeking a ban on Saamana. But now the BJP fears it is the main target of the Shiv Sena at these polls and could suffer some similar ridicule.

Although the State Election Commission has asked the Sena to reply to the BJP's objections, the move has only given Uddhav Thackeray more ammunition against the party by declaring that the country is facing a state of unofficial Emergency.

While such action is unprecedented, the fact remains that most political parties now have interests in newspapers that propagate their respective ideologies. Calling for their ban is both illiberal and regressive.

Whatever its origins and political leanings, Saamana of late has had some excellent stories—like one on how former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted veteran Congressman AR Antulay to join his cabinet in an outreach to minorities, but was turned down by the latter. However, the paper is still read more for its editorials than for its news reports. At one time Shiv Sainiks used to buy the Saamana for Thackeray 's instructions, but preferred to get their news from the mainstream Marathi newspapers and that still holds true to a large extent. But the cadre are closely reading Saamana again these days.

As needling of the BJP including Narendra Modi continues—recently an editorial exhorted him "to stop preening and get down to the brass tacks"— the BJP is not amused. But needling its ally is not a new phenomenon—Bal Thackeray once placed an abusive headline above the masthead aimed at Vajpayee and his then deputy LK Advani. They chose to ignore that provocation and that took the wind out of Thackeray’s sails.

The Sena tiger would, however, have cause to purr under the current scenario—Bal Thackeray could never manage to get under the skin of his contemporaries despite severest provocation as Uddhav Thackeray seems to have done with just a few carefully placed barbs. The paper is energising the Sena cadres in the crucial days before voting begins.

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Published: 19 Feb 2017, 12:20 PM