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A charming extremist defies moderate India

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By 1995, riding a wave of Hindu revivalism throughout India and a promise to make Bombay great again, the Shiv Sena itself was voted into power.

Its record was spotty. Rather than conducting reforms of housing and education, critics say, the Sena used its official status to collect spoils.

As Praveen Swami, a leading Bombay journalist writes, for five years "the Sena ran perhaps the most formidable roughneck apparatus ever seen in Mumbai [Bombay], using state power to displace traditional criminal organizations."

The Sena took over protection rackets, nightclub licenses, and film finance. It engineered land schemes - all the while deploying the police to guard its own city-wide network of 250 local bosses.

Last September the Shiv Sena was voted out.

Today, what the effort to arrest Bal Thackeray symbolizes, say many analysts, is an attempt to reassure a confused and fearful middle class that liberal and secular ideals are still informing politics, at a time when the actual day-to-day government in Bombay is petty and corrupt.

"Are we going to allow the culprits of a crime this large to go free?" asks leading Bombay attorney Majid Memon. "We are in the midst of an erosion of democratic and secular values that will take decades to regain. The Srikrishna report speaks to this erosion."

"There is a need for Indians to constantly rejuvenate their self-image of having a civil society," argues Indian-American scholar Shekhar Krishnan, a Bombay resident. "The middle class needs to feel that ethnic passions are being held in check."

Srikrishna was issued in 1998. Not surprisingly, the then- ruling Sena rejected any complicity in the riots. The report was shelved.

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