Last prophet of secular politics
The New Indian Express First Published : 03 Aug 2009 12:13:00 AM

In the Indian political arena, where the heaviest and loudest normally pull crowds, the modest, quiet and intellectual Panakkad Muhammedali Shihab Thangal looked like a contradiction. Yet he was acknowledged as the real heavyweight of coalition politics who safeguarded the fragile fences of secularism at the Centre and in the state. He never lived in the portals of Delhi, but was one of the most-sought-after satraps. He never contested an election, but was always a key decision maker. He never played the king maker, but was the silent force who moulded many leaders and ruling combinations.

Sitting in his ancestral house in Kerala’s Malappuram district, Thangal scripted socio-political changes across the country’s political landscape, much to the envy of many regional leaders who had to rely on muscle and lungpower to get their point across. What others won through boisterous arrogance, Thangal managed through an elegant smile and a benign look: that was the power of his silence. No one can remember an occasion when Thangal’s oratory skills won him applause. But his sane words of wisdom delivered from a rich vocabulary gained through years of studies in Egypt’s reputed institutions cast a spell on any crowd; it was not the body language but the dignity with which a point was made that ensured his speeches were special. He had a mastery over English and Arabic but preferred the local Malabari lingo to reach millions, crossing caste and political barriers. It’s this aura that saved Kerala from a communal catastrophe in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. And his presence continued to prevent fallouts whenever aberrations made holes in the secular fabric. Thangal never gave in to the pressures of minority politics or compromised his principles. He never allowed the Muslim League to change its character for a few seats. And he stood like a wall preventing the infusion of rabid elements into the League’s green fort at the behest of some senior leaders.

Coalition politics will not be the same after Thangal’s exit. Though his legacy is sure to inhabit the supreme post it won’t be easy for his successor to play the rudder, especially at a time when extreme and fanatic elements don political camouflage to register their electoral presence. Even if the new League leader survives all political challenges, he will never be able to fill the place of Thangal as an agony uncle who offered counsel to broken families and prescribed traditional medicine for the hoi polloi of North Kerala.