Interview with Professor Jayant Lele, political analyst.
PROFESSOR Jayant Lele, author of the analytical piece Saffronisation of Shiv Sena: Political Economy of City, State and Nation, remains, despite his own admission of never having met Bal Thackeray, one of the best critics of Thackeray and of the Shiv Sena. This, in Professor Leles case, is not a failing but something that seems to aid in his criticism as is apparent from his balanced and thought-provoking responses to questions from Frontline on the phenomenon called Bal Thackeray. His interest in the Sena and its leader started in the 1970s when the Sena began to make its presence felt beyond Mumbai.
Lele is Professor Emeritus of Development Studies at Queens University, Kingston, Canada. He is currently working on a paper in Marathi on the impact of globalisation on the political economy of India.Excerpts from the interview:
What thoughts were playing in your mind when you heard of Bal Thackerays death and then later watched the proceedings on television?
Even as the newspapers were reporting that Thackeray was in critical condition, I heard rumours that he was already dead and that the news was being managed so as not to let outbursts of anger and violence exceed beyond minimum. It was clear from the newspaper reports that there was in fact a great deal of astute management of information, well planned in advance of the actual declaration of his death. As a headline in a Marathi newspaper said, Even the last rites leading to the funeral ( antya vidhi) were perfectly managed, in keeping with the Shiv Sena chiefs penchant for unalloyed ( chokh) perfection in the management of every performance. The proceedings reflected my own understanding of one of the main dimensions of Thackerays appeal: his ability to orchestrate mass spectacles that included not only the staging of his fiery speeches but also the staging of riots and morchas. What became clearly evident in watching the funeral spectacle was the fact that the craft he had cultivated in his lifetime had been inherited and further refined by his confidants.
That gigantic crowd that attended his funeralwhat did you make of it? It was quite astounding. How did this man have so many mourners?
There were different reasons for different people to pay respect to Thackeray. There are two parts to the gigantic crowds at the funeral: a large number of famous people on the one hand and the massive crowd of ordinary Mumbai citizens on the other. Of the stars who lined up for darshan and then showed up at the funeral, many must feel obliged to him for his kindness and assistance to themto many film stars he offered protection, through his Sainiks, in return for money and obeisance. For example, when they got into trouble with the state he offered them riots against the government so that they would not be prosecuted. To others, he might have threatened to expose their misdeeds, if they did not toe his line. It has been suggested that he and his associates knew both the dispensers and receivers of the massive amounts of black money that was channelled into the film industry and that he could use that information to his advantage when necessary.
Big-shot politicians of different parties perhaps wanted to show respect because they are plainly afraid of being accused of neglecting the commander-in-chief and, as a result, become victims of riots and looting by his forever-on-the-alert army. It is an army that has shown that it is ready to ransack and set fire to homes, shops and theatres. Many of the Sainiks welcome such occasions not only because it makes them feel powerful but also because it brings the booty such as TV sets and other appliances, in view of the fact that they know that they can easily escape being caught by the police as the guardians of the law themselves are often in cahoots with them.
I shall not be surprised if a large number of those who showed up at the funeral, from the political, social and filmy glitterati in particular, are actually relieved that he is gone. However, the multitude of the ordinary citizens seems to have heartfelt reverence for the man. There are, no doubt, a number of middle-class, working-class, street- and slum-dwelling Maharashtrians and some non-Maharashtrians who truly believe that he was a divine incarnation that showed up amongst them as their saviour. We are well aware that religious and filmy spectacles have, as we know, the power to invoke reverence. As to the Maharashtrians of all classes, their relation to Thackeray has something to do with the feeling of something that is amiss in the State in which they are a majority. Let me take that up a little later.
How would you describe Thackeray? Was he indeed a man of many parts or was he just a demagogue who got lucky because he was in the right place at the right time?
I never met Thackeray. Many seem to vouchsafe for his private persona as a kind, gentle, well-humoured and likable man. As to his public persona, he started his career as a cartoonist-journalist. He was able to quickly popularise his own newsweekly Marmik, having gained mastery over the craft of caricature and exaggeration, eminently suited to capture and mobilise the anger and frustration of many in the subaltern classes. He brought to his work a strong sense of humour, an acerbic tongue and a rare talent for quick repartee.
He later cultivated these abilities to become a commanding speaker and used them to great advantage for founding and popularising the Shiv Sena through speeches that often defied any sense of propriety. In his speeches, he often regaled his audiences by using unseemly innuendos and vulgar allusions to lampoon his adversaries. In this he seems to have been in the forefront of a growing trend, observed since the late 1960s, of the decline in civility and sophistication in the cultural sensibilities of a very large section of the neo-urban Marathi middle classes. In his defence of Marathi identity he touched the nerve of large sections of Maharashtrians of various classes. He used his talents at the right time to his best advantage, having chosen the path of pursuit of political power.
Could you talk a bit about the beginnings of the Sena?
The origins of the Sena are closely linked to the history of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement of the 1950s. During the debates over the formation of the linguistic State of Maharashtra, the issues of the nature of social, political and cultural identity of the Marathi-speaking people as a region was under scrutiny by the elite of various political hues. Concerns that had plagued the construction of an Indian national identity in pre-Independence politicswhat should come first? Social reform, economic transformation or simply political independence?had been resolved by Gandhijis Congress in favour of the last of the three concerns while economic transformation was left on the back burner.
In the case of Samyukta Maharashtra, the reluctance of the central leadership of the Congress to accept Mumbai as part of the proposed State of Maharashtra, so as to protect the interests of the non-Marathi industrial and commercial capital that had shaped Mumbais economy, had the potential for the struggle for the State to take shape as a class struggle between the working classes of Mumbai (predominantly Marathi) and the interests of the predominantly non-Marathi capital, and thus increasing the leverage of the Left within the Maharashtra movement. In the end it was the liberal Y.B. Chavan who successfully steered the Congress leadership to accept the idea of a Marathi State with Mumbai as capital only when it felt assured that the interests of capital would be fully protected and that the influence of the Left would be marginalised. Among those who disliked the presence of the communists in the movement was Balasahebs father, Prabodhankar Thackeray.
Balasaheb inherited the anti-communist mantle and pursued it with zeal after the formation of the State. His mission of Marathi nativism (fear of loss of jobs by Marathi workers to the migrants from the rest of India) made it both necessary and easy for him to split the Left-leaning labour movement in Mumbai. His hatred of communists and his Brahmanist (leaning towards Hindutva) view of politics converged in the founding of the Shiv Sena.
By the late 1960s the Sena had created for itself a support base in three constituencies: factory workers through the penetration of their constituency through its own labour unions keen on cooperating with capitalist management; a large segment of Marathi white-collar worker families with an appeal to the Marathi identity who felt threatened in their own State by the influx of non-Marathi migrants; and, most importantly, the large pool of under- and un-employed youth. Thus the notions of pride and protection of the Marathi identity allowed him to gain a strong political base across class loyalty and ethnic boundaries.
A significant outcome of this anti-communist crusade was the murder of a communist labour leader and member of the State Legislature, Krishna Desai. While Thackerays involvement was never clearly established, it was widely believed. This was the beginning of the Senas and its commanders growing reputation for the ability to establish a reign of terror in the city without fear of official reprisals. The ruling Congress party elite shared the Senas desire to eliminate the communist influence on Mumbais industrial labour force.
What were the honourable motives, if any, when the Sena was initially formed? Politics of convenience is often the phrase used to describe the Sena.
In 1966, it had a simple but attractive agenda: reservation of jobs and the opening up of opportunities for Maharashtrians only, especially in the lower echelons of white-collar employment and trade. It also promised, at the same time, to eliminate the growing threat of gangsterdom in the middle class neighbourhoods, but turned out to be an army of counter-terror. It was an army that quickly developed an agenda of enriching itself and its leadership with protection money from both legitimate and illegitimate businesses in industry, land and real estate speculation, as well as liquor, drug and job markets. The speed with which it began to cooperate with and imitate its publicly identified enemy, the underworld, makes one doubt the claims of honourable motives on its part. Most of its subsequent acts of commission and omission, such as its readiness to work with some of the left, right and centre parties, prior to its explicit shift to the Hindutva agenda, suggest nothing other than politics of convenience.
Religion was also a more recent entry on the Senas agenda. Could you speak of this tool in the context of politics of convenience?
The Mumbai-based agenda of nativism and the shifting alliances with political parties proved inadequate to sustain its appeal by the end of the 1970s. The outcome, in fact, was that while these actions strengthened the underside of its popular early agenda, its electoral and hence legitimate political aspirations became thwarted.
The Senas decisive turn to Hindutva came in 1984 with an alliance with the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. Given his partys history of anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit and anti-communist rhetoric and practice, Thackeray decided that his party had a lot to gain by trying to get a share in the growing popularity of Hindutva. This bolstered its claim as a defender of faith through systematically staged anti-Muslim riots while using its propaganda machine to persuade its constituents that the conspiring and aggressive Muslims were the dominant anti-national elements in the crime world and had taken advantage of the tradition of passivity and tolerance of Hindus. This strategy did pay off in the 1995 elections.
What attracted Maharashtrians to the Sena? The party actually did very little for the development of the State but yet has a huge following. What is the nature of the Senas support base?
Most Maharashtrians in Mumbai belong to a class that Jan Breman has described as petty bourgeois or penny capitalists. They are constituted by an enormous diversity of occupations, age groups and residential locations. What they do have in common is a sense of uncertainty about their future. Many of them hold jobs whose security is made meaningless by an onslaught of neoliberal dismantling of tenure provisions on the one hand and the declining purchasing power of their incomes, on the other. Uncertainty breeds belief in scapegoats.
The Shiv Sena has perfected the technique of identifying and targeting not real but only plausible-looking agents responsible for such uncertainty. There is also a sense among the Marathi people in general and those in Mumbai in particular that their highly developed cultural heritage, their language, their theatre, their literature and their performing arts scene, that they feel proud of the way most Bengalis feel about their own, are under threat from the influx of outsiders and from the invasion of alien cultural forms and practices. It is not as if they all share a historically anchored common sense of what that culture is, nevertheless what they do seem to share is a vague uneasiness about the invasion of alien forms through commercially profitable media bombardment. The Senas Sainiks have thus turned their ire, without much reflection, on to films, plays and paintings that they see as ridiculing what they understand as their pristine heritage. Consequently, they are able to count on the support of some of the Marathi men and women who share their sense of propriety in the portrayal of tradition and history. Therefore, there is a vague sense of unease which, in the absence of a clear and rational analysis and understanding of the causes and consequences of the larger social, economic, cultural and social shifts on the national and international scene, finds some equally vague reassurance in the Senas ways of claiming to be the protectors of the Marathi heritage.
Bal Thackeray was the keystone of the party. What do you think will happen now to the Sena?
As of now there is no clear indication on which to build any speculation about the future of the Sena, post-Balasaheb. What has been clear is that the Sena has failed to stem the draining of its political support base both in Mumbai and in the rest of Maharashtra where it had once made major inroads only because of the troubled inner workings of the Congress conglomeration consisting of the INC [Indian National Congress] and the NCP [Nationalist Congress Party]. It has not been able to make meaningful inroads into the eastern Maharashtra bastion of the Congress nor into Vidarbha and north Maharashtra pockets of the BJP. It lost its serious foothold, once gained because of Sharad Pawars betrayal of hopeful aspirations of the Marathwada youth, with the rise to pre-eminence of Vilasrao Deshmukh. It continued to keep its hold on the municipal bodies in the Mumbai region largely because the non-Marathi voters are by and large considerably apathetic towards municipal politics. But even there, due to the Senas failure to uphold and deliver promises and because of the suspected massive self-enrichment by its leaders through the exploitation of the regions highly inflated real-estate market. It seems to be in the process of decline in terms of popular support. With the MNS [Maharashtra Navnirman Sena] eating into its strongholds, it is now desperate to seek accommodation with the MNS. That will not be all that easy, however, as the two have now cultivated competing and contending aspirants from within the same pool of local activist politicians, much in the way the INC and the NCP have done in the rest of Maharashtra.
Do you see a constructive role for the Sena in politics? If (and this is a big if) change is possible, how would you suggest that the Sena revamp itself? Where should it position itself politically so as to make a difference to Maharashtra? And do you think its cadre will accept a new face? Essentially we are speaking of political maturity here, though I know in the past you have laughed at the very idea!
No, I do not see a constructive role for the Sena in State politics.
It will be a sheer pipe dream to expect the young and less young leaders of the SS and the MNS and their associates to have the capacity to conceptualise their options in terms of a systematic and objective understanding of reality, in terms of its complex interlinks between the neoliberal economy including the demands of international capital on the one hand and its preferred forms of social, cultural and material consumption on the other, and their destructive impact on the rapidly shrinking potential for autonomous and socially inclusive expansion of opportunity for survival and development for all citizens, including the ones who are being systematically deprived of their life chances.