Bal Thackeray (1926-2012) ruled through fear and violence and commanded the loyalty of Shiv Sainiks, who did not mind his inconsistencies.
A MAN of contradictions who practised the politics of convenience: many people would consider this an appropriate epitaph for Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Of course, many would disagree, saying that his brand of politics struck a chord in Maharashtra, citing the large turnout at his funeral on November 18. Mumbai possibly witnessed the largest public funeral in recent times, which drew people from all over the State. It was clear that though Thackeray had his enemies, at the final hour his followers turned out in full strength.
Bal Thackeray was born Bal Keshav Thackeray on January 23, 1926. His father, Keshav Sitaram Thackeray (commonly known as Prabodhankar Thackeray), was a writer and political leader. This early exposure to politics laid the foundations for Thackerays future life. Keshav Thackeray was actively involved in the regional politics of the time, being a key figure in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, which demanded a separate State of Maharashtra, on the basis of linguistic lines, carved out of the erstwhile Bombay State with Bombay (now Mumbai) as its capital.
Thackerays academic years were unremarkable. Although he did not complete his school education, he had a working knowledge of life that held him in good stead. His most powerful tool was his ability to use words, and this, combined with his flair for cartooning, led him to his first career. He worked as a cartoonist with The Free Press Journal in the 1950s, sharing column space with men like Behram Contractor, better known as Busybee, and R.K. Laxman. Contractors memories of him bring out words such as gentle, shy and timid, descriptions that are completely out of sync with the Thackeray of later years. After his stint with Free Press, Thackeray, along with some colleagues, started Newsday, but this venture folded up soon. In 1960, he started Marmik (meaning vital) along with his younger brother Shrikant.
The 1960s was Thackerays formative decade. With Marmik he found his future. He espoused the cause of the Marathi-speaking people. This found acceptance across the State and soon Thackeray found himself to be a leader. One does not know if he was an unwilling leader; whether this shy and gentle man was carried on the crest of a wave to become the voice of Marathis. On June 19, 1966, he formed the Shiv Sena, an organisation modelled on the army of the Maratha king Chhatrapathi Shivaji and claimed to uphold its ethics and aims. The Senas emblem of a roaring tiger soon gave Thackeray his nickname of Tiger, and he delighted in it.
The Shiv Senas baptism, as far as the Sainiks are concerned, was on Dussera day on October 30, 1966, at Shivaji Park in Mumbai, when Thackeray addressed a large gathering of followers. (He addressed Sena supporters every year on Dussera day since then until his death.) Then as now, the area is largely a Marathi heartland. Thackerays Dussera speeches were a highlight of the Senas public programmes. Vitriolic, humorous and incisive, Thackeray was an orator who carried his audience with him. Shivaji Park would be filled to capacity to listen to his speech, which was always delivered extempore. He would speak on a wide range of subjects but the underlying theme would be the welfare of his Marathi compatriots. He invariably touched on current topics and lampooned people, which often bordered on the vulgar. He was often illogical and contradictory, but his followers did not seem to mind the inconsistencies.
Thackeray had a rabid aversion to communism. The Congress took political advantage of this. It nurtured and supported the fledgling Sena, using it to break the trade union movement. In 1970, in the working class area of Parel, Krishna Desai, a Member of the Legislative Assembly belonging to the Communist Party of India, was stabbed to death. His assailants were Sainiks. The first Sena MLA was elected from this same constituency subsequently. The Sainiks gained a foothold in Parel and have held the constituency to this day. In the early days, businesses, especially the textile industry, supported the Sena. Ironically, the Sena forgot this helping hand when it used its organisational strength to take protection money and adopted tactics such as bandhs to disrupt the economy.
Complacent about what the world thought about him, Thackeray actually craved goodwill. He truly believed in what he was doing and fervently wanted others to believe in his causes or approve of them. If they did not oblige, he responded with tantrums like a bad-tempered child. His tantrums grew more dangerous, and as the years went by, the level of aggression and violence became bywords to describe the party itself. Even at the peak of his career, he craved approval. Two decades ago, this correspondent had interviewed Thackeray and his critic Nikhil Wagle, who at that time was the Editor of Mahanagar, a tabloid that was severely critical of him. In the ensuing article, Wagle was quoted as calling Thackeray a coward. The day after the issue appeared, this correspondent received a call from the tiger himself.
You called me a coward, he said softly after introducing himself.
No, I quoted someone calling you a coward, I responded, after getting over the initial shock that he had directly dialled the number, dispensing with any personal assistant.
But you went ahead and printed it [a long pause] I will not forget this.
For a young reporter, it was a chilling moment even though nothing came of the implied threat, and by the next meeting he seemed to have forgotten what at that moment may have been a blow to his self-esteem.
With the kind of power Thackeray wielded, he should have been able to take people along with him. Unfortunately, the quality of his leadership was such that he ruled only through fear and violence. It was indeed a sore point with him if his authority was challenged, and he invariably replied with violence in one form or another regardless of the level from which the threat came. Perhaps, his greatest tragedy was his lack of self-confidence and his superficial knowledge of issues. How else would one explain his skipping from one issue to another without seeing anything through. His initial cause, that of improving the economic prospects of the Marathi people, turned vicious when he injected it with the them versus us poison. This was the first indication of poor leadership: he was unable to make his cause stand on its own feet and had to trample others to keep it alive. This strategy became something of a trademark.
One consistent feature of Thackerays character was his inconsistency and opportunism. His politics especially was inconsistent. At one stage, the Sena smashed shops that carried signboards in English. Though the idea was ostensibly to instil Marathi pride in all citizens, the lumpen elements took advantage of old resentments and translated this into antagonism towards the English language. Thackeray did nothing to remedy the situation. In fact, his own grandchildren were sent to the American School of Bombay.
Even his famed vitriol against certain communities was built on shifting sands, which led one to believe that he did not actually have any real antagonism against any particular community. He moved from one to the other, depending on which was a necessary foe of the moment. South Indians were initially bashed for taking away jobs meant for local youth. However, during the 1992-93 riots they were seen as buddies, as they teamed up with the Sena against Muslims. He went to the extent of supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. He wanted the ban on the LTTE lifted and suggested that India rope in the Sri Lankan militant group to fight Pakistans Inter-Services Intelligence. Many pro-LTTE leaders cosied up to him and even campaigned for Shiv Sena candidates in the local body elections in Mumbai.
For a long time after the riots and the ensuing bomb blasts in Mumbai, the Sena targeted Muslims. This hatred coincided with Thackerays shift towards Hindutva. Until then, religion had not been an issue with the Sena. Its regionalism drew strength from the linguistic divide. But the Babri Masjid demolition brought out a new side of Thackeray. Whether he welcomed the demolition or saw in it a great political opportunity cannot be commented upon, but after the incident the Sena turned communal. Long-held but never stated beliefs that actually linked the Sena and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) as far as ideology was concerned came to the fore and were printed in his newspaper Saamna (essentially meaning confrontation). If Thackeray had extolled Hitler earlier, he now supported Nathuram Godse. This explains why, in spite of the ups and downs in their relations, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition has held.
Muslim-bashing took a back seat when the Sena leadership sensed new victims. North Indians, who had been migrating to Mumbai for work, were seen as taking away jobs from the locals. This idea provoked a sudden and brutal wave of attacks against them. Even as the north Indians were struggling to recover from the assault, the Sena started a new, all-inclusive campaign called Mee Mumbaikar, which made a U-turn announcement saying that everyone who contributed to the city had a right to be in the metropolis. This warped behaviour became the trademark of the party. Thackerays arbitrary replies when questioned about it were accepted by the citizens and by the media. He had become a character, an incorrigible naughty boy who was difficult to control and so was allowed to run amok. This indulgent attitude was just an expression of the failure of successive governments to control him. No one dared take action against Thackeray. The Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission, which was appointed to inquire into the Mumbai riots, recommended that Thackeray be prosecuted, but no action was taken.
Thackeray commanded loyalty, and the average Sainik felt being a part of the organisation was an entitlement, one that was generally expressed with violence. The Marathi pride was satisfied by smashing shops, beating up north Indians, burning taxis and generally indulging in an orgy of violence and emerging victorious after teaching the city a lesson. If followers are meant to follow, then the Sainiks were doing no wrong. Thackeray was leading by example. He had moved away from his original goal, that of economic uplift of the Marathi people, but many remained doggedly loyal to him. In thought and speech, he continued to portray himself and the Sena as a Marathi peoples partyof them, for them, by them. It was a political sleight of hand, and as in the case of most tricks, the people never saw through this one either.
His famous phrase Bombay will burn hung like the proverbial Damocles sword over the city. Indeed, the total shutdown of the city after his death exemplified this. It was a voluntary shutdown, but respect for the departed leader alone was not the basis for it, fear and the past experience had made people cautious. In his last years, Thackeray liked to play with words and often said that his Bombay will burn phrase was never meant to be taken literally. The fact is it was to be and Thackeray intended it to be. He was proud of his hold over his boys, whom he could command to do his whim. In this context, it is worth noting that the devotion of the Sainiks to Thackeray was also indicative of the rudderless leadership in Maharashtra. No political party has bothered to explore why, if at all, a vast number of Marathi people felt neglected.
It is the tragedy of public figures that their life story is actually the life story of others as well. In that sense they are not individuals. Despite being very conscious of his individuality, whether it was in his speech, dress or opinions, Thackeray was so closely identified with the party that the line that separated him and the Sena was a blurred one. This was apparent at his funeral, for many used the occasion to express their solidarity with the Sena, identify themselves with the majority, and thus find safety in numbers. In a manner of speaking, the funeral was a political rally.
This is the only way to explain the numerous examples of political imagery that were visible at the funeral. Banners that proclaimed the various shakhas in attendance; the reported shunting aside of his nephew and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray at Matoshree, Thackerays residence from where the funeral procession began; the hierarchy that was set in place for the funeral proceedings; and the high-profile visitors who were obliged to pay their respects.
When news of Thackerays death came out on November 17, the thoughts that ran in almost every Mumbaikars mind was, will the city burn and who will take over the Sena? The immediate aftermath of Thackerays death was his son Uddhav Thackerays first real test. If his appeal to the Sainiks to remain calm was ignored, it would have boded ill for his future as the partys leader. As it happened, there was no violence, but this was also partly because citizens shut down normal operations, not wanting to provoke the Sena. An eerie silence gripped Mumbai for close to 40 hours after Thackerays death.