The mammoth size of the crowd of mourners who congregated at Shivaji Park in Mumbai last Sunday to bid a final adieu to Bal Thackeray foxed many of his long-time critics. They had assumed that, in his waning years, the Shiv Sena chieftain had become a pale and tragic shadow of his former, feisty self and was therefore a figure of no consequence. The assumption was well founded. A series of political setbacks and personal tragedies, followed by age-related illnesses, had taken their toll.
In his last video address, Thackeray appealed to the Sainiks to “take care” of his anointed heirs—son Uddhav and grandson Aditya—once he exited the scene. It was a pitiable sight: the patriarch, who once held his audience in thrall with his vitriolic oratory, now appeared to be frail and exhausted as he gasped for breath while he searched for the right words. The critics had therefore concluded that he was well and truly a spent force.
But by the time the funeral ended, the critics began to sing a different tune. The presence of lakhs of people, as well as that of political leaders from several parties, corporate heads and leading film stars, they acknowledged, contained a message about Thackeray’s enduring appeal, which had thus far eluded them. It related partly to his great capacity to strike bonds of friendship even with his rivals in the spheres of politics, the media, sports and cinema. He castigated them in the most acerbic terms in his public speeches, but in private, treated them with much warmth and courtesy.
Partly, too, the critics argued, Thackeray’s candour—a marked penchant to always call a spade a bloody shovel—set him apart from politicians who can rarely, if ever, mean what they say or say what they mean. The Sena patriarch’s forthrightness, often expressed in a language that bordered on the obscene, outraged his adversaries, embarrassed his allies and compelled his party leaders to squirm in their seats. But, the neo-converts claimed, it was music to the ears of his followers. They revelled in every sentence he uttered for, in their reckoning, Thackeray dared to articulate their very own sentiments.
These were sentiments of a grievous hurt: after great sacrifices, the Marathi people had got a state of their own, but the state had failed to address their concerns and aspirations. The insecurities of the middle- and lower-middle-class Maharashtrians, who constituted the base of the Shiv Sena along with the lumpen proletariat, hardened to a point where they felt marginalised with no hope of ever catching up with “outsiders”: south Indians, Marwaris and Gujaratis, to begin with, and later Muslims and Biharis. The “outsiders”, they felt, denied them jobs, bought over their properties and forced them to relocate in distant suburbs, engaged in criminal activities, carved a political space for themselves at their expense, disdained their language and culture and, overall, reduced them to the status of second-class citizens on their home turf.
The neo-converts to identity politics went on to assert that throughout his public life Thackeray exploited these insecurities with such consummate skill that an average Maharashtrian readily looked the other way when he promoted his political agenda with a brazen, often callous, disregard for constitutional niceties. They knew that the Sena patriarch’s single obsession was to instil a sense of pride in the Marathi manoos, to seek his social and economic advancement and to give him the confidence to face the dreaded “outsiders” with courage and fortitude.
It is these virtues that Thackeray’s once-strident critics extolled as they witnessed the scenes at Shivaji Park. The thought did not cross their minds that the grouses of the Maharashtrians had little to do with the malignant “outsiders”. If few of them were at the commanding heights of trade and commerce, the all-India civil services, the English media, Bollywood, PSUs, the armed forces, the academic world or even the cultural one at the pan-India level, the reasons had to be sought in their own character and attitude and in the neglect of quality education in the state.
The neo-converts couldn’t summon the nerve to admit that Maharashtrians lacked—or had failed to exhibit—the entrepreneurial skills of the Gujaratis, Marwaris, Kutchis, Jains, Sindhis and Parsis; that they didn’t venture out of their towns and cities to earn a livelihood in distant states as south Indians, Punjabis, north Indian Hindus and Muslims and the bhadralok Bengalis did with gusto; that their innately cautious, understated nature did not allow them to engage in the highly competitive market of arts and ideas.
The neo-converts to identity politics also chose to ignore two other factors. Few, if any, thought it fit to point to the terrible cost Maharashtra had to pay for Thackeray’s brand of politics: a lethal mix of regional chauvinism, communalism and rank opportunism. Its victims weren’t heard in TV studio discussions or in the columns of newspapers. Nor was another, younger breed of Maharashtrians, who are carving a niche for themselves in just about every field, ranging from food and fashion to scholarship, business, media and the arts. They don’t suffer from a sense of victimhood. It is therefore a matter of time before the newly minted admirers of Bal Thackeray—most of them “progressives”—are forced to eat their words.
That time may indeed have come much sooner than any of them would have anticipated. Even as the mammoth crowd had begun to disperse from Shivaji Park, a group of Shiv Sainiks flexed their muscles in Palghar. They forced a 21-year old woman, Shaheen Dhada, to tender an apology for a comment she had posted on her Facebook page. Her crime? She had raised questions about how and why Mumbai had shut down in the wake of Thackeray’s death—without naming him once. This perfectly innocuous comment had riled the Sainiks for, in their eyes, Shaheen, like her friend, Rini Srinivasan, who had endorsed the comment, had insulted their leader. After some reluctance, Shaheen did post an apology on her Facebook page, but that brought her no respite.
The Sainiks vandalised a hospital run by her uncle and roughed up staff and patients alike. Late that night, the police, instead of hunting for the vandals, took the two young women in custody and next morning pressed charges against them for “outraging religious feelings”. The charges were subsequently whittled down and the women were released on bail. Such was the nation-wide outcry against the conduct of both, the Sainiks and the police, that the state government was compelled to order an inquiry.
But their reputation was in tatters: the former, because they had demonstrated how they proposed to uphold the legacy of Thackeray; and the latter, for making it obvious that, faced with the wrath of the Sainiks, their spine was akin to the spine of an eel. They had shown this propensity to kowtow to the Sena time and again in the past. Not once did they seriously press charges against Thackeray for his inflammatory speeches against “Madrasis”, Muslims, Biharis and against artists, writers, film stars and journalists who had questioned his policies and tactics. Will the recent adherents of the Shiv Sena patriarch’s brand of identity politics now run for cover? This is far from certain. No long-time practitioner of a faith—religious or secular—can hope to match the zeal of a neo-convert to sap the foundations of the republic.