February 21, 2020
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What After Thackeray?

He is called fascist, but he has created Maharashtra's most popular party. He is accused of nepotism, but his family may not be able to live up to him.

What After Thackeray?

A favourite theory of some of the older journalists of Mumbai has it that had it not been for a gentleman called A.B. Nair, managing editor of the Free Press Journal , Balasaheb Thackeray would not have reached the pinnacle of his political career, lording it over Maharashtra. According to the story they recount, Thackeray was a staff cartoonist in the daily along with R.K. Laxman. Three of his cartoons had been selected for publication in a world anthology of cartoons on Winston Churchill. But Nair withheld the payment due to young Thackeray—about $30—and he left in disgust. These journalists ascribe Thackeray's animosity towards south Indians to his relationship with Nair. It was no accident that when the Shiv Sena was formed in 1966, the first target of the militant but fledgling organisation were the south Indians.

Thackeray himself brushes off the theory, saying that he had not done the cartoons for money. But he does relate the role Nair played in his leaving the Free Press Journal . Nair had too many holy cows—Minoo Masani, S.K. Patil et al—and would not allow him to lampoon some of the contemporary political giants in Maharashtra. "If you take away my models from me, how can I carry on?" Thackeray told his editor one fine day, and upped and walked away. He was also miffed, he says, by the manner in which he was constantly shifted around in the newspaper office, even asked once to sit near the telephones.

Whatever the actual reason for Thackeray leaving the Free Press , few of his colleagues were prepared for his chilling transformation—from a quiet introvert to the autocrat who rules over the megapolis with an iron hand, with complete control over the government, the multi-crore film industry, the corporate world and the minds of millions. To be fair, Thackeray himself had little idea when he walked out of the newspaper's premises that he was setting out on such a journey.

So, how did the metamorphosis happen? It is difficult to pinpoint one single reason. Chhagan Bhujbal, one of the pioneers of the Shiv Sena, and now the Congress leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Legislative Council, ascribes the change to a synthesis of the mood created by the Samyukta Maharashtra movement and the feeling of deprivation among the Maharashtrians in what was then Bombay, who felt left out of the growing opportunities in the fast growing megapolis. Thackeray was one of the first to articulate this frustration, and in a rather unconventional manner to boot. He used the columns of Marmik , the Marathi weekly he had started by then, to publish in each issue a list of the top 20-25 officials in big government enterprises and private companies. Needless to say, the list was dominated by south Indians and was conspicuous by the virtual absence of any Maharashtrians. To begin with the column was titled Vacha Ani Thanda Basa (Read and Sit Silent). After the serialisation had added to the consternation of Maha-rashtrians in the city, the title was changed to Vacha Ani Utha (Read and Awaken).

Even in his formative years Thackeray exhibited two prime requisites for a successful foray into politics: the ability to feel the pulse of the people and the ability to adapt his tactics to changes in their mood. When some of the leading lights of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement like Acharya Atre and Thackeray's father, Prabhodhankar, decided to form an organisation to protect the interests of Maharashtr-ians in the city, Balasaheb, or Bal was the natural choice to head it. Old-timers say one of the things that weighed in his favour then was the fact that he had a news weekly under him which could be used as the organisation's mouthpiece. The formal announcement of the formation of the Shiv Sena (literally the army of Maratha icon Shivaji) was made in 1966 through Marmik columns.

The announcement was greeted by hordes of frustrated youth with excitement. They came largely from the lower middle classes, people who were educated and concerned about unemployment. People who were angry that the great commercial revolution happening in the city was cleanly bypassing them. And Thackeray made full use of it. Since the migrants from the South were the largest beneficiaries of the employment opportunities in the city, it was the south Indians who were the first targets of the fledgling Sena.

Senior journalist M.V. Kamath, who has spent almost his entire professional life in the city, recalls the pitched battles of those days between the young Maharashtrians and workers in the Udupi chain of restaurants, who were invariably all from the South. The Sainiks would storm the premises, vandalise the place. Often the waiters and the cooks would retaliate by throwing boiling hot water on the attackers. Other Sainiks were on the prowl in buses and suburban trains, harassing to tears those who could not speak Marathi. Some of the more articulate ones would visit the offices of various companies with complete dossiers on their employment pattern and demand an explanation as to why locals were not being recruited even for clerical jobs. Threats were common, and often followed by action to chillingly demonstrate that they were not empty. These terror tactics were honed further and used most tellingly nearly three decades later when Sena workers prowled the city during the January '93 riots, wreaking havoc on the Muslim community. All through Tha-ckeray exhorted the Sainiks to action through his vituperative columns in the Marmik and Saamna , the daily which he had launched subsequently.

Both polarisations—between Maharash-trians and non-Maharashtrians in the '60s, and the communal flare-up in the '90s—paid the Sena rich dividends. By late '60s, it had emerged as a major force in the then Bombay and Thane corporations, and Thackeray led the Sena-BJP alliance to victory in the assembly polls after the 1993 riots, shocking the Congress, which had had an uninterrupted hold on the state ever since its creation.

But the Congress had itself to blame for the turn of events. Says a senior partyman in the state: "We have made it a habit to create Frankenstein's monsters and bear the brunt of our creation later." He likened Thackeray's growth to the monstrous rise of Bhindranwale in Punjab. "It's we who made Thackeray what he is today. In its formative years, the Sena was fully backed by Congress chief ministers who wanted to use it to crush the Communist Party and their unions. We gave the Shiv Sainiks the full backing every time they came out to break strikes." 

Madhav Deshpande, one of the founding members of the Shiv Sena, and who has now fallen out with Thackeray, also agrees that the organisation received great backing from the Congress in its early days. "Some of them had sympathy for the 'Maharashtra for Maharashtrians' slogan, but they could not articulate it openly as they had acquired the image of national leaders. When we went out sometimes the police escort we received was larger than what even ministers got then," he recalls.

What most people, particularly those outside Mumbai, cannot understand is how the city, with all its cosmopolitan (and now global) flavour, reconciles itself to the chauvinism and communalism which the Shiv Sena displays. An insight is provided by Iqbal Masud, former income tax commissioner-turned-columnist. "The Shiv Sena is an expression of the ground feeling, particularly among the lower middle class Maharashtrians, which has existed in the city. In the '60s Thackeray realised the potency of the local, regional aspirations, and exploited it to the hilt." This was enough to take the Sena to a position of domination by the end of the decade. Later when Thackeray decided on the goal of capturing Maharashtra, the innate anti-Muslimness came to his aid.

AT the same time, Masud refuses to brand Thackeray either a fascist or a communalist. "Whether you like it or not, fascism is a philosophy. Thackeray has no philosophy. He is primarily a careerist, who wants to have a party to lead." As for communalism, Masud feels that Thackeray is no more communal than the Congress leaders who presided over the city during the 1993 riots. He doubts whether communalism is as great a matter of conviction with the Shiv Sena leader as with some of the Congress and most of the BJP leaders. "I have felt a much greater blast of communal hatred from the latter than I have from the Shiv Sena, their role in the riots notwithstanding," he says.

Many of the city's political observers agree and view Thackeray's shift from chauvinism to the communal platform as a purely opportunistic move. Chauvinism gave him the platform to establish the Sena as a political force in the city. But once he set his sights on the state as a whole, he realised the old slogan would not be enough. After all, 'Maharashtra for Maharashtrians' had little appeal outside Mumbai. This explains the shift to the wider Hindutva bandwagon. The opportunity was provided in the mid-'80s first by the controversy over the publication of Riddles of Hinduism by B.R. Ambedkar, in which Lord Ram had been allegedly denigrated, and then by the Shah Bano controversy and the subsequent eruption of the Babri Masjid dispute. "The riots after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the bomb blasts which rocked the city after that were pure bonus," says an observer cynically.

BUT while all these factors have been responsible for the rise and rise of the Sena, it's not roses all the way for the party. The Ramesh Kini murder case in which Thackeray's nephew Raj has got embroiled, the charges of extortion against the family as well as the party, and the Sena chief's failing health have all raised tantalising question marks over the Shiv Sena's future. The Thack-erays deny any involvement in the murder case or the extortions. But it is the ageing of the tiger which is really worrying the Sainiks even if no one is willing to discuss it openly yet.

Thackeray, just a few months short of his 71st birthday, has had a bypass surgery and was doubly bereaved recently, losing first his wife Meenatai and then son Bindu Madhav. Both the deaths devastated him. And though his personal doctor, cardiovascular surgeon Nitu Mandke, iterates that "his health is fantastic" and that "nothing is going to happen to him for the next 15-20 years", the signs of worry are visible on every Sainik's face. But ask "After Thackeray, who?", and the response is always "We'll think about it when the time comes". The worry is greater because of the kind of organisation the Sena has been right from its inception. Thackeray was anointed the Supreme Leader and he remains the Supreme Leader now. There is no provision for an election in the party. Not even any constitutional mechanism to select the new leader in case of his death or retirement. And Thackeray's personality has dominated the Sena to such a great extent that everyone else, including son Udhav, nephew Raj, and senior partymen like Manohar Joshi and Pramod Navalkar appear pygmy-like in comparison. The fear is that none of them have the stature to fill in the vacancy if it should arise, and that the Sena could simply collapse in such a scenario.

Bhujbal and Deshpande, two of Thackeray's erstwhile colleagues who do not see eye-to-eye with him anymore, are certain the Sena can't survive after Thackeray. Kamath agrees. Masud is the only one who is not sure. He points to the tremendous grassroots support the Sena has been able to build because of its cultural enmeshing with the city, and feels the momentum may carry it on. "In any case, the mindset which created the Sena can't vanish overnight. And as long as that remains, so will the Sena, maybe not in such a fanatical form." As for the people, Outlook 's own state-wide survey (see Opinion Poll on page 14) found that 68% felt the Shiv Sena story will end with Balasaheb. Which of these are right only time will tell. What is certain even now is that without the towering presence of Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena will never be the same.


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