Bal Thackeray: The man who mastered identity politics

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"It was around six years ago. I was having dinner at a restaurant in Mumbai when a rumour that Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray had died of heart attack. The owner came to our table and asked us to leave because he didn't want any vandalism. Such is the fear among people." A colleague of mine was saying this after the media started an endless wait to reveal whether the ailing 86-year-old Maratha Tiger was alive or not.


Sena supporters thronged Matoshree, the residence of Bal Keshav Thackeray, besides VVIPs and VIPs. Security was beefed up and the Maharashtra chief minister was personally monitoring the law and order situation. Why was there so much confidentiality even if the senior Thackeray had breathed his last?

The answer is, as my colleague said, fear. Deaths of popular politicians are not easy for public acceptance for their death means not only the end of an individual but actually an ultra style of politics based on identity. There was no big surprise in the fact that shops were shut in Mumbai even when the death of the ailing leader was not confirmed. Bal Thackeray's exit, if it really is, will mean end of an important era in Maharashtra politics in particular and India's Hindutva politics in general.

Bal Thackeray a national hero? Or a Hindu terrorist?

Bal Thackeray's startling transformation from an introvert cartoonist into an autocrat who ruled over a vibrant metropolis and million minds was aided by the sub-nationalism that has affected almost all parts of the country since independence.

The Samyukta Maharashtra movement led by his father Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, which had led the demand for a separate Maharashtra state formed from the bilingual State of Bombay, and the grievance among the Maharashtrians that they were being deprived of Mumbai's (then Bombay) prosperity affected Bal in a big way. He gave a medium of venting out the frustration through Marmik, a Marathi weekly he had started after quitting an English daily. It is said that Thackeray's bad relation with the managing editor of the English daily, who was a south Indian, had shaped his strong feelings against the south Indians.

Thackeray used to publish list of top officials of both public and private enterprises in Marmik and the list mainly comprised south Indians and not Maharashtrians. This earned Bal Thackeray a big following among the Marathis.

Balasaheb had two qualities: One, he understood the pulse of the people and two, he had the flexibility to change his tactics as per their mood swings. When Samyukta Maharashtra Movement leaders like Acharya Atre and Bal's father planned to form an organisation in Mumbai to shield the Maharashtrians' interests, they considered Bal to be the fittest option for he already had a news weekly which could be utilised in favour of the organisation. It was in the columns of Marmik that formal announcements had been made about setting up the Shiv Sena in 1966.

The Sena had easily attracted the frustrated youth who did not get employment despite Mumbai's commercial success and since the south Indians were doing well, Bal Thackeray's militant politics started targetting them. The Shiv Sainiks, henceforth, started their intolerant identity politics and attacked anyone who did not speak Marathi. They also wreaked havoc on the Muslim community during the 1993 Mumbai riots and Bal Thackeray kept on fuelling the politics of hatred through his columns in Marmik and Saamana, another weekly which was published subsequently and now is the mouthpiece of the Sena.

Shiv Sena emerged a strong political force in the mid-1990s

The Shiv Sena emerged into a major political force in the mid-1990s and formed the state government in Maharashtra with the BJP, another party known for its identity politics, after the 1995 election and left the Congress, which had so far enjoyed a strong control in the state's politics, in a dizzy. The Congress lamented later that Bal Thackeray proved to be a Frankenstein for them just as Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Punjab and chased back at his creator.

Madhav Despande, one of the founding members of the Shiv Sena but later developed a sour relation with Bal Thackeray, acknowledged that the Congress had given special preference to the Senas for the latter served a handy tool in crushing communist workers and trade unions and formed a base among workers of various industries, including the textile mills, at the expense of the left and Congress.

Bal Thackeray's biggest achievement was that he had given wings to local and regional aspirations, which is difficult to be understood by outsiders. He had accomplished a unique marriage between cosmopolitanism and chauvinism and in the later years, added the strong senses of Indian nationalism and Hindu identity (anti-Muslim feelings) to his political philosophy, if he really had one. Hence, while for one section he is a man who asserted the national pride, some say he is a terrorist wanted in Pakistan.

The other day I saw a comment in an article in a foreign magazine which read: "Mr Bal Thackeray, resident of Bombay, Chief of Shiv Sena, wanted for organising at least three major massacres in Pakistan in which some 33 people were killed and a highly active in organising ethnic and sectarian clashes in different parts of Pakistan." It does not matter whoever has made the comment, but the fact is that the Shiv Sena chief's name is not above suspicion.

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