It was Jan 17, 2010 and I was in Kolkata. A massive tragedy unfolded in the life of the otherwise stagnant Bengali in the form of demise of the state's former chief minister and iconic Left ruler Jyoti Basu. The man, who was just four years short of century, was given grand state honours although I was surprised by the show of gun salute. For I, as a member of the post-1977 generation, was never convinced that the man had done anything good for common urbanites like us. Land reforms and rural governance were not part of my life ever.
And now on Nov 18, 2012, I saw something similar happening in the western extreme of the country. The 86-year-old ailing Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, who passed away the previous day, was given a similar honour with 21 gun salutes. The body of the Maratha icon was draped in the Tricolour and it was by far the juiciest Sunday for the media in a long time and there was no lack of wisdom in letting the chance slip.
I can still understand Jyoti Basu getting the state honours for he was the longest-serving chief minister of Bengal and a politician who belonged to a famous ideological brand called Marxism. He even came close to become the prime minister of India once but was let down by his party. But how can the state honours for Bal Thackeray be justified? He was not an electoral politician and did not even serve as a minister in his own state and took great pride in denouncing democracy. "I believe in Shivsahi and not Loksahi," he used to say. The man was charismatic for he believed in direct action, considered an exclusive act of heroism not many are capable of in an otherwise ineffective and unequal democracy in many respect.
A democratic state bowed before a man who never believed in democracy
But that does not mean that we can drape his body with the tricolour and give him gun salutes. Bal Thackeray, no matter what he had done and what he didn't, was primarily a regional satrap and treated his home state and its capital as his fiefdom and chased away all those who did not belong to its soil. He believed in sectarian politics, fuelled divisive politics but never assumed any office of responsibility. If we claim ourselves to be a democracy, then how can we really wrap his body by our national flag, which symbolises our unified identity? It is such a big irony that a democratic state is bowing before a man who never abided by the rule of law and openly flouted democratic conventions. How much worse can we become?
Bal Thackeray: The real-life Bachchan
Shiv Sena is an outfit that never practised positive politics and created divisions in the society. Populist and assertive ways of politics had a great market in the country in the 1960s and 1970s for in the aftermath of Nehru's death and collapse of ideology and advent of economic hardships, people like Bal Thackeray had a charming appeal. He was the real-life version of an Amitabh Bachchan, the angry young man, in those days and dealt everything with fire. Whether Thackeray was good or bad is not important at all. Perception is key in every world affairs and Thackerays take birth when a big gap evolves between the lofty constitutional ideals and the aggrieved common individual plagued by real socio-economic crisis on the ground. It is a great tragedy that the same state which creates Thackerays takes a bow before them when they depart.
Was Thackeray so much loved by the media?
The media coverage of Thackeray's funeral was hard to digest. Who is Bal Thackeray outside Mumbai? The Shiv Sena is not as powerful in the rural parts of Maharashtra as it is in Mumbai. 'Thackeray Phenomenon', 'Incredible Balasaheb', 'The man who never practised caste politics'--- all these praises were being showered on a man who just grabbed an opportunity that came to his way because of the urban-economic and politico-religious complexes that Mumbai had presented at that time. Why do they call him Balasaheb and why do they feel elated that he did not fuel caste politics?
Yes, the post-Nehru Congress became an evil that had given rise to anti-forces at various corners of the nation but most of them fought the Congress democratically. Bal Thackeray was the only anti-Congress politician who fought it by inculcating fear and apprehension among the people.
Whether he admired Adolf Hitler was his personal preference but a democracy does not allow autocrats to prosper. You can not be anti-democratic but yet claim that you fight for the people. That Shiv Sena had done little in actually improving the people's condition was proved after it had formed the government with the BJP in the mid-1990s.
Bal Thackeray's brand of politics had only fuelled the sentiments but never really succeeded to change the ground situation. Today, such politics has become obsolete not only because the middle-class has found a big exposure unlike the closed years of the 1960s-80s, but also because the media, through an effort to immortalise the personality cults of Thackeray-like politicians, has actually exposed the hollowness of that cult.
The endless debates that went on and on about Thackeray's pros and cons in various channels showed how fierce competition compels the powerful Indian media to bestow an exaggerated persona on a regional leader who just practised a one-dimensional brand of politics during his lifetime. Was the media a bit apprehensive as well?
Why the media overwhelmed by Thackeray's long political survival?
Bal Thackeray survived for a long period in politics despite fuelling violence because he had never participated in electoral politics. One BJP leader said politicians in India should learn from Bal Thackeray how one should show restraint by not running after posts. Well, Sonia Gandhi, too, had done something similar by not becoming the Prime Minister. Is BJP ready to acknowledge her greatness then? Or, are they ready to sympathise with the victims of the Mumbai riots of 1993? If not, then they must stop the hollow eulogy.
Now with Thackeray gone, the only way the Shiv Sena can survive is by transforming the politics of identity into a far more aggressive politics of reprisal to keep itself relevant. But the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has already hijacked the agenda.
Bal Thackerays are the results of the failure of a post-colonial state, feeble and vulnerable to politics of naked ambition and subsequent manipulation. The inequality that prevailed in a cosmopolitan, rich and famous Mumbai encouraged the Thackeray phenomenon to grow there steadily for hijacking the city of the ambitious and glamourous meant that the protagonist also became a part of the same charismatic tale. An assuring feeling that 'if they have Dawood, we have Thackeray' worked wonder for the Shiv Sena chief. But does that mean we paint all with the same brush?
If godfathers are given state honours, then why not those Robin Hoods working in several pockets of the country also fighting for their own folks against inequality and maltreatment? If Bal Thackeray is worthy to be treated like a national hero, then why not Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale? He also fought for his religious rights. Why is then there so much concern about the upcoming memorial in the name of the Sikh terror man who was killed in the mid-1980s? Both these people were creations of the Congress, then why different treatment for each?
Politics of symbolism must end
Symbolic politics must end at this very moment, both on behalf of people like Thackeray and the state power. This is high time we focus on the politics that substantially works towards a uniform welfare of the entire nation. Fuelling divisions among the people of the same country are not going to reap any benefit. Bal Thackeray's legacy will die gradually for he did not do anything memorably good. But the scars in the soul of the nation will remain forever.