Enfant terrible of Indian politics
His life and times evoke contradictory response; from stringent criticism to blind admiration from adherents to his political praxis. However, the man himself remained a mercurial politician changing stand in every emerging scenario.
Born in 1926 into a family of a progressive social reformer Keshav Thackeray aka Prabhodankar who all his life waged a war against the deep-rooted caste system in social milieu as well as a demand for statehood for Maharashtra, Bal Thackeray took a path inter-twined with extreme right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Nazism.
It is a strange twist of irony that the boy who grew up in a crucible hearing socialistic debates and discussions taking place among his father and other progressive social reformists, all his life held a virulent hatred towards communists and socialists.
And in early sixties when the Samyukta Maharashtra Chalwal (United Maharashtra Movement) was on the wane after the statehood was achieved, Bal Thackeray, a talented cartoonist, left “Free Press Journal” to launch a magazine called “Marmik,” in a period roiling with economic crisis.
The magazine, predominantly replete with satirical pieces and cartoons, soon lit up the political path for Thackeray; providing simplistic answers to complex socio-economic scenario. The magazine highlighted parochial issues even though it meant carving out a negative image for oneself.
The negative image strategy used by celebrities and politicians in present day has its roots in the practice first popularised by Bal Thackeray who found that a dark aura easily camouflages deeper political biases and social prejudices with a potential to unleash a demonic irrational mob fury against imagined insults.
The sixties was a period fermenting with joblessness, unemployment and communist-backed trade unions; the ruling Congress and industrialists in Mumbai needed a person who could deflect the angry psyche of lower strata.
Bal Thackeray, who life long held a contempt for communists and socialists fitted the bill; his street corner meetings became popular in central Mumbai “mill” area. Attacks on the “Left” for promising a pie in the sky and “outsiders” like south Indians, Gujaratis and Sikh for usurping jobs from “locals,” entranced the Mumbai Marathi-speaking populace.
In 1966, Bal Thackeray along with street-smart politicians launched the Shiv Sena, a logical development of “Marmik” gaining popularity not just among unemployed Marathi-speaking youngsters but also with the “left-backed union” troubled industrialists in Mumbai.
The period launched him as an “enfant terrible” of Indian politics, a “darling boy of industrialists,” and anathema to progressive groups and linguistic minorities in the metropolis called Bombay.
From the late sixties, when he took up cudgels against the government on the Belgaum issue in 1969 for which he was arrested, the only time he spent behind bars in his life, Bal Thackeray hogged headlines with outlandish statements. And till his last speech his statements always carved out a space for themselves with an ease of a knife slicing the butter on news pages.
However, unlike most charismatic politicians, Bal Thackeray's image was juxtaposed with the Shiv Sena. And therein lay his weakness. The ups and downs in his political career oscillated with the fate of the Shiv Sena and the two were never able to emerge as independent entities.
In a well-documented study “The Shiv Sena: Semi-Fascism in Action,” academic Ashok Dhawale points out that throughout its 46 years of existence, the organisation witnessed four distinctive periods through which the party emerged as a force.
In the first phase, the targets were south Indians called “outsiders” and communists branded as “anti-nationals,” over the years the face of enemy changed to Gujaratis to Uttar Pradesh natives to Sikhs, to Muslim to the latest being Biharis.
Seventies saw him supporting the Emergency, and the eighties saw him rising from a street rabbler creating waves in national media, to a political leader latching openly to another right wing party BJP and winning for the first time municipal elections.
The subterranean casteist currents that were kept wrapped subtly by party leaders during the sixties and seventies by amplifying “regional politics” came out in open when the Shiv Sena allied with the BJP.
Bal Thackeray by then had achieved an astute political eye. He had avowedly supported Indira Gandhi in 1975 but post-emergency political darkness swallowed him; his razor sharp political acumen came to his rescue and he allied himself with the BJP harbouring a similar political ideology, realising that the RSS political wing was on rise in the national scene.
And the Shiv Sena after winning municipal elections never looked back; Bal Thackeray an operator on the fringes of political boundaries soon emerged as a key king-maker amongst right-wing parties. He became a respected establishment force whose vitriolic statements against Dalits, minorities-especially Muslims- and “outsiders” were duly reported and assimilated as a part of democratic polity.
Mid-eighties and nineties saw him rise further; the period witnessed several communal riots and despite his role being established in inciting violence, he was never touched. The period also saw him popularising statements which the RSS and the BJP had never dared to use on public platforms. His statements mobilised upper-caste Hindus in Maharashtra and strangely Bal Thackeray even took digs at the RSS and the BJP donning the mantle of “Hindu Hriday Samrat,” (Emperor of Hindu Heart).
The late nineties saw Thackeray embracing western imposed economic reforms and roping in Dalit parties whom he had earlier despised to the extent taking pot shots at B R Ambedkar to sustain his political dynasty. However, despite age catching up neither his foes nor his allies were ever able to track the orbit of his thinking; changing position at the drop of the hat he always left everybody flummoxed.
A few months ago despite being a key ally in the National Democratic Alliance, Thackeray instructed his partymen to vote for Congress Presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee.
Early this year during the municipal election, he left his estranged nephew Raj leader of
rival Maharashtra Navnirma Samiti, stunned by making a public appeal that he wanted his “nephew back.” The arrow hit the mark, and the Old Fox trumped. His party flag was again unfurled on the ramparts of civic building.