There was a time when Bal Thackeray ruled Mumbai and the Marathi mind. Shiv Sena, his best-loved child, survived, grew and became strong only by his nurturing. Under Thackeray, the Sena garnered a broad support base in Maharashtra, although it was low in ideological content. Even so, that alone would not be a correct estimate of Thackeray. It is to Thackeray's credit that at present, Mumbai's Marathi populace does not feel alien in "aamchi Mumbai".
Thackeray's sharp wit and acidic diatribes, often amusing, were relished by his followers who thronged Shivaji Park, Dadar, to listen to him. He mimicked Sonia Gandhi's foreign accent, Sharad Pawar's mumbling, called Communists 'Lalbhais', often employing double entendres. Even then, it was sad to see a leader of his stature content with entertaining the masses. Baburao Patel, editor of Filmindia, had once remarked: "He knows only one speech… but knows it well".
Thackeray saw the world through a cartoonist's eyes. This was his excuse about why he saw animals in people and chose animal imagery for his detractors in his speeches. His repertoire of indecorous, bordering on indecent, words was sizeable; such words always cropped up at his command. The section of hardcore Shiv Sainiks had become his supporters and admirers of the 'forceful' language he employed and proudly called it the "Thakari Bhasha". They followed him blindly and their loyalty to him was unquestionable.
Historically, after the Left-led Samyukta Maharashtra Movement's demand for a separate Maharashtra was created, with Bombay as capital, there was a vacuum. No political party or organisation spoke for the Marathi manoos. Shiv Sena, with tacit understanding with the then ruling Congress, filled this vacuum. It led violent agitations in the airline sector, railways, telephone and banking sector and pressed its demand for "80% reservation" of jobs for Marathis in government and private sector. The agitation which had reached its peak by mid-70s brought Marathi manoos in Mumbai together. Even those who disliked or hated violence were convinced the Marathi manoos was getting a raw deal.
A reason why generations of youngsters felt attracted to him was that he told them not to read. Thackeray pooh-poohed all social, political and economic theories and told his followers those were useless. He kept the youngsters' vision confined to the Marathi issue in which, no doubt, he considerably succeeded. However, in the ultimate analysis, the result had been the stunted intellectual and cultural growth of the Marathi community. These followers were emotionally charged, but that's about it. How would Thackeray escape the charge that he de-intellectualised the Marathi community and insulated it from others? In the 19th century, Marathis were known to be hard-working, god-fearing, honest, sincere, and had respect for scholarship. Under Thackeray they became the opposite.
Thackeray's success in his first rally, in 1966, guaranteed the future of the social organisation. The success was so heady that Thackeray's language at public speeches thereafter grew more violent and his followers got used to translating his words into strong-arm tactics. Arrogance and threats became their hallmark. No government in Maharashtra, however, ever tried to contain Thackeray or his organisation for fear of a backlash.
The Sena's policy of "demanding" respect made the Marathi community inward-looking. The "Sons of the Soil" principle, excessively stretched, is sure to breed a complex in its practitioners. This inferiority complex has insulated the Marathi community. Marathi Manoos started suffering from persecution mania. By the time this realisation came to Thackeray, it was too late. He, no doubt, was quick to judge the fall in his popularity graph and immediately jumped on to the bandwagon of Hindutva.
The Sena was obliged to shed some of its radicalism when it first tasted victory in the 1985 state legislative election. The shift to the Hindutva philosophy was masterminded by Thackeray himself; shrewdly, he rode on both the tiger and the chariot, off and on. But such a major change in the policy necessitated a change in many of his earlier policies and methods. In its new avatar the party would have to bury many issues dear to the Marathi population. Thackeray did not totally sideline them, but allowed newer outfits like Sthaniya Lokadhikar Samiti and Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena to tackle them. Having entered electoral politics Thackeray quickly learnt that attacking migrants in Mumbai is not politically correct. With the new Hindutva line, Sikhs and south Indians were friends. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were the arch enemies. "Close the gates for migrants to the city" was a favourite rallying cry of Shiv Sena leaders. It came in handy for them when other issues dropped down.
For a variety of reasons, his name invoked different responses in different people. He generated both respect and fear. Bollywood befriended him for obvious reasons. Foreign dignitaries made it a point to visit his bungalow, Matoshri, to record in their diaries that they met a 'benevolent dictator', a phrase ridden with contradiction but made popular by Thackeray himself. Dictator he was, and being so he promulgated indictments for people who opposed him or his Party. Some considered him as a saviour of Hindus, while others thought only he could safeguard Marathi interests. His followers were ever ready to execute his orders. Thackeray appeared to love this privilege.
Chhatrapati Shivaji regenerated an entire Marathi culture with his vision and valiant efforts. Thackeray, who imitated him, however, was bereft of a vision for tomorrow's Maharashtra. It is really a pity that this charismatic leader could have done so much for the Marathi speaking people, but in actuality delivered so little.
Historian and author, Dr Aroon Tikekar, as the editor of Loksatta for over a decade, keenly tracked the relevance and resonance of the Shiv Sena and its founder Bal Thackeray.