Bal Thackeray was like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland — off with his head whenever he wanted to deride someone. And on with it again in no time at all. And off again soon after.
His relationship with the Muslims shows this. After being an active part of the 1992-93 riots following the Babri Masjid demolition, in which many Muslims died, Thackeray was soon calling for a secular monument in Ayodhya, in place of a temple the BJP wanted, when he found that Muslims had nevertheless voted for him in 1995. But when the Sena-BJP lost in 1999, he wanted to render Muslims second class citizens so that they could not influence election results.
Thackeray was the original flip-flop man, but nevertheless consistent in one emotion: his hatred for Communists, who ruled the city in the 1950s and 60s and whom he soon displaced to become the king of Mumbai.
The powerful Congress bosses of the 1960s and industries, who were tired of the Communist-dominated trade union movement, helped Thackeray set up the Shiv Sena. Congress-sponsored unions could not woo workers from Left parties, whose unions could bring the metropolis to a standstill with one call to strike work. The Communists soon realised they had a formidable opponent in Thackeray when the Sena married the Marathi manoos sentiment to the workers’ woes. Soon after its formation in 1966, Thackeray tapped into the emotions of the middle-class and poor Maharashtrians, who were dominated by non-Marathi speaking settlers and ‘outsiders’. These outsiders were better educated, so earned more and could afford to buy homes in Mumbai, which the original residents could not. These settlers were both white-collared workers and peers in the textile mills. The Marathi manoos sentiment unglued their bonding with other workers and they began to swing towards the Kamgar Sena set up to address these workers’ woes.
It was not surprising, then, that at one of Thackeray’s earliest rallies at Jamboree Maidan in Worli, the Communists, allegedly planned an attack on Thackeray. Thackeray’s advisors caught on. While they could not arrange for proper police bandobast, they formed a human shield round their leader until he finished his address and delivered him safely to his home in Dadar.
This move brought hatred into a game which until then had been one of political one-upmanship. Thackeray never forgave the Communists and with help from the Congress governments went systematically for their jugular. A popular Communist leader from Parel, Krishna Desai, was killed by a Sena leader. The Congress government turned a blind eye and even supported the Shiv Sena at the by-election that followed and helped the Sena win its first seat to the Assembly against Desai’s widow in Parel.
By the 1970s, the core Left areas of central Mumbai had gone to the Kamgar Sena. A bulk of the Sena support comes from there even today. The Congress’s and the industries problems entered a new era: Mumbai could still be halted. But the person had changed. Communists had disappeared. Thackeray ensured their heads stayed off. Forever.