One measure of Bal Thackeray’s political significance was his sheer longevity. Even though his career straddled four decades, his influence still shows no signs of ebbing. Consider this: when Thackeray first sprang to prominence, Lal Bahadur Shastri had just died, K Kamaraj ran the Congress party and Maharashtra was controlled by SK Patil and VP Naik. Though many of these politicians are long-forgotten, Thackeray continued to be the uncrowned king of Mumbai (he changed the city’s name from Bombay) till the very end.
Thackeray was a political cartoonist, most famously with the Free Press Journal. He founded the Shiv Sena as an organisation to advance the interests of Maharashtrians who felt neglected in the capital of their own state. His early sponsor was the Congress chief minister VP Naik who wanted the Shiv Sena to counter the communist trade unions that were taking over in Bombay’s industrial belt. Naik and other Congress bosses also used the Sena to attack the campaign of VK Krishna Menon, who was opposing the Congress in North Bombay in the 1967 general elections.
For Thackeray, the battle against Menon was both ideological (Menon was left-leaning) and ethnic: the Sena launched a campaign against all Malayalis, claiming they had stolen jobs from Maharashtrians. When Menon lost, Thackeray used this triumph to broaden his attack on all non-Maharashtrians. Shiv Sainiks beat up Tamilian shoe-shine boys and threatened Gujarati-owned shops and businesses.
By the mid-seventies, the Shiv Sena was a fact of life in Bombay. It organised riots, gheraos and bandhs with chilling and violent efficiency. As its influence grew, the Congress turned against it. In 1975-76, during the Emergency, Thackeray’s press was shut down and many Sainiks were arrested. But when the Emergency was lifted, Thackeray blamed his mistreatment on the then chief minister SB Chavan and continued to venerate Indira Gandhi, even organising a bandh when the Janata government arrested her.
The BJP-loving, Muslim-hating avatar of the Sena was a product of the mid-eighties. By then, Thackeray had forgiven Gujaratis and other prosperous “outsiders” and decided that Muslim-baiting offered greater political dividends. Through his friendship with Pramod Mahajan, he linked up with the BJP, and in 1992-93, Shiv Sena workers took an active part in communal riots.
Thackeray was so proud of his role in those massacres that when Mani Ratnam’s Bombay was released, his primary objection to the film was that a character patterned on Thackeray expressed regret. (“Why should I regret?” he thundered).
He was right about the political wisdom of the strategy and the Sena-BJP alliance took office in Maharashtra following the riots. Concerned that he should not be seen as just another politician, Thackeray refused to head the government, appointed a nominee as CM, and declared he would run the show by “remote control”.
What accounted for Thackeray’s longevity? It was a mixture of massive personal charisma, astuteness and a sense of timing. But it was also that he had no real core beliefs: his two idols were Walt Disney (also a cartoonist) and Adolf Hitler (whom he liked to think of as a painter).
At a personal level, Thackeray was unfailingly charming, warm and loyal. But at a political level, he ran the Shiv Sena like some creative enterprise, altering the storyline to suit the mood of the day. To his credit, his creativity rarely failed him and his enterprise flourished, outlasting its original mentors by decades and re-shaping the character of the city of its birth, changing cosmopolitan Bombay into a more Marathi-centric Mumbai.