After hovering between life and death for days, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray died on Saturday. For a man who had no political ideology, he was a phenomenon. Other more intelligent leaders had tried before to tap into the Marathi sentiment in the Bombay of the 1960s and organise locals against 'outsiders' but they failed. But Thackeray succeeded in mobilising people by the lakhs. They stayed loyal to him through nearly five decades of his own shifting loyalties and changing principles that would have defeated politically greater leaders than Thackeray. However, Balasaheb survived all the contradictions of his own politics because he had confidence in his policies, many of which were beyond the pale. It is not in how right his policies were but in how wrong those of others were that he managed to thrive. It was the blunders committed by the Congress in the early days that set him up in business against the Communists who dominated Mumbai.
The Shiv Sena to begin with was a party of the right only because of its bitter opposition to the Left. But barring the Com-munists, Thackeray was game for experimentation with other streams of ideology. After supporting the Emergency and calling for a Mumbai bandh in 1978, he could make a smooth transition less than a decade later to the extreme right in alliance with the BJP because of this very lack of ideology. To Thackeray, when an opportunity presented itself, he grabbed it with both hands if it suited his agenda. It is mystifying why the support of his Sainiks did not waver when he chopped and changed so much. Even when he either fomented violence or looked the other way when riots broke out, the middle class stuck by him. He called for a secular monument in Ayodhya to replace the Babri Masjid after causing riots in Mumbai just two years earlier over the same issue. Yet, such was the force of his personality that he commanded loyalty. Thackeray could abuse presidents and PMs with alacrity one day - the only 'leader' he admired was Adolf Hitler - and seek alliances with them the next. His opponents had to take this on the chin because this charismatic man was a force to reckon with. Many politicians understood his nuisance value while at the same time considered him a slightly comical figure. His biggest success, boosting his image in the eyes of his supporters was that he was someone who was afraid of no one or nothing and would say it like it is, howsoever irrational what he said sounded.
Thackeray began life as a cartoonist, hating politicians. Yet he became a consummate one, changing the socio-politics of at least Mumbai, if not all of Maharashtra. He was perhaps surpri-sed by his own successes, which neither his son nor his nephew have been able to emulate. Now the fate of the Sena hangs in the balance with this nephew and son locked in a struggle for his legacy. Social scientists will rack their brains to understand how this ideologically bereft but fascinating figure whom Salman Rushdie referred to unflatteringly in his book The Moor's Last Sigh was able to change the landscape of cosmopolitan Mumbai and whose actions often had a far-reaching impact on the nation.