Apart from exchanging hellos on a few occasions when he was still moving around, I never had a one-on-one interaction with Bal Thackeray in person. On two occasions, interviews had been confirmed and cancelled at the last minute: once because he took ill and the second because he had to attend to another matter.
We spoke on the phone twice though. The first was shortly after I had become editor of Mid-Day in 1993. He came to the line after his attendant had got the call through and protested about a story that, he felt, painted his party in poor light.
He ranted about the media, especially English newspapers alleging how they were determined to bring the Sena into disrepute.
Suddenly though, he shifted gears and broke into a pow-wow on cricket, asking me to urge the players to show more gumption. He was up-to-date on the players’ performances.
The second call was a bolt from the blue. I had quit editorship of Mid-Day to start a cricket magazine and was based in Delhi for a few months. The match-fixing scam had broken and the cricket world was in turmoil. One evening, a voice came on the line to say he was calling from Matoshree, followed by the Sena chief himself.
Thackeray wanted to know whether and why I had quit Mumbai. Learning of my new assignment he launched into a caustic tirade against cheats in cricket and finished the brief conversation by saying I should return to Mumbai. “There’s nothing worthwhile in Delhi,” he said, “If there was, wouldn’t I have gone there?’’
Whether this was a potshot at the powers-that-be at the centre or lament at the Sena’s inability to make a greater dent at the national level is difficult to say. By the dawn of the new millennium Thackeray was reconciled to the limitations of his party’s appeal at the national level and more determined to reinforce its power in Maharashtra.
This had grown exponentially since the Sena was formed in 1966. From protests against Communists at Dadar, Parel, etc, to assaults against South Indians at VT, Churchgate, Dadar and other major places of public commute in the 1960s, the Sena’s appeal spread rapidly across the city and then the state.
South Mumbai as we know it now, was his focus before the Sena spread throughout the city and state. Shivaji Park was his destination to reach the masses, the Sena Bhavan not far away the hub where political strategies were developed.
Prime targets were the Bombay Municipal Corporation, which the Sena seized comprehensively, and Mantralaya with some help from the BJP albeit for only one term.
That Mumbai came to a standstill over the weekend after Thackeray’s death shows the extent of the influence he wielded in the city and state. Regardless of who was in power in Mantralaya, for four decades, Thackeray's writ ran large over Mumbai.
How will history judge him? Beyond the couple of interactions mentioned earlier, I have no personal insights. He was obviously charismatic but his politics was inconsistent. He moved from chauvinism to xenophobia. Some speeches and actions even caused serious damage to Mumbai’s fabric.
The devastating riots of 1992 and 1993 fuelled by anti-Muslim rhetoric changed Bombay forever. Later he would clarify that he was not against Muslims but against anti-national Muslims, but much damage had already been done by then.
Every now and then, though, you could detect a cartoonist’s incisive eye in him. He would burst balloons of pomposity and posturing with ready wit.
Moreover, he loved warm beer, cheroots, films, the arts and cricket.
Come to think of it, had he not become a politician, he could well have been a bon vivant.