Few stand-up comics have been as good as Bal Thackeray, and none has cashed in on his talent more profitably. Armed with his lines, and little else, he built a party and made and spent billions. Elections are no fun without him, and he’s absent from the one in Maharashtra tomorrow, a dull event.
Eighty-four in a few months, Thackeray has been keeping indifferent health. He hasn’t spoken in public for two years. This year he skipped the annual Vijayadashami rally he has held since 1966. To last year’s rally he came but did not speak.
This is a loss for those who know Marathi and can enjoy him. He’s a truly great performer: understated in slapstick, always deadpan and with a rapper’s sense of rhyme. His response to why so much was being renamed after Shivaji: ‘Shivaji nahi tar kai Quattrocchi?’
From his Vijayadashami pulpit he revealed his view, often arrived at mid-speech, of Enron, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Friday prayers and atomic bombs.
On September 28, the Shiv Sena released its manifesto. It promised to finish a proposed Shivaji monument off Marine Drive in five years. A week later, in his newspaper Saamna, Thackeray described the idea of the monument as foolish. ‘Was one needed’, he asked, ‘when another stood just down the road at the Gateway of India?’ After Shivaji we have already renamed the Prince of Wales Museum, Victoria Terminus and the airport. As word spread, his son Uddhav said Thackeray had been misunderstood. But what’s possible also is that he wouldn’t have read the manifesto.
It is quite unfair to judge the Shiv Sena for its policies. It’s not that sort of political party. It has no caste base; it only has Thackeray and his utterings.
Most mornings, the news service PTI is kept busy with translations of Saamna’s editorials and interviews — the man most interviewed in Thackeray’s paper is Thackeray.
Thackeray demands this; Thackeray blasts that. It’s good copy, and easy to get because Thackeray has an opinion on a lot of things from the habits of middle-class Mumbaikars (always drying undies in their balconies, embarrassing Thackeray before his foreign guests) to diplomacy (why haven’t we obliterated Pakistan?).
Though these lines are delivered ex cathedra, they aren’t to be taken seriously. We know this because often the opinion is in street language and includes calling people names, like bhadwa (pimp).
People get fired up by this, but that’s only because they misunderstand Thackeray. In 2001, Shiv Sainiks burnt down the 400-bed Singhania hospital, killing two including a baby. The Sena hasn’t rebuilt it, but it did indicate that it was sorry.
The evidence shows that Thackeray doesn’t hate much. He dislikes Muslims, but sips warm Heinekens on his roof with Dilip Kumar.
He’s angry about Marathis being under-represented, but gives his Rajya Sabha tickets to Bengali Pritish Nandy, Bihari Sanjay Nirupam and Gujaratis Mukesh Patel and Chandrika Kenia. He rants against Western culture, but is ecstatic that Michael Jackson used his toilet (whether Jackson graced it with a Number 1 or a Number 2 we do not know).
Of late the joy has gone. The Sena has been out of power for 10 years. That’s a decade without cash, and it’s tough to nourish a political party without the income that ministries bring.
Parties cannot run on one-liners alone.
People who realise this bolt. His first deputy Chhagan Bhujbal left him in 1991, a second deputy Narayan Rane left him in 2005. When he put son Uddhav in charge, his nephew Raj left him in 2006.
Thackeray’s larger sorrow must be that his son doesn’t have his talent. Uddhav is what he appears to be: boring. He cannot speak lucidly, and is introverted. He likes to photograph wildlife, but hasn’t the patience of National Geographic. There’s a terrific picture of him shooting close-ups of a tiger that his chamchas are holding down with ropes.
Raj, on the other hand, is funny and charismatic.
A fine caricaturist like Thackeray, Raj is less surefooted on knowledge. On his site he has sketched Yeltsin and called him Brezhnev. He likes the gently menacing language of Ram Gopal Verma villains. His letters to shopkeepers warning them to change their boards from English to Marathi show this unexpected side. You could be taught a lesson, Raj says, ‘I will personally supervise this special tuition.’
We know that he certainly carries a big stick. When he was arrested last year, his party went berserk and killed people. Raj apologised, clarifying that these weren’t planned assassinations. So that’s OK then.
The Thackerays have communicated to India the image of the Marathi as sullen and hostile. This is incorrect. The Marathi is hardy, cheerful and relentlessly high-culture.
There isn’t reason for him to be resentful. Outsiders have helped built the economy of his great city. In the 19th century, Gujaratis built the stock market and in the 20th North Indians built Bollywood, employing lakhs of people.
They were able to do this because the British state guaranteed the trader rule of law, the filmmaker protection from moralists, and the citizen a monopoly over violence. We democratised violence and now any group can profess hurt, and beat up and kill.
The British built this city. Their talent was building institutions. Our talent is renaming things others built.
Our politics have always been rubbish. But with Thackeray at least we got entertainment. We don’t even get that now.
Aakar Patel is a Mumbai-based writer and businessman.
The views expressed by the author are personal