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Slouching tiger of Matoshree

The one-time boss of Mumbai is today a recluse, a shadow of his former self, writes Sujata Anandan.

india Updated: Jul 15, 2006 02:27 IST

He came, he saw, he garlanded. And then he left, disappointing a lot of his party workers who were expecting Bal Thackeray to thunder at the desecration of the statue of his wife Meenatai which was splattered with mud last Sunday.

But a reclusive chief is something that Shiv Sainiks are trying to come to terms with. Many have already noticed the silences punctuated with the occasional roars that seem to be getting more feeble with each passing day.  And because the Sena tiger refuses to clarify his silences with an explanation, speculation is rife about the more sinister reasons behind his withdrawal from public life.

When Meenatai’s statue was desecrated this past week, the city feared that Thackeray would provoke his sainiks into even more violence; the government hoped he would calm them. Neither happened and Deputy Chief Minister R R Patil finally had to appeal to Thackeray’s son, Uddhav to keep the peace. It took hours for Thackeray to even make an appearance at Shivaji Park. When he did, he seemed tired and old. With slow movements, the 80-year-old boss approached the statue, silently garlanded the likeness of his wife, folded his hands and, just as slowly, made his way back to his car.

Thackeray’s detractors have their own interpretation for the silence: Bal Thackeray is a prisoner in his own home, they say. He cannot meet anyone; he is kept away from the media, except when Uddhav and close advisor Subhash Desai, MLA and party spokesperson wish to ‘air’ him before the TV channels. Closed door, one-to-one meetings with the print media are banned. Manohar Joshi is the only other person who seems to be able to get through to him.

The tiger’s estranged nephew Raj has been vocal about the ‘prisoner’ theory. He may not say so from a public platform but makes it clear to friends that his illustrious uncle has been ‘imprisoned’ by Uddhav and close aides.

The evidence? According to Raj, last year in July during the Mumbai floods Thackeray spent some time at his nephew’s home. It was during this stay, says Raj, that he told his uncle what was wrong with the Shiv Sena. "I explained to him what needed to be done," he says. "He seemed convinced and even promised to correct things. But once he was back at Matoshree, he seemed to have been gripped by inertia, unable to do anything. He sees, he realises. But they don’t allow him to do anything they don’t want," Raj has told friends, in the media and otherwise.

‘They’, of course, refers to his cousin, Uddhav, Thackeray’s favourite younger son and chosen successor to the Shiv Sena. But Uddhav laughs scornfully at his younger cousin’s  ‘misinterpretations’ of the tiger’s frailties.

"I do not believe in answering these kind of nonsensical allegations. I have better things to do, like rebuilding my father’s party after two exits – one was forced out (Narayan Rane), the other quit. Now many of those sainiks who left are coming back. Would they do so if they really believed that my father was a prisoner?" asks Uddhav. Uddhav says it is Thackeray’s health and age that have made him a recluse. "He tires so easily these days. He had made a public statement at his last election campaign that he will come out in public only for our annual Dusshera rally. Elections are a thing of the past for him."

In fact, Thackeray’s ill-health began even before the 2004 Assembly elections. The Sena lost after Thackeray put in only one public appearance at Bhiwandi (where it won). "I was very tense and worried about him," says Uddhav; his father had just undergone an endoscopy. "He is still very much in pain."

But Thackeray’s pain stems as much from the ‘betrayals’ by those once close to him. “Sa’ab  will not say much,” says Uddhav. “But he was very saddened by Raj’s callous reaction to the desecration of my mother’s statue. These are the kinds of things that give him so much more pain."

Whatever the reason, the one-time boss of Mumbai is a shell of his former self. Although he’s never held an official post (or, for that matter, contested an election), Thackeray has often been described as the city’s uncrowned king, a man from whom a single word could incite riots. The one-time political cartoonist had launched his party in 1966 as a ‘sons of the soil’ movement fighting for the rights of native Maharashtrians by getting his men to intimidate South Indian migrants (and later Gujaratis) into the city.

Despite his open advocacy of the Maharastrian cause, Bal Thackeray remained chiefly a Mumbai-based satrap. It was only in the nineties when he expanded his hate repertoire to include Muslims and when he entered into an electoral alliance with the BJP, that his party got a pan Maharashtra base and came to power.

But power did not mellow the vitriol. Thackeray was indicted by the Justice Srikrishna Commission for his role in the 1992/93 post Babri Masjid demolition riots (his party was then out of power) in which more than 1,000 people were killed. His violent campaigns have included movie halls that show cinema he deems politically incorrect and cricket pitches in which Pakistani players are scheduled to play.

The antagonism between his nephew and his son has only dented the ‘supremo’ image. The man who could make Mumbai quake doesn’t have his own house in order. And the denial of legitimacy and acceptance to his chosen successor by both Rane and Raj must have caused considerable ‘pain’ to Thackeray, if no one else.

If there’s a silver lining it is probably in the recent election victories in an Assembly by-election and a council graduates constituency election. At the end of his career, Thackeray seems to have finally captured the votes of the ‘educated’ class rather than just the goondas who were earlier the Sena’s famed core.

Shifting gears at 80? Who knows—unless Thackeray decides to talk about it. But he won’t. He seems content to just sit by his own in his upstairs room, surrounded by personal servants, friends and grandchildren dropping by from time to time.  Call him a prisoner. Call him a recluse. But surely this is not the tiger whose roar made mortals tremble.