Hero or agent provocateur? Bal Thackeray (1926-2012), the founder of the Shiv Sena, has meant different things to different people but he was indisputably forged in the Bombay of the stormy 50s.
In 1957, an improbable political experiment took place in the city. Communists, Jan Sanghis and Ambedkarites sat together in an organisation, the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, to push the Congress’ buttons for the creation of a Marathi-speaking state out of the State of Bombay. The nation was a decade old, and Bombay seemed ready for anything. Equally enthusiastic to early Nehruvian symbolisms of land as mother in Mother India to socialist themes of class struggle in Naya Daur (1960), such was the climate in which essayist Keshav Thackeray, father of Bal Thackeray, shook hands with socialist SM Joshi.
The big dreams linked to Maharashtra’s birth — big businesses and blue-collar jobs would be re-distributed from Gujaratis to locals — were over by the mid-60s. Bal Thackeray built his political party, the Shiv Sena, in 1966, on that sense of failure. The failure of established parties and their ideologies to deliver justice — read jobs — to ‘our boys’.
The ‘Marathi manoos’, who had been appealed to as a ‘people’ since state formation, were now asked to wrest their rights from another ‘people’ — this time, the “Madrasis”, who were less than 9% of the population — by Marmik, a weekly, run by Thackeray. If the Congress in the 70s was drawing crowds with ‘Garibi Hatao,’ the Sena-pati’s Maharashtrian-only job slogan was as powerful. Thackeray’s methods were, however, controversial. A great believer in lists (he published lists of well-to-do South Indians in top corporate jobs in 1965; of Muslims in 1993 in Mumbai’s housing societies), he created a new political subject in India’s history: a people that identified itself in antagonism to an ethno-linguistically marked economic other. Something his critics saw, not incorrectly, as similar to the stereotyping and later elimination of Jews by Nazis in Germany.
Or, “thokshahi” (rule of force) as opposed to “lokshahi” (democracy), as historian Gyan Prakash of Princeton University, puts it in his book, Mumbai Fables.
In 1995, the BJP-Shiv Sena won the state assembly elections. Despite a commonality in ultra-nationalist politics, Thackeray’s Sena (1966) has had an “unequal alliance” with the BJP, say commentators. The BJP treats it like a Bombay organisation that is useful, but is unwilling to give it space, says writer-activist Meena Menon, whose remarkable book One Hundred Years One Hundred Voices, co-authored with Neera Adarkar traces the history of the Sena leader’s rise with the birth and decline of left politics in the working-class mill areas of Bombay.
But if Thackeray was to have a lasting impression in the change of political culture of Maharashtra, he was unable to move on to a bigger role among the Hindu Right. His stand on migrants from Bihar and UP prevented him from taking on a national role as did his distance from the RSS. This was because unlike Narendra Modi, Thackeray’s emphasis was on the local: his Hindu rashtra did not extend beyond Maharashtra. With ‘Maharashtra for Maharashtrians’ as his main plank, he perhaps also realised he could not have won in Thane if he were to go to Patna for national acceptance.
Without Bal Thackeray, does it mean that right-wing politics has run its course in Maharashtra? The Sena’s future will no doubt have rival claimants. But both Uddhav and Raj Thackeray might find it difficult to find relevance for the Sena-brand of identity politics in these times.