As long as I had known, until 2004, Bal Thackeray always opened his election rallies at Chowpatty and closed them at Shivaji Park – he was superstitious. Thackeray believed that the combination, along with a particular stone used to crack coconuts at the first rally, was lucky for him and his party.
Then in 2004, chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s government stopped the tradition of holding political rallies on the Chowpatty sands – with the open sea in the foreground, it was too much of a security risk for people under constant threat by terrorists, the government told the Bombay High court, which then banned all rallies on the beach.
Now Balasaheb could have resisted the government decision but his fear of being shot by terrorists hanging out on a ship in the high seas got the better of his luck, as he then launched his 2004 election campaign from Azad Maidan. He did close at Shivaji Park but, clearly, that combination did not have the same magic – the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance has been losing elections to both the state assembly and Lok Sabha ever since.
However, with age creeping upon the Sena tiger, he has also cut down on his public campaigns though Shivaji Park continues to be an indelible part of the Shiv Sena. In fact, the Sena was born at Shivaji Park on June 19, 1966, and its first Dussehra rally the same year, which has become a tradition with the party, was held on the same grounds. Having named his party after the Maratha warrior king, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, it is only appropriate that the Sena gets to hold its Dussehra rally on these grounds every year.
With all due respect to the courts and sympathies with anti-noise pollution activists, the Shivaji Park, I have always believed, is linked with the political pulse of Bombay, much like the Hyde Park is with London’s, with its Speakers’ Corner and the countless demonstrations that are held there throughout the year. London would never be the same without Hyde Park and its protests. Bombay can never be the same without the Sena’s Dussehra rallies and other protests.
I still remember the sea of black umbrellas at Shivaji Park as the then trade union leader Datta Samant held a massive rally of mill workers in the midst of monsoon one July in the early 1980s. Those umbrellas changed the dynamics of Bombay forever, as the workers under them went on an indefinite strike soon after, shutting down the mills. Gradually, the workers, too, were timed out by mill owners. Today there are malls where there were mills – I don’t really know whether that is good or bad (perhaps the latter). But it could not have happened without the Shivaji Park and its enormous numeral potential.
I also recall when the novice Sonia Gandhi held her first rally at Shivaji Park – she surprised even her own party men with packed grounds, crowds spilling into the streets who went unmatched by the Sena-BJP’s subsequent efforts to fill out Shivaji Park at their closing rally in 1998. Not surprisingly, the Congress swept more than 40 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats from Maharashtra that year. And Shivaji Park also helped us to assess Dalit power in the state -- when the then 13 factions of the Republican Party of India joined forces for a brief while and came together at Shivaji Park for a unity rally, we knew that the Shiv Sena could never match their strength and why the Congress believed in keeping these groups divided.
I first started to cover the Sena’s annual Dussehra rallies when it used to be held in the morning at around 10 am, clashing with the end of the Durga Puja festivities at the Bengal Club in one corner of Shivaji Park. Thackeray, I remember, once upset the worshippers by imitating their rounded Bengali accents, as the priests chanted prayers to the goddess -- this promptly got the government to shift the Sena rallies to evenings at the Shivaji Park when the goddess would have long departed the grounds. That also kept Shiv Sainiks from getting drunk and riotous, which was their usual practice as evenings left them with time for little else.
But mornings or evenings, I believe Dussehra can never be the same without Thackeray at Shivaji Park. And, indeed, if the courts do not allow him again next year, something will certainly go out of Bombay and a part of its culture will die forever.