Two interesting things about Bal Thackeray that you may not know. One: in 1966 when the Shiv Sena first exploded on the scene, Indira Gandhi had only just become the Prime Minister of India and Rajiv Gandhi was yet to marry Sonia Maino. Of today’s senior leaders, Pranab Mukherjee was a young academic who had not even joined the Congress. Sharad Pawar had not yet been elected to the state assembly. In that sense, Bal Thackeray is probably the most senior of all active politicians in India today.
The second interesting thing: though he has been around for over four decades, Thackeray has never once propounded a progressive agenda for Maharashtra or laid out his vision of how the state can flourish. All of his politics have been essentially negative: hate this community, beat up another ethnic group and burn the homes of a third.
When Thackeray launched the Shiv Sena, he did so with the support and blessings of such Congress strongmen of that era as V.P . Naik and S.K. Patil. In the mid-60s, the Congress worried that the Communists were gaining a foothold in the industrial units of north Bombay. The Shiv Sena’s job was to fight the Communists (by any means necessary) and to protect the Congress bastion.
In those days, Thackeray’s agenda was to rid Bombay of the communities that he claimed were oppressing the Maharashtrian people: South Indians and Gujaratis. What the Shiv Sena rarely reminds us is that, till 1960, there was no such state as Maharashtra. The state was called Bombay and included much of what is now Gujarat. Maharashtra was created in 1960 and naturally, Bombay still had a largely non-Maharashtrian ethos. As Maharashtrians from other parts of the state came flooding into the city (contrary to what he may claim, even Thackeray’s own family is not from Bombay), the Shiv Sena treated them as its natural constituency.
Since those early beginnings, Thackeray’s agenda has hardly wavered. It has been based on telling Maharashtrians that they are being discriminated against and that only the Shiv Sena will fight for their rights. All that changes are the targets of Thackeray’s ire. He forgave Gujaratis fairly early on but till the late-70s was still aggressively anti-South Indian. In the 80s, he sensed the makings of a Hindu backlash and promptly shifted to an anti-Muslim agenda. That drove the Sena closer to the BJP but in recent years as diminishing returns have set in on that agenda, Thackeray has decided to pick on people from UP and Bihar who, he claims, are stealing the jobs meant for Maharashtrians.
It is instructive that at the end of over four decades in existence, all of them with Thackeray as its supreme leader (no other Indian party has been led for so long by a single individual), the Shiv Sena still has no positive agenda or dreams of glory to inspire Maharashtrians. The most that Thackeray can offer his people is this: I can get you jobs as taxi drivers if we stop these Biharis from coming to Bombay. In 21st century India, that is hardly an inspiring or glorious dream to sell.
Despite 40-plus years of hatred, the Shiv Sena has only won office for a single term and that too, as part of an alliance with the BJP. And now, no matter how much Thackeray raves and rants, political power seems far away. Worse still, as his age catches up with him, his legacy (such as it is) also seems in danger of slipping away. When Thackeray does ultimately ascend to that shakha in the sky, the Sena will wither and die. Its place will be taken by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the breakaway organisation founded by Thackeray’s nephew Raj.
We need to understand all of this to make sense of the events of the last fortnight. What we are seeing are the last desperate power plays of a fading patriarch who seeks to use violence and intimidation to fool himself into believing that he is still relevant even as his party suffers electoral reverses and his political clout sinks to a new low.
One reason why Raj succeeded in making a relatively strong showing at the last election was because he adopted his uncle’s old strategy. He appealed to unemployed Marathi youth and capitalised on the frustrations of the Maharashtrian middle class. Had Maharashtra been left behind? Were Maharashtrians being marginalised in Bombay? Had North Indians taken all the jobs? And so on. All this was accompanied with a certain level of media-friendly violence (his cadres timed their assaults depending on the availability of TV crews to film them) and such a devastating impersonation of his uncle in his younger days that often Raj came across as Mini Me, the midget clone of Dr Evil from the Austin Powers movies.
Stung by his nephew’s success and dismayed by the failure of his son and heir apparent, the generally soft-spoken Uddhav, to mobilise the Marathi masses, Thackeray decided that the Shiv Sena needed to return to the intimidation of old. Just as it had in 1966, the Congress rode to its rescue. The genesis of the current crisis lies in Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s moronic decision to demand that all taxi drivers speak Marathi. When Chavan was told off by Delhi, he appeared on television to reverse his stand and to claim that he had been misunderstood.
This was the opening that Thackeray needed. Even the state government was not allowed to stand up for Maharashtrians by Delhi, he suggested. Maharashtrians were being ignored in their own city. Once he had commanded the attention of the media with this stand, Thackeray followed his practice of the last four decades and looked for a situation he could exploit with the threat of mob violence. He found it in some innocuous statement made by Shah Rukh Khan about Pakistani players and the Indian Premier League. Khan has a movie coming up for release. So what better way of intimidating him than by threatening violence in the cinemas where the film will be showing?
There is only one way to deal with a bully. The state government needs to protect the cinema halls and turn the screws on Thackeray, arresting his cadres and rigidly imposing the rule of law. Sadly, the current CM has shown no inclination to do so. Perhaps Rahul Gandhi’s visit will force him to finally pull Bombay out of the mess that he created with his taxi-driver statement.
The question is: can Ashok Chavan guarantee law and order in Bombay? Can he stand up to the sort of bullying that we have come to know so well over the last 40 years? History shows us that each time Thackeray has found an opponent who fights back, the Sena backs down. The only language Thackeray understands is strength.
Sadly, that is not a language that Ashok Chavan speaks. And Bombay pays the price.
The views expressed by the author are personal