‘Don’t insult me by calling me a politician. I am a political cartoonist!’ warned the Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, lighting up a pipe, glass of white wine in hand, as our TV camera zoomed in on him with the Mumbai skyline in the background of the top floor of the Oberoi hotel. It was quintessential Thackeray, for whom image always mattered as much as reality in the creation of a larger-than-life-figure who was both feared and feted. The self-image was of a cartoonist, a man of culture, who lived in a leafy artistes’ colony, who enjoyed the high life and was contemptuous of political hypocrisy. The reality was of a demagogue who led an army of Shiv Sainiks, who often incited his supporters to violence, who was in a constant search of an ‘enemy’ figure to hate and who openly defied the rule of law. Who was the real Balasaheb, as his followers reverentially referred to him as?
Like in life, in death too, Thackeray has been a politically polarising figure, the obituaries swaying between deifying and demonising him. The truth is, Thackeray was neither the high priest of regional pride and militant nationalism his admirers would have us believe, nor was he the archetypal fascist his critics were convinced of. He was, on careful examination, a dangerously clever man who simply understood the political marketplace and his unique brand position within it.
Thackeray had two primary weapons in his sales pitch. The first was his blunt speech laced with heavy doses of political incorrectness. A Marathi editor once claimed that Thackeray’s appeal rested in his claim to be a loudspeaker of popular grievances. Be it the Maharashtrian’s feeling of being ‘outsiders’ in their own city or a Hindu middle-class suspicion of the ‘Mussalman’, Thackeray was quick to echo a sentiment which others would be hesitant to speak freely about for fear of being ostracised. The language could be crude and offensive, but it was always distinctive and controversial. As he once told me, “You can like me or hate me, but no one can be indifferent to me!” He was a news editor’s delight: a natural headline-grabber.
The second weapon was the underlying threat of violence. It was masked at times in personal warmth — he was among the first to call when he heard my father had passed away and spoke of him with great emotion — but under the soft-spoken charm, there always lurked the spectre of violence. At a Dussehra rally in the early 1990s, he verbally abused me, calling me a ‘scorpion’ who deserved to be taught a lesson. My crime? I had written an article criticising the Sena for digging up the Wankhede stadium pitch ahead of an Indo-Pak cricket match.
Ironically, Thackeray was meant to be a great cricket lover. Yet, he virtually endorsed the action of his ‘boys’ in digging the pitch and then ransacking the cricket board’s office. The ironies are littered through his career in public life. He could play gracious host to a Javed Miandad, but still call for a ban on Indo-Pak cricket. He could take delight in being seen with pop icon Michael Jackson, but would rail against ‘western’ culture as epitomised in the Sena’s violent opposition to Valentine’s Day. As a cartoonist, he should have been an unapologetic defender of free speech. And yet, journalists who wrote against the Sena were physically targeted and intimidated. And while he remained a ‘saviour’ of the Marathi ‘manoos’, many of his ‘victims’ were Maharashtrians.
That he was still able to command such a large following was through an astute combination of what can be best described as ‘shock, fear, and awe’ politics. Without his shock value, he would have been perhaps just another newspaper cartoonist, like his friend and contemporary RK Laxman. Without the fear factor, he would never have been able to build a political party that could survive despite its narrow ideology nor would he have had Mumbai’s rich and famous lining up outside Matoshree for ‘darshan’ (and protection). Even his cleverly chosen tiger symbol was designed to strike a sense of awe among his supporters. Macho symbolism invested Thackeray with the Godfather of Mumbai status: after all, he wasn’t a muscular mafia don, but a pencil-thin politician who came to represent a fearsome force.
To replicate his persona won’t be easy. In many ways, Thackeray was a creature of the times he grew up in: the politically combustible 1960s when Mumbai witnessed fierce battles between communists and capitalists, socialists and the old Congress. Caught in these political struggles, a section of the local population was looking for a magnet who could provide them with a sense of identity to overcome a growing feeling of insecurity and discrimination. Thackeray provided them hope with his strident rhetoric, even if the reality did not always match the promise.
Today’s Mumbai, by contrast, is perhaps far too demographically diverse to allow any single individual to control its fortunes. The break up of the Shiv Sena, in a sense, reflects the changing Mumbai: conflicting ambitions and aspirations that cannot be fulfilled by one regional force or overarching figure. The force of Thackeray’s personality was able to partially paper over the cracks. But his son lacks the charisma and his nephew the political foresight to unify a divided support base.
That a visibly ill Thackeray in his last Dussehra rally had to address his supporters via a video link and plaintively appeal to them to look after his son and grandson is perhaps the ultimate irony. The man who often railed against the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty as a mirror to the ills of Indian democracy now leaves behind his own fractured dynasty. And a bloody legacy. Mumbai will not be the same without Balasaheb; neither will his Sena.