Viewing the crowds that gathered at the funeral of Bal Thackeray, one had to be convinced that the attendance was the result of genuine respect and admiration. The man evidently had amazing charisma.
It is tempting to compare the persona of Thackeray with that of Narendra Modi, who too holds audiences in Gujarat. This is interesting because there are lots of similarities between the two. Yet, their approaches have been quite different along the way.
The similarities first: Both have been quite unabashedly frank in their views and do not make any attempts to disguise their feelings, whether or not one may agree with them. While Thackeray started off as anti-south Indian, and then anti-Gujarati, he then shifted to animosity towards Muslims and finally north Indians. The fulcrum was speaking for the Marathi manoos – who he saw as being deprived of opportunities by "others". The Muslim issue was different and went into the Hindutva area. Modi has been relatively singular in his focus, and has taken a strong Hindu stance and does not regret any action taken to further this spirit.
Second, both have been brusque and bold in their utterances - which is remarkable for politicians. This is so because in politics, everyone tries to be politically correct, howsoever different their actual views may be. Both of them have never disguised their thoughts and this could be one reason why they could connect with audiences easily. Therefore, one can like them or dislike them, but can never say that they are dishonest in their views.
Third, spheres of influence have been restricted to certain geographies. The Shiv Sena has always been a Mumbai-based party and while it has tried to move out of of the metro to the interiors of Maharashtra, it has had limited success. Modi’s sway holds mainly in Gujarat and, while he has ambitions of becoming a national leader, it is still some distance away. Therefore, presently the perimeter of influence is restricted.
Fourth, both are perceived to be less than democratic in running their parties and governments – be it the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai or the government of Gujarat. These have been one-man shows. It has helped in terms of political clarity and decision-making, when we have seen coalitions creating logjams.
Last, notwithstanding all the allegations of violence and rioting that has been levelled against both of them in the past, legally speaking the courts have not passed any judgement that directly blames them for these acts. The same can be said also about the 1984 Sikh riots.
The differences between Thackeray and Modi are also noteworthy. The Sena was created to tackle the Communist influence in the city as well as trade unions. The movement later grew its Marathi manoos ideology. The Modi leadership has grown more within the confines of an existing party and an ideology which has only been furthered by pursuing the Hindutva philosophy.
Second, after 2002 Modi has worked on a single-point agenda of development which has made his persona more difficult to evaluate. While the shadow of Godhra had initially caused India Inc to be critical or distant at best, his pro-development agenda has made Gujarat the obvious choice for any entrepreneur and his acumen for attracting investment is unmatched.
Thackeray, on the other hand, had worked on recreating the identity of the Marathi manoos in the metros - which has become stronger by the day. The fact that the Shiv Sena has gotten re-elected to the corporation continuously proves that the metropolitan electorate identifies with the party and what it stands for. This appeal has had more magnetic power than development as residents are still critical of the state of development of Mumbai city, where the infrastructure has been neglected for too long.
Third, the Sena has not given up the idea that local inhabitants have gotten a raw deal in a cosmopolitan structure. This had at times tended to get antagonistic towards north or south Indians. Interestingly, Mumbai is probably a rare case where a regional movement turned against other communities at various points of time. The TDP in Andhra or the DMK and AIADMK have also used regional identities for their politics, but they never turned hostile towards outsiders – at least to the level it became a national concern. This could probably be because none of these capital cities were as cosmopolitan as Mumbai.
Fourth, there has been a tendency in India Inc to cozy up to both leaders: Modi because of the business windows he opened regularly, and Thackeray out of respect and the need to be on the right side of his party in Mumbai. Some detractors would call business’ closeness to the two leaders as seeking ‘protection through obeisance’, but whichever way it is interpreted, it did involve the corporate world staying close to both the leaders – though for different reasons. The same was seen with Bollywood stars and powers.
Last, the state of Gujarat has been largely peaceful since Godhra. And while there could be traces of apprehension, normal life is routine. In the case of Mumbai and the Sena, there has been periodic show of strength through attacks on property or communities, which does cause a certain degree of uneasiness.
What is the way forward for Thackeray's successors? Given that the charisma of Bal Thackeray will no longer be available, the right way for the Sena is to follow the Modi model, steer clear of past community animosities, and focus on making Mumbai a better place by transcending petty issues like being the moral conscience of the people. Strengthening the identity of the Marathi manoos is a must, but it should be done by providing opportunities in the mainstream and improving their conditions through affirmative action, and not through animosity towards other communities. At the end of the day it is the quality of life that matters.
Societies today do not really care excessively about religion or community and would prefer to see governance that delivers better roads, facilities, security and, above all, progressive in thought. Given that there are multiple parties today talking about the Marathi identity with the MNS joining the bandwagon, development with a human face could become the distinguishing factor.
(The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not those of Firstpost)