In over 40 years since he plunged into social life, there was never an occasion for which Hindu Hriday Samrat (the King of Hindu Hearts) Bal Thackeray lacked an opinion. Whether it was on national politics, arts, sports or any other issue, he always had something witty or vitriolic to say and excelled in bringing the country’s financial capital to a standstill whenever needed.
Born Bal Keshav Thackeray, to writer and political leader Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, on 23 January 1926 he perhaps had an early exposure to the regional politics of the time as his father was an integral part of the Samayukta Maharashtra movement to form the state of Maharashtra with Mumbai as its capital.
He never matriculated from high school but knew how to wield the language more effectively than most, initially using them to greatest effect in his cartoons. Working as a cartoonist with the Free Press Journal in the 1950s, Thackeray signed his cartoons as ‘Mava’ and continued with the publication until he left to join another newspaper News Day. The paper didn’t survive very long and left without a job he started the weekly Marmikin 1960, along with his younger brother Shrikant, also a cartoonist.
Often vitriolic, Marmik espoused the cause of the Maharashtrian people and in 1966, as his influence rose in the state by leaps, Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena, which claimed to be a revival of the army of Maratha king Shivaji. His first rally was held on Dussehra on 30 October 1966 in Shivaji Park in central Mumbai, close to his family home. He may have been slightly built, but his words were strong and incisive, making his first rally a grand success, which set the foundation for the growth of the Shiv Sena, symbolised by the fierce roaring tiger that he had drawn himself.
The Shiv Sena did not claim to have an interest in politics, Thackeray said and in his rallies he said he wanted his Maharashtrian audience to realise how they were being deprived of their rights and what they could do about it. He raised social issues that affected the common middle class Maharashtrian man like the unemployment of the youth, discrimination in employment and erosion of pride that the community had at one time in history.
He based his first campaign on the unemployment of the Maharashtrian youth, blaming south Indians for filling up posts that they could have been open to educated local youth. It was the politics of entitlement that the Sena preached and it found an eager audience in the form of unemployed educated Marathi youth and men stuck in jobs that seemed to lead nowhere. South Indian restuarants faced the brunt of the campaign with Shiv Sena activists targeting them.
Gyan Prakash in his book Mumbai Fables describing the Shiv Sena pramukh (head) explains why Thackeray appealed to a disgruntled Maharashtrian community in the city that they had come to with dreams of glamour and had to settle for much less:
Only forty years old when he founded the Shiv Sena, Thackeray presented himself as a fearless youthful leader of a new type, one able to bend feckless bureaucrats, the older generation, the elites, and evil enemies to the force of his will. Unlike most political leaders he did not advocate asceticism and sacrifice. He expressed feelings that most disaffected young men may have felt but dared not articulate. Openly advocating material acquisition and pleasure, he absolved “them from their feelings of guilt for failing to support their families or for their attractions to the hedonistic pursuits of life.”
The Shiv Sena took to politics soon enough with a pitched battle against the Communist Party, which had until its arrival, dominated unions in the city and held sway over the functioning of Mumbai’s biggest industry, the textile mills. Initially the Shiv Sena was content to back a Congress candidate against a Communist one, but soon after the party stepped into active politics taking on the communist parties. Thackeray shrugged off claims of being an alternate front for the Congress and instead continued to build the party through shakhas (branches) in each area of Mumbai, a political strategy adopted from the RSS.
In a nation where politicians claimed to follow the philosophies of Mahatma publicly, the Sena never shied away from violence and always endorsed action over thought and words. In 1969 when Thackeray was arrested for allegedly organising protests against the then deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai, the city was thrown into chaos by rioting activists who were silenced only by a statement from their leader. However, it also meant that Thackeray would never again do anything that would result in him getting arrested or being thrown into jail. It was perhaps an unwritten rule in Maharashtra’s politics that he was not to be arrested in order to maintain the peace with the Shiv Sena. He was arrested on one other occasion but was quickly granted bail before the situation went out of hand in Mumbai.
In keeping with his right wing philosophy, Thackeray also took on the Muslim community in Mumbai within years of forming the Shiv Sena. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Bhiwandi, a suburb near the edge of the city that housed powerlooms, was his first target for its high Muslim population mainly powerloom workers who had come from states like Uttar Pradesh.
The Sena in the 1970s was largely muted barring a few agitations and despite its anti-government stance, the Shiv Sena and Thackeray remained silent throughout the period of the Emergency. It was in the 1980s through electoral victories in municipal elections the Sena grew in strength and the tiger was ready to pounce when the opportunity arose in the 1990s in the form of the Babri Masjid riots and subsequent 1993 serial blasts.
Following the Babri Masjid riots and riots erupting in parts of the country, Thackeray wrote scathing editorials in his newspaper ‘Saamna’, making veiled calls for action against the Muslim community and in the bloodbath that followed in the city, many blamed him for instigating violence. The Srikrishna report which probed the riots recommended action against Thackeray, but coming while the BJP-Shiv Sena government was in power, nothing of any consequence was done. Subsequent governments also never followed up on it.
The Shiv Sena which had allied with the BJP in the 1980s, swept into power in 1995 aided by a pro-Hindutva sentiment and Thackeray, despite never contesting elections, held the remote control to the Manohar Joshi-led state government. The easiest way to circumvent the government became Thackeray’s endorsement. An Enron power plant, that subsequently had to be shut down, and a Michael Jackson concert in the city were perhaps classic examples of the Shiv Sena leader contorting his own stand in order to finally favour those who sought it.
Thackeray always loved to jump into matters pertaining to culture. From films to art, Thackeray introduced a culture of intolerance towards anything that he deemed against ‘Indian culture’ or offended his sensibilities. The hounding of artist MF Hussain into an exile from which he never returned, a campaign against Valentines Day, a ‘chaddi’ march to the erstwhile friend Dilip Kumar’s house to object to him accepting an award from Pakistan and bringing down the shutters of theatres screening films like ‘Fire’ were among the Sena’s notable achievements in this regard.
Despite being the editor of two newspapers, he also didn’t care much for criticism from fellow journalists and scribes writing critical pieces on him faced violent attacks by Shiv Sainiks. In some cases even carrying the statements of opposing leaders was enough to invite the party’s ire.
However, the period when his party was at its peak was also perhaps the time of great personal tumult for the leader. He lost his wife Meena in 1995 and his son Bindhumadhav in a road accident in 1996. Bindumadhav was perhaps the heir apparent until his demise. His second son Jaidev broke away from the Shiv Sena and remained estranged from his family, despite staying a few buildings away from the family residence. His youngest son Uddhav chose to stay away from politics and was rarely seen, but there was a bright beacon in the form of his nephew Raj, who ran the Shiv Udyog Sena.
Political stewards managed the state and its politics but none were ever bigger than Thackeray in stature or power. Finally when Uddhav decided he was ready for politics he was heralded in as the future head of the Shiv Sena. However, this resulted in the nephew, who had waited in the wings for years to take centre stage, to take flight and he formed his own political party, that embraced a similar ideology and manner of functioning to the Shiv Sena. Thackeray, who was an ardent critic of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and used their example to criticise dynastic politics, perhaps might have noted the irony of the situation when his grandson Aditya was also roped in to run the party’s youth wing.
Raj wasn’t the only one to leave the Sena disgruntled. Regional leaders rose, battled for control of the party and finally would leave when they failed to get the power they desired. Thackeray and the Sena preferred to let them go rather with their vote bases than let them rise above the family.
In the early 2000s, deteriorating health forced Thackeray onto the sidelines as his son Uddhav took over the operations of the party and was rarely seen in public barring public rallies. Always fond of his cigars and alcohol, Thackeray even had to give them up as his health deteriorated. Despite his worsening health and campaigning across the state in an attempt to revive the party, the Sena failed to achieve the heights it achieved in the 1990s. In his last few years, a frail Thackeray only appeared for the Shiv Sena’s annual rally in Shivaji Park, to hurl a few barbs at his enemies and to appeal for more support for his son.
He restricted himself to editorials and interviews in his own paper ‘Saamna’ until his last days, sometimes raising a titter or mild outrage with his comments. But for the man whose words brought the city that never slept to a grinding halt while he sat on his throne in Bandra, it was indeed a tame ending.