Tiger’s roar: How Thackeray’s ‘politics’ filled a systemic vacuum

In his fictional work The Moor’s Last Sigh, writer Salman Rushdie created a radical Hindu nationalist politician character with the unlikely name of Raman Fielding, who appeared, for all purposes to be modelled on Bal Thackeray.

For sure, there were important distinctions, which gave Rushdie enough deniability to claim that Fielding was a composite of many characters, including the Russian despot Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Thus, whereas Thackeray, the ‘Tiger’ as he is known in real life, is lean and somewhat fair-complexioned, the fictional Fieding (who was nicknamed ‘Mainduck Raja’ or Frog King, after the signature that he employed) was dark-complexioned, with a “great belly slung across his knees like a burglar’s sack.”

But there are enough parallels in Fielding that reflect the real-life politics and life experiences of Thackeray. Fielding opposes the flood of immigrants into the city that he lords over, both as a politician and as someone who wields considerable muscle power that operates beneath the radar of the law. Likewise, Fielding is keen to establish a theocratic system in which “one particular variant of Hinduism would rule, while all of India’s other peoples bowed their beaten heads.”

Image: ibnlive.

Controversial as ever, Rushdie deployed a string of epithets to characterise Fielding in monochromatic tones: the man is described variously as a “foggy bastard”, “snake”, “goonda” and “salah”. For all of Rushdie’s exertions, the Shiv Sena worked hard to ensure that Rushdie’s book was ‘banned’, but the Supreme Court revoked the ban.

Today, a few hours after the cremation of Thackeray, it seems fair to reflect on his brand of divisive ‘hate politics’ that is both venerated by large sections within Maharashtra, and simultaneously causes countless others to flinch from the memory of its horrendous excesses.

Thackeray’s politics was built on the politics of ‘us-and-them’, except that over 40-plus years, the target of his political attack and his definition of the ‘other’, moved signally depending on the evolution of his politics.

This is the man who built on his father KS Thackeray’s leadership of the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement (SMM), which in the 1950s harnessed the desire for articulating a Marathi identity by campaigning for the creation of the State of Maharashtra. But what started as a legitimate manifestation of Marathi pride gave way soon enough to linguistic chauvinism that targeted south Indians (in particular) and even Gujaratis in Mumbai as “outsiders” who were feeding off Marathas.

It was cartoonist and commentator Bal Thackeray’s venomous pen that actively channelled subaltern angst and directed it against south Indians, whom he used to refer to sneeringly as lungiwallas or as yandugunduwallas (a mocking allusion to the guttural tones and polysyllabic complexities of south Indian languages, as Thackeray perceived them).

Thackeray’s prose whipped up passions in Marmik, the magazine that he founded, with satirical essays that put the fear of an “invasion” by the “lungiwallas” among lower middle-class Maharashtrians. In an early commentary, Thackeray highlighted the fact that Maharashtrians were under-represented in the corporate sector in Mumbai because of the advent of “lungiwallas”; the magazine even began listing the names of employees in various companies, to establish that they were not Maharashtrian. “Bajao pungi, bhagao lungi,” roared Thackeray, as the foot soldiers of the Shiv Sena, which had been born in 1966, launched attacks on Udupi restaurants and targeted south Indians and Gujaratis for violence.

The legacy of that ‘hate politics’ thrives to this day, with Biharis and North Indians increasingly the target.

Over time, Thackeray’s Sainik army would take on trade unions in Mumbai’s famed mill lands, and although the methods that it deployed in getting rid of union-rooted obstructionism were not entirely lawful, the enterprise appeared to have the backing of corporate interests and the real estate lobby, which had an eye on the mill lands. It was this that ‘legitimised’ the Thackeray brand of politics, but it merely spawned lawlessness as an antidote to lawlessness.

But of course, it was the Hindutva mobilisation of the 1980s and 1990s that really allowed Thackeray and his Shiv Sena to propel themselves to power. They fed off the perception – widely shared in the late 1980s – that the Congress governments (in Maharashtra and at the Centre) were ineffectual in tackling growing instances of Muslim fundamentalism, and pandered excessively to minority sentiments, which opened up the political space for the Shiv Sena to operate freely.

In December 1992, following the riots in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Thackeray ridiculed Chief Minister Sudhakarrao Naik for his government’s inaction to put down the violence, and dared him openly. In a commentary in Saamna, Thackeray thundered: “If you cannot stop the Muslims… from murdering us, then we will be forced to do it by ourselves.”

In January 1993, he delivered on his threat. Thackeray began his maha-arati programme (aarti festivals at temples, which were intended ostensibly to challenge the use of public space by Muslims for performing namaz), and used it as a political mobilisation for riots that, the Srikrishna Commission report said, he personally commandeered. The Commission observed that at a meeting at his residence, Matoshri, on 8 January 1993, when Mumbai was aflame with riots, Thackeray was heard ”directing the Shiv Sainiks, Shaka Pramukhs and other activists of the Shiv Sena to attack the Muslims… and ensure that ‘not a single la… (a deeply pejorative expression, used to refer to Muslims in this case) would survive to give oral evidence.”

The Commission further noted: “While this kind of instructions were being given by Thackeray on telephone, (Shiv Sena leaders) Shri Ramesh More and Shri Sarpotdar also came in and reported the situation in their respective areas. They were also given similar instructions.

Thackeray… also told someone from Jogeshwari to catch hold of AA Khan (Additional Commissioner of Police, north region) and send him to ‘Allah’s home’ at once. In large measure, Thackeray and the Shiv Sena that he groomed were able to feed off Maharashtrian and lower-middle-class anxieties rooted in identity politics – and, subsequently, Hindu angst that bristled at what it saw as pandering to minority sentiments – largely because of the failure of mainstream political parties to govern from the centre.

Yet, it was the same ineffectual leadership that allowed him to evade prosecution for his role in the riots and the hate-mongering, a distinction that he shares with Muslim leaders, from Imam Bukhari to Asaddudin Owaisi.

Politics, of course, abhors a vacuum. Thackeray effectively reaped the political harvest from systemic frailties – and its inability to address widely shared anxieties.

If Marathi people’s sense of dispossession in their state had been addressed within the political framework, the Shiv Sena may never have taken root. If the Mumbaikar's sense of anguish over the underworld had been addressed with effective enforcement of law and order, the Shiv Sena may never have acquired legitimacy with its unlawful methods.

And if the perception that ‘secular’ parties were soft on Muslim fundamentalism hadn’t been so widely shared, the Shiv Sena would never have become the potent political force that it did. In a mature political world, the Thackeray brand of ‘hate politics’ would never have gained as much traction as it did. That it has thrived this long, by feeding off ‘us-and-them’ politics, says volumes about the failure of the political and administrative systems.