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Bal Thackeray: An era ends, a vacuum is created

November 17, 2012 17:17 IST

With Bal Thackeray's demise the Shiv Sena does not cease to be but it does weaken substantially. And it will take the two heirs to his legacy to overcome the setback together, says Mahesh Vijapurkar

Bal Thackeray's politics was different from that of others.

He did not need hired crowds, he did not need spokespersons, and he did not need to explain what he wanted. When he delivered an aadesh it was acted upon, the followers delivered on it pronto. By his own admission and popular acclaim, he was a dictator who publicly admired German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

But for him, Maharashtra would not have had a bipolar polity, with the Congress and its ilk ranged against him on one side; he literally provided the alternative, even if in the Right, giving voice and substance to the dreams of the counter-elite: those who aspired but did not want to walk with the Congress or be ignored by it.

The Left did not count after a time in Maharashtra, and at one point Roza Deshpande had even publicly said that Sainiks were not lumpen. They subsequently occupied positions denied to the non-Congress people of Maharashtra, and which has kept the Shiv Sena going as a political vehicle.

Given this, surely, the minds of the Sena cadre who crowded Kalanagar's narrow lanes for a word from the Matoshree household about Thackeray's declining health would have worried about the future of the party without him.

How would the party sustain itself without the man who personified it?

Would the residual leadership, including son Uddhav, be able to meet the challenges from other parties, including Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena?

This indeed is a trying moment for the party which is decidedly frailer without the founder around. One has only to play back the scenes at the last Dassehra rally where instead of Bal Thackeray in person, they heard him via video, feeble, softer, and which left them disappointed and worried. They just could not bear the idea of a hazy future. The realisation was that Uddhav drew strength from his father. Henceforth, only a likeness of the supremo as a prop may not do.

This is the time the Sena cadres would seriously worry about their impending choices: remain with it or shift to the MNS. Uddhav is has proved himself by loosening up the Sena which functioned as a well-oiled machine of tremendous muscle. He has, of his own volition, sought to render it more respectable by wanting to curb the street-level actions of the party.

Such a thought itself is contrary to the Shiv Sena's DNA where the network of shakhas played a greater role than even elected representatives did. Soon after the 1995 elections, the cadre had complained to Raj Thackeray that the pramukhs were becoming sahebs like the types the Congress had spawned. The disenchantment with the transition to power itself was strong; the shift to a place in the establishment was a jolt.

Even before Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena, he had become a recognisable person, first in Mumbai and then much later across Maharashtra which saw his Shiv Sena ascending to power 1995. Even after the loss of government, he remained dictating his terms -- take it or leave it -- and hoped that the party would overcome a split that also divided his extended family.

But he could never be ignored. With his Marmik periodical which listed those who migrated to Mumbai from South India and took away jobs which Maharashtrians wanted, he came into the public reckoning and secured popular support. It was something more than what he as a cartoonist with the Free Press Journal was. Even late in his life he missed cartooning, complaining of stiffened fingers which could not enable smooth drawing of lines.

Since the launch of Marmik, Bal Thackeray has come a long way to the extent that his politics is one that fostered divisions in society -- between Marathis and non-Marathis, between Hindus and Muslims, between locals and migrants, and ultimately also between those who enjoyed his patronage and those who did not. He had his strong likes and dislikes.

These divisions in society ultimately led to what became a polarised Maharashtra to an extent that even a party like the Bharatiya Janata Party with a national presence had to play second fiddle in Maharashtra outside of which he had no ambitions. It massaged his ego whenever needed, because of a stance like banning Pakistani artists, saw even AB Vajpayee, prime minister then, seeking his audience.

Thackeray revelled in public adulation and secretly relished the criticisms hurled at him to an extent that rarely, if ever, he withdrew a statement he made, however outrageous it was. He once told me, "I said it, so why the fuss? I don't recant." His first off-the-record conversation with me was sought to be recorded because he feared that all journalists twisted around what he said. But he made sure he always gave good copy, no denying that.

Thackeray's premise was the more he was criticised and more abuses came his way, the stronger his base became, if not necessarily in numbers at least in terms of the beliefs he transferred. It is not just the cadre but also the unspeaking Marathi manoos who backed him. They believed he was their deliverer. They believed that he stood as a barrier between them and the Muslims during and post-1993 riots.

It is a claim he made, and the findings of the Srikrishna Commission which faulted him did not dilute their fervour for this philosophy of him being a bastion in a communally-divided city. That his own party's government led by Manohar Joshi dismissed the commission's findings as "pro-Muslim" and shelved it, added muscle to the view that he was a Hindu leader who can be brazen which the common, middle class cannot.

While other political parties wrestled with him in their own semantics, the government feared him, whether it was his own in partnership with the BJP or the Congress-run dispensations before or after that 1995-1999 period. One recalls how, after a breach of privilege motion in the state assembly, they manoeuvred events in such a way that the recommendation to detain him for a week was allowed to lapse. The pretext was it was an inadequate punishment.

With his demise, though part of the natural order, the Shiv Sainiks would be numbed; they had thought he would be an eternal source of strength for them. With this turn of events, of course, the Shiv Sena does not cease to be but it does weaken substantially. When an unquestioned leader like him is out of the scene, it only means the end of an era. Not of time itself.

But Thackeray will be missed by all, supporters and opponents alike. He leaves behind a vacuum which may need the son and the nephew to come together to fill.
Mahesh Vijapurkar