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Thackeray, first to use language as political weapon

November 18, 2012 07:28 IST

Bal Thackeray never considered caste while giving tickets or appointing ministers when the Shiv Sena came to power, notes political commentator Prakash Bal Joshi.

'He had the guts to take decisions against popular sentiment on the basis of his convictions.'

Bal Keshav Thackeray, who controlled the streets of India's commercial capital for four decades, was the first non-traditional politician in India who skillfully used language as a political weapon to establish his right wing political party, the Shiv Sena.

His initial role in the 1960s was to help the state administration to reduce the influence of left-wing trade unions. Later, he expanded his influence from the cities to rural Maharashtra and emerged as the most powerful exponent of militant Hindutva.

The cartoonist-turned-politician set up the Shiv Sena in Mumbai in 1966 with an aim to safeguard the interests of the Marathi-speaking population in the cosmopolitan Mumbai metropolis.

Maharashtra was carved out of uniting areas with a majority Marathi-speaking population in May 1960 during the states reorganisation on a linguistic basis.

Thackeray, who had begun his career as a cartoonist at the Free Press Journal newspaper along with R K Laxman, launched Marmik, the first cartoon weekly in Marathi, to highlight how the Marathi Manoos was sidelined in Mumbai city.

He organised unemployed youth from the Mumbai-Thane belt under the Shiv Sena by targeting the south Indian population for depriving sons of the soil from working in private sector offices. He controlled the urchins of streets and when he was arrested during Vasantrao Naik's tenure as chief minister, Mumbai was held to ransom.

He used Shivaji Park in central Mumbai to launch the Sena and created a sort of world record by holding massive public rallies year after year, continuously for 46 years.

It was easy for him to turn Marmik into a mouthpiece for the Shiv Sena and fight for the cause of the unemployed Marathi-speaking youth. His supporters did not shun from using strong-arm tactics to browbeat their rivals.

The Shiv Sena opened its account in the Thane Municipal Corporation and later emerged as the second largest group in the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. The ruling Congress had a tacit understanding with Sena to fight with the Communist parties and their unions which had considerable presence in the city. The Sena began growing once leftwing trade unions began losing their grip on the corporate sector, especially in the city's textile mills.

Thackeray grew from one controversy to another, his rallies always used to be massive as people came from far off places to listen to his entertaining speeches delivered in the most acerbic language, ridiculing Congress leaders from the state as well as Indira Gandhi and her aides.

Like his father Prabodhankar Thackeray, who believed in social reforms to make society free from caste prejudice, he never considered caste as a factor while giving tickets or appointing ministers when the Shiv Sena came to power.

He had the guts to take decisions against popular sentiment on the basis of his convictions.

Other Backward Classes leader Chhagan Bhujbal left the Sena when Thackeray opposed the implementation of the Mandal Commission's recommendations. Ironically, the Sena's support base has comprised OBCs in Maharashtra, but Thackeray stuck to his guns and opposed Mandal, saying it would further divide society on a caste basis.

He always had a brush with the legal system and administration for his highly provocative and controversial statements. He was debarred from voting and contesting an elections for six years by the Election Commission for flouting its rules.

Despite assurances and opposition to his way of campaigning, the ruling Congress government in the state did not take any serious action against him for his provocative speeches.

Bhujbal, as the home minister in the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government, tried to arrest him, but failed as the courts gave Thackeray bail.

His appreciation of Adolf Hitler as an artist and orator created such a ruckus in his early days as a politician that the international media wrote about him.

In the early 1980s he began projecting himself as the champion of Hindu religion and began speaking militant Hindutva language, surpassing the right wing BJP. This helped him win support from the large migrant population to Mumbai from neighbouring states.

BJP stalwart Pramod Mahajan succeeded in forming an alliance with the Shiv Sena due to his excellent personal relations with Thackeray, and later implemented the experiment with like-minded regional parties in other states to stake power in Delhi.

The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance is the longest surviving political alliance in the country, but the relationship between the Sena and BJP remained under tension as Balasaheb always asserted his independent stands on many controversial issues. He supported Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee in the 2007 and 2012 Presidential elections though the BJP had fielded candidates against these Congress nominees.

He never participated in electoral politics personally nor joined any government, but always enjoyed power through remote control. He claimed his Sainiks were responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid and was acknowledged as the Hindu Hriday Samrat (Emperor of Hindu hearts).

He was always very close to Bollywood stars as he stood by them in their times of crisis. Amitabh Bachchan treated him like a patriarch since he stood by him during the Bofors crisis. He supported Sanjay Dutt who faced tough times for carrying an AK-47 during communal riots in Mumbai.

He was also close to many cricketers and did not hesitate to take stand on controversial cultural issues. He opposed Valentine's Day as a cultural assault, but entertained Michael Jackson who performed in the metropolis.

He saw many ups and down, faced many crises as some of his trusted aides left the Sena. Chhagan Bhujbal left when Thackeray opposed the Mandal Commission. Narayan Rane joined the Congress and became revenue minister, but the real shock was when his nephew Raj Thackeray left the Sena and set up his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

Bal Thackeray left without sorting out issues between his son Uddhav and Raj. In his last pre-recorded speech, he appealed to his supporters to remain united if they want to come back to power in Maharashtra.

Prakash Bal Joshi is one of the most respected commentators on Maharashtra politics.

Prakash Bal Joshi