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Decoding Bal Thackeray: Bindhast!

November 20, 2012 17:11 IST

Most people trying to decode the Bal Thackeray phenomenon tend to see him in either black or white. Pramod Pagedar believes he was a curious combination of both, but mostly he was all grey.

24X7 news television has a predilection for blowing things out of all proportions. But for once, they didn't have to try. Everything that Bal Thackeray said or did all his life was always larger than life. It might sound like an oxymoron, but he literally lived up to that image in his death too.

The massive turnout, public outpouring of grief, the VVIP line-up and the 21-gun salute at the funeral on a public park which Thackeray attracted in his death was so larger than life that news television anchors, normally given to frantic efforts to whip up frenzy, had to simply let the cameras do the talking.

It is another matter that Thackeray-bashers, initially left to mouth some right-sounding platitudes about him in keeping with the sombre occasion, soon began splitting hair over whether or not the crowds that had descended on Mumbai for the funeral were in the region of 2 million as claimed by his supporters or it was just 300,000.

Though this entire spectacle was peaceful, vehement arguments soon began flying off to say that Mumbai which never sleeps had to shut itself down for fear of the Sainiks' reprisals if people continued their routine.

All in all, this kind of controversial impact was something that would have received the supremo's own amused approval. He was the man who called the shots in death as in life.

Much is being written or said about Thackeray's complex persona now that he is no more. If I were to choose just one of the many typical characteristics of his personality, I would unhesitatingly say he was not a hypocrite. That was the very core of his personality.

The Marathi sobriquet bindhast fitted him to the T. Only he could publicly say he was an admirer of Hitler or dub the Bihari migrant in Mumbai as 'Ek Bihari, sau bimari' or rant against 'bhaiyyas from UP.' That kind of candour disqualified him as a politician and scared even his steadfast political partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

But that also made him the darling of the sensation-seeking media and average Marathi Manoos unsure of his competitiveness in the growing cosmopolitan nature of Mumbai and Maharashtra's other major cities.

Only Thackeray could at once earn the most diametrically opposite sobriquets like 'Hindu Hriday Samrat', 'ruler of Marathi hearts', 'saviour of Marathi pride', 'uncrowned king of Mumbai', 'rabid communalist', 'demagogue', 'bigot', 'rabble-rouser', 'lumpen leader' et al.

So who really was Thackeray? He was probably one or the other or all of it together. But did his views originate from any convictions? Hardly. He himself repeated ad nauseum that he didn't believe in any ideology or caste system. 'To my mind, there are only two castes -- rich and poor. I believe in making the poor rich but not the rich poor,' he would say.

There is a tacit consensus among Maharashtra politicians to never let a Brahmin come anywhere near the power centre post the Peshwas. Thackeray flouted that understanding and committed political sacrilege by making Manohar Joshi, a practising Brahmin, chief minister.

Thackeray's self-confessed lack of ideological moorings and intellectual base often saw what many thought were his total somersaults on complex issues. He once wanted his saffron government 'throw out into the Arabian Sea' the controversial Enron project, but later became its ardent advocate.

He opposed the renaming of Marathwada University after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and was portrayed as 'anti-Dalit,' but didn't believe in dividing Hindus into high castes and Dalits.

After hobnobbing with the Congress in Maharashtra during the late 1960s, he later became a strong critic of the grand old party. But he unhesitatingly supported Indira Gandhi's infamous Emergency in 1975.

I once asked Sharad Pawar in an informal chat what he thought about Thackeray's self-contradictions. He said Thackeray always acted on his 'hunches' or 'intuition' and plain impulses, but harboured no long-term prejudices. Thackeray often told Pawar that India would 'soon' witness a bloody revolution, and cited his intuition as the source of this advance knowledge.

Thackeray adroitly threw away his own political rules when it came to honouring personal friendships. He called Pawar names on many occasions, but both treated each other like long-lost friends whenever they met. Thackeray thought nothing of political calculations or the discomfiture of its poll ally, the BJP, when he supported Pranab Mukherjee's Presidential nomination.

No wonder, Thackeray enjoyed warm personal relations with politicians across the spectrum with whom he was often seen sparring publicly.

Most political experts and media pundits subscribe to the conventional belief that Thackeray's Hindutva ardour prompted him to join the BJP's bandwagon. That is only partly true. Behind this move was also Thackeray's uncanny sense of reading correctly the straws in the wind.

The Shiv Sena's sons-of-the-soil and other such agendas had run their course, and the party needed fresh ballast to continue its momentum. The L K Advani-Pramod Mahajan Ram Janambhoomi campaign provided just that kind of push, so he happily joined in.

Despite his not being a conventional politician or probably because of it, Thackeray often correctly predicted the future moves of leading politicians. He was the first to predict that Sonia Gandhi would enter active politics; and that Pawar would return to the Sonia-led grouping even after falling out with her publicly.

I winced once when an American diplomat I was sitting with described Bal Thackeray to a visiting Washington official as 'the local gangster in politics.' All the same, Thackeray himself enjoyed to the hilt the role of a benevolent godfather dispensing justice to victims of some errant Bollywood producers, a real estate bully or coming to the rescue of film stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjay Dutt when they were in hot water.

Much is made of Thackeray symbolising the Marathi Manoos and his pride. I think it was the other way round. Thackeray's brazen challenge to the non-Maharashtrian rich and powerful by holding Mumbai in his palm satiated the deep-seated rage in the average Marathi man's heart about the Marathi Manoos being relegated to the sidelines in the metropolis for which 108 activists had lost their lives in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement.

Having said that, Thackeray and the Shiv Sena did precious little to empower the Marathi Manoos in a sense to stay competitive in today's economic rat-race.

Most people trying to decode the Thackeray phenomenon tend to see him in either black or white probably because they want to arrive at a simple conclusion. I, for one, believe he was the curious combination of both, but mostly he was all in the grey area.

We would do better to follow V S Naipaul's (that man again!) detached kind of approach to evaluate the Bal Thackeray persona. Naipaul once came up with a fascinating deconstruction of Mahatma Gandhi, the man, which predictably raised hackles in many quarters.

Naipaul thought Gandhi was the right man at the right time when he arrived in India from London to lead the nation because the situation needed a man like him then.

In any other time and space, Naipaul argued, Gandhi, who, according to him, was a strange combination of a puritan Vaishnavite and an ardent Catholic tempered by Western education, could have been a failure as the leader.

One may agree or disagree with Naipual's analysis, but I think we in India need his neutral approach to deconstruct a phenomenon like Thackeray. In the absence of such an approach, we will end up making simplifications to suit our own patterns of prejudices when we evaluate a man like him.

Pramod Pagedar is a political commentator of long standing.

Pramod Pagedar