I first noticed Bal Thackeray 50 years ago. As a student in Bombay (as Mumbai was called then), I enjoyed his cartoons in the local papers. His strong comments were in sharp contrast with the gentle ironies of R K Laxman, then at his creative best.
Soon, in 1964, Thackeray started a Marathi periodical called Marmik (to the core) with his younger brother, Shrikant.
The Bombay-centric weekly contained crisp articles, some on politics and others on arts and books. Shrikant’s snappy film critiques were ahead of the times of syrupy reviews. And, it had a lot of cartoons of both the brothers. Having just discovered Punch and The New Yorker through the British Council and United States Information Service libraries, I thought this was Bombay’s answer to these, albeit considerably downscale.
Thackeray next entered my awareness in 1968-69, when his nascent Shiv Sena conducted its first campaign against Bombay’s Udupi restaurants. My close Indian friends at a leading American campus and I were passionate about the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement. It was natural that we should be appalled by what appeared to be a chauvinist outbreak in the most cosmopolitan of Indian cities.
I tried, however, to plead the case of the average Marathi Bombayites, hurt at having been reduced to second-class citizens of their own state capital. My friends did not understand that there could be such a grievance. They were convinced (some still are) that despite my radical protestations, I was at heart a Marathi partisan. I was not particularly perturbed.
Thackeray achieved a phenomenal and continued hold over the relatively poorly off segments of the Marathi population of Greater Mumbai and parts of Maharashtra soon after starting the Shiv Sena. Rebellions and rival movements by his early acolytes such as Chhagan Bhujbal and Narayan Rane had little effect on his sway.
His nephew Raj’s breaking away troubled him mentally and organisationally. But he carried on like a mythical patriarch.
Thackeray’s single-handed moulding of the Shiv Sena owed nothing to money – he had no money to start with. He used his pen and tongue, often eloquent but always blunt and forthright, to tap into a deep-seated sense of injustice and injury among his adherents. This attempt to build a movement out of a sense of deprivation was not unique.
The Muslim League of pre-partition India, Black Power groups including the Black Muslims in the US, the Dravidian movements of the 1940s to 1960s, the Biharis who flocked to Lalu Prasad and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were some among the many such groups.
If such mass organisations are blessed with far-sighted leadership, they move on to larger objectives after the initial mobilisation. They evolve into vehicles for permanent redressal of the original grievances not just through positive discrimination. But more important, an internal and sustained progression towards removal of shackles. Hatred of the real or imaginary oppressor is no longer required to keep the flock together. B R Ambedkar, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela exhorted their people to empowerment through the aspirational means of education and enterprise. They channelled the tremendous energy born out of the anger of their followers away from destruction into productive avenues. Nitish Kumar, too, appeals to Biharis’ sense of exclusion, but provides them hope of all-round development, rather than the mostly recidivisit, backward-looking appeal of Lalu Prasad. Narendra Modi exploited the historic anguish, but now prefers to motivate his constituents by conjuring up prosperity and good governance.
Yet, other leaders instinctively know that their hold on people is based on fear, which must be kept alive and fanned for them to retain power. Larger than life objects of hate spur the followers into frenzy, often destructive. The ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia is perhaps an extreme example of mass movements gone toxic, but many others have done little to achieve any lasting improvement.
Thackeray could organise, but he lacked the vision and wisdom to take it further. The man who boasted that if he were prime minister for a day, he would solve the Kashmir problem permanently, could not halt Mumbai’s slide into an urban nightmare, despite his wielding supreme authority over the city government for decades.
Maharashtra got deeper into the rut of nepotism and corruption when his party ruled it for five years. He had to find newer targets to keep his followers in a state of agitation. Hence the serial search of villains – the south Indians first, then the Muslims, and then the migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Yet, this champion of Marathi manoos never spoke up about the real holders of power in Mumbai, owners of national and multi-national capital. Somewhere along the line, personal aggrandisement became almost an obsession.
Thackeray likened himself to a tiger, the mascot of his party. A more appropriate metaphor would be the man who rode the tiger. Unable to really control and dismount the tiger lest it devour him, he tried to point it in different directions, holding on to the reins. That is the real tragedy of Bal Thackeray.
The writer taught at the IIM, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand