Balasaheb Keshav Thackeray bestrode the city he renamed Mumbai for decades. He dominated its politics and greatly influenced the governance of India’s richest state, although he never held any official post. When his party controlled the municipal corporation, he did not become mayor. When it “stormed Mantralaya”, as he described its victory in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1995 Maharashtra Assembly elections, he did not become chief minister. But his power remained absolute; he famously boasted of his “remote control” of the Manohar Joshi-led state government. On Sunday, the long lines of mourners that brought Mumbai to a standstill, the official condolences from India’s leaders, might deceive an onlooker into thinking that Bal Thackeray’s career was no different from that of many other regional strongmen. But that would be a mistake. Most other such leaders in the past decades have been, whatever their personal ethics, progressive in terms of their orientation towards reform and openness, relatively willing to welcome outsiders, their labour and their wallets — an under-regarded aspect of India’s ethnic politics.
Not so with Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena. Although both achieved respectability purely through power and longevity, an objective examination of their influence on Mumbai politics is revealing of the missed opportunities of the past decades.
When the Shiv Sena first burst out of the chawls of what was then a heavily industrialised city named Bombay, it was used as a stick by the Congress leadership of Maharashtra to beat Left-leaning trade unions into submission. The violence and disruption of those years, the murders of political opponents and the anti-outsider riots played a large part in the de-industrialisation of what was once India’s greatest manufacturing centre. Mumbai has continued to grow, of course, but the focus of its economic growth is now the services sector, with all the disadvantages to job seekers that it implies. Meanwhile, cities like Pune, Nashik, Nagpur and Aurangabad have received the industrial investment that would otherwise have gone to Mumbai. Partly, these facts are a product of policy and Mumbai’s obvious infrastructure constraints. But partly, they are a product of the desire of investors to not subject themselves to the increasingly dysfunctional local politics of India’s largest port city. The legacy of the Shiv Sena’s history of coercive politics lives on; the costs it has imposed on Mumbai, and on its countless residents yearning for steady employment, are incalculable.
Nor does that legacy, unless dismantled in the years to come, reveal any great hope for Mumbai’s future as a de-industrialised city. Reports may be written arguing that Mumbai can become an international financial centre; but whatever reforms may be made to the financial sector can benefit other locations in India as much as Mumbai. The decades-long rise of Bangalore – outward-looking, and welcoming in comparison to Mumbai – as a destination for foreign investment is revealing. Until and unless Mumbai’s own ethos becomes closer to that of the Bombay that was, it will not again be the automatic destination for capital and for skilled manpower. That, in many ways, is the true legacy of Bal Thackeray.