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Thackeray's true stripes

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay 

Sujata Anandan

278 pages; Rs 499

As a reporter writing on the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, it was always perplexing that Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray claimed responsibility for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. That was not, after all, his original battle front. Or, for that matter, why Shiv Sena units existed in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and other states in north India. The Sangh Parivar dominated the Ayodhya agitation from the early 1980s, and it gave little space to other outfits to derive political mileage. What could the youth gain by being part of a party that could provide little political identity? Moreover, the Shiv Sena was founded on the principle that Mumbai (when it was still Bombay) belonged to the Marathi Manoos (Marathi people). So what were these afterthoughts in politics doing in the Sena?

Before Narendra Modi came along and usurped the title of Hindu Hriday Samrat, a wiry character who could have emerged from the book of caricatures that he drew as a cartoonist for Free Press Journal had copyright over this moniker for a brief period. Anyone who was not well versed in understanding the politics of Maharashtra developed the idea that Thackeray was essentially a rabble-rouser who had been legitimised in parliamentary politics by the Bharatiya Janata Party — mainly by the chief architect of the alliance of the two parties, Pramod Mahajan. But Thackeray took off one mask and replaced it with another. He began with the mask of being anti-south Indian, vowing to drive out people from the south of Vindhyas from Mumbai; then he conveniently spewed venom against Muslims, only to later become friends with them. A few years after this he had a new target: north Indians in general, and Biharis in particular. So who was Thackeray’s enemy?

Sujata Anandan clarifies at the outset that this is not Thackeray’s biography. The book is more a canter through the Mumbai sector of the Shiv Sena chief’s political terrain. This is a book that may have found trouble finding a publisher when the Tiger was still lurking around in the comforts of his residence at Matoshree. The undisturbed manner in which Thackeray dwelled inside his mansion is portrayed in the book to underscore a few basic traits that one does not expect in a leader projecting such masculinity. From accounts that tumble out in page after page, Thackeray emerges as a paper tiger or a demigod. Several instances are cited to demonstrate his insecurity and an exaggerated fear of arrest, so acute that he never led agitations from the front, choosing the security of Matoshree’s high walls.

So how did the puppeteer acquire such immense control over his puppets? To begin with, he was shrewd and had a way with masses. In an era in which few leaders successfully projected a larger-than-life image, Thackeray succeeded with multiple tools and knew how to project his personality. But the success of the book is that it neither gets swayed by the public relations drive nor is it driven by an irrational dislike of Thackeray and his politics. In fact, the book clinically establishes that the Sena chief did not have much of a political ideology. She establishes that Thackeray’s principles – or, rather, the lack of them – did not drive his politics. Contrarily, his ambition dictated the political stance he adopted at various stages of his career. Initially, the argument that Thackeray was not a man of convictions appears farfetched but by the end of the book – which could have been tighter if the editor had eliminated frequent repetitions – the author demonstrates that he was among the most unprincipled and opportunist leaders in India.

From a suburban leader, Thackeray assumed a national image – albeit a negative one – with the Mumbai riots of 1993. Ms Anandan pieces together the chilling account of how journalist Yuvraj Mohite secured details of how the Sena workers planned and executed the riots under Thackeray’s guidance. It was this detail that was used against the Sena chief in the Srikrishna commission report. But this part of the book also underscores how Thackeray was always the leader in absentia and how he allowed his aura to rule over the people.

In a sharp indictment of the Sena and its politics, Ms Anandan establishes the dual stand on the campaign against Valentine’s Day celebrations. Even as Sena activists orchestrated protests against celebrations on that day, the chain of restaurants owned by Smita Thackeray, the chief’s “favourite” daughter-in-law, did good business by providing candlelight dinner packages for couples. Such analysis backed with details that Ms Anandan picked up in her years as a reporter makes the book a persuasive account.

The author has consciously chosen not to explore the footprint of Thackeray and the nature of the Sena’s support outside Mumbai in the rest of Maharashtra. Though this would have helped the reader understand how the Sena’s campaign strategy was different from the “Mee Mumbaikar” sentiment that drove the party in the metropolis, the book is a valuable addition to the literature on the present political disposition. Thackeray comes out as a pretender — quite like the way he preferred his name to be pronounced: “Thack” as in “back”, and not “Thak” as in “lark”, the more Indian way of hitting the palate with the tongue. Pretence, after all, was central to the man and the book amply demonstrates this.

The reviewer is author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (Tranquebar, 2013)

First Published: Wed, July 23 2014. 21:25 IST