People, people everywhere. Clinging to trees, perched on hoardings and traffic lights, atop under-construction towers, at every possible nook and corner. Everyone jostling for a vantage point to catch a glimpse of one man. The last time I remember such a crowd was when India had won the T20 World Cup and MS Dhoni and his team took a ride in an open-top double-decker BEST bus through the city.
This crowd, however, was bigger. Its scale gave one an indication of the popularity of this regional icon, a popularity born of the personal connection he once had with "his" people. The people who came on Sunday did not come for the Shiv Sena, but for a man who was far beyond the party.
I am not a political animal and did not, and still do not, have an opinion on the Shiv Sena. I, however, got an opportunity to get a closer look at the party, its functioning and its oddities when I was asked to cover it for a few years in one of my earlier stints as a city reporter.
It was a major beat as far as Mumbai and Maharashtra were concerned and I had a lot of homework to do, besides a simple Google search. The day for a journalist covering the Sena starts with Saamna, the party's official "mouthpiece". It is a window to the Sena's plans, opinions, agenda and more. The paper's editorials were seen as the late Bal Thackeray's view on a subject.
The Sena has a different relationship with the English media, and so do Sainiks. Marathi journalists are more glued in to and abreast of the minutest developments in the party. For them, these are big news for their target audience. Often, the English media would not even report on some of these developments.
The people who came on Sunday did not come for the Sena because the party did not retain its connection with the people. Indeed this is what created the space for Thackeray's nephew's party.
Till the mid-1980s, Thackeray used to answer all phone calls himself and went out of his way to help those who sought help, irrespective of class or religion. He used to go through the "letters" columns of most newspapers and set his men to work. As the Sena's influence grew, however, he got busy with other things and the connection was lost as the Sena's elected representatives, like other politicians, also failed to maintain their touch with the common man, except during polls.
It was, I remember, during the last state elections that the Sena set up a call centre and helpline to solve citizens' grievances. People could call the helpline and young men and women, attired in smart black uniforms, would answer the call, note down the problem, get it solved by their elected representatives and get back to the citizen. Once the Sena lost the polls, it lost interest in the helpline.
As Thackeray’s party kept growing, so did its ambitions and prosperity. Unfortunately it failed to keep pace with the masses, losing its relevance somewhat, though the man himself remained popular. The crowds were an indicator of that popularity.