The pall of gloom, tinged with fear, which has enveloped Mumbai because of Bal Thackeray's illness may be a measure of the Shiv Sena chief's political clout but can hardly be regarded as a tribute since it underlines his parochial brand of politics.
Thackeray is the first of the regional leaders who came to the fore in the 1960s as the Congress began to decline. But unlike leaders like CN Annadurai in the DMK or Parkash Singh Badal in the Akali Dal, who tried to outgrow their image of being concerned solely with Tamil Nadu or Punjab, Thackeray is unapologetic about his sectarian outlook being restricted only to Maharashtra.
Not only that. His influence is confined mainly to Marathis - and that, too, the illiberal sections - rather than to the other communities living in the state. There is little doubt that this constricted vision is the outcome of the line pursued by his father, Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, who was involved in the Samyukta or united Maharashtra movement for the division of the state of Bombay into Maharashtra and Gujarat.
The linguistic parochialism, which led to the formation of Maharashtra in 1960, subsequently mutated into various forms of sectarianism, whose focus changed from anti-Gujarati to anti-"Madrasi" or south Indian when Thackeray constituted the Shiv Sena in 1966 to propagate an aggressive version of Marathi sub-nationalism. With the rise of the Hindutva movement in the 1990s, the Shiv Sena switched its attention from Madrasis to Muslims and claimed credit for the demolition of the Babri Masjid on Dec 6, 1992. More recently, north Indians, mainly Biharis, have been the target of such chauvinistic campaigns.
What this obsessive parochialism, which has been accepted as a creed by Balasaheb's son Uddhav and nephew Raj, means is that Thackeray has never acquired the kind of political respectability which other provincial leaders like the DMK's M. Karunanidhi or the AIADMK's J. Jayalalitha have secured, enabling them to forge alliances with pan-Indian parties. As far as the Shiv Sena is concerned, however, only the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its pro-Hindu agenda, has been willing to align with it. No other party, and especially the secular ones, will touch it with a barge pole. What is more, the recent offensive against Biharis, mainly by Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) but with the Shiv Sena's tacit approval, has compelled even the BJP to be wary of Thackeray because the BJP's base is in northern India.
Thackeray, however, seems to revel in his isolation. It makes him stand out just as his admiration for Hitler does as someone who is not bothered about being politically correct. It also marks him out as a person who never minces his words. On the contrary, the sharpness of his comments, which the sober-minded may find jarring, apparently touches a chord among large sections of Marathis, and also anti-Muslim and anti-Congress elements outside, if only because their directness is in contrast to the mealy-mouthed insincerity of the average politician.
True, this pugnacity makes him feared rather than loved, but Thackeray appears to have made up his mind to play a role different from that of other politicians, all of whom try to widen their base.
It is noteworthy that in a country where even the so-called national parties have become regional because of the restriction of their influence to particular areas, the Shiv Sena's narrow focus on a section of Hindu Marathis makes it one of a kind - and not an outfit which is likely to be widely emulated. While it is customary for Bollywood to show politicians as cynical and untrustworthy, films which hint at portraying the Thackeray family show them as mafia dons.
What is noteworthy about the family is that it hasn't shown the slightest interest in breaking out of its parochial mould. From the patriarch Keshav Sitaram, who was known as Prabodhanker for bringing out the magazine Prabodhan (Enlighten), to his great grandson Aditya, who is Uddhav's son, the family is happy to hold on to its sectarian niche. The role that Aditya played, for instance, in ensuring the scrapping of Rohinton Mistry's book Such A Long Journey, with its unflattering observations about Marathi chauvinists, from the Bombay University syllabus, showed that he is very much a chip of the old block.
The insularity of the clan has not however come in the way of a split, with Raj Thackeray forming his own outfit. The effect has been politically harmful for the family because of the division of the Marathi votes between them to the benefit of the Congress. Hence the belief that the latter prefers to prop up Raj - like keeping the police away from his unruly cadres, for instance - so that the MNS can cut into the Shiv Sena's votes. But both the outfits have retained their intimidating presence on the streets.
Balasaheb has acquired greater fame, or notoriety, than his father, Keshav Sitaram, who was hardly known outside western India. Till now, however, neither Uddhav nor Raj has shown a capacity to outshine him.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org