It is difficult to conceive of Maharashtra, particularly Mumbai, without Balasaheb Thackeray. He was omnipresent on the political horizon for over 45 years. There is no political figure in the country who could remain at the top of an organisation after creating and shaping it for such a long period.
Parties have come and disappeared into oblivion. Some leaders have also appeared from nowhere, dazzled the political firmament, and disappeared unsung.
It is a sociological enigma that Balasaheb could dominate Maharashtra’s politics without holding any formal position of power. Even when the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance was in power from 1995 to 1999, he did not hold any post . He enjoyed the status of a ‘remote control’, and conducted the ministerial philharmonic orchestra from his residence, Matoshree. He asked the Shiv Sena chief minister Manohar Joshi, himself a wily politician, to resign and replaced him overnight with Narayan Rane. Hardly any political propriety was observed.
A section of the English media used to call him the ‘fuhrer’ or ‘supremo’ and privately, even Balasaheb enjoyed the status of a Hitler-like figure. He was an unabashed admirer of the Nazi dictator. Thackeray used to issue his ‘diktats’ or ‘fatwas’ and they would be obeyed either out of fear or commitment.
The Shiv sainiks would storm the streets implementing the order of their Supremo with total dedication and of course, without any fear of the law. That was their way of displaying loyalty and affection for their fuhrer. This has remained the trademark style of the Sena.
Balasaheb remained the stable pole of politics at one end, while at the other end, chief ministers (mainly of the Congress) went to the pavilion, one after another, like batsmen of a collapsing cricket team. Thackeray used all the tactics available to him for survival.
Sometimes he compromised with the Congress, at other times, he confronted them on the streets. Opposition parties were often flummoxed by his stances, which were more spontaneous rather than strategic. Indeed he was not a strategist, nor did he have a defined political objective.
In 1966, the year the Shiv Sena was formed, Vasantrao Naik was the chief minister. Thackeray had a symbiotic relationship with Naik. Both used each other politically, openly or clandestinely. Between 1966 and 2012, as many as 20 individuals held the post of chief minister.
Some like Sharad Pawar, Vasant dada and SB Chavan took the post repeatedly. But they had one common rival and enemy, or occasional friend and ally, in Balasaheb. From Pawar to Sushilkumar Shinde to Vilasrao Deshmukh, most of them used to affectionately (and with pride) comment on their friendly relations with Balasaheb.
No wonder Balasaheb rescued the Congress from the arithmetical imbroglio of Rashtrapati elections in 2007 by supporting Pratibha Patil, and this year, endorsing Pranab Mukherjee. Mukherjee personally came to Matoshree to get Balasaheb’s blessings, as it were, accompanied by Sharad Pawar.
There are no comparable cases of such symbiotic relationship in Indian politics. The BJP was angered with the Sena for their show of support to the Congress, and Balasaheb was ready to break ties with the BJP if this issue was forced.
Bal Thackeray (he used to be known as Bal rather than Balasaheb in the '60s) had declared that Shiv Sena would remain essentially non-political. He wanted to fight for the identity and rights of the sons of the Marathi soil, not fight elections. He never defined the issues of identity, and did not go beyond the demand for jobs for Marathi youth.
In the '60s, before the arrival of the Sena on the political scene, the city of Mumbai was the epicentre of the national trade union movement. Communists and Socialists were in almost absolute control of the working class. Capitalism in Mumbai merely meant private textile mills, and some engineering units on the suburban periphery. The Congress government and the industry both wanted to weaken the grip of the Left on the workers.
The newly-formed Shiv Sena proved to be a perfect medium. The Sena was able to split workers on Marathi and non-Marathi lines.
On this fractured backdrop came the the parliamentary election of 1967, which was the first turning point in the evolution of the Sena as a political party. In that election, the Congress was opposed by the towering trade union leaders like comrade SA Dange, the then militant leader George Fernandes, the breakaway Leftist from Congress V Krishna Menon and the militant editor, Acharya Atre, who had spearheaded the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement.
Indeed, the very formation of the state of Maharashtra was a result of the broad Leftist movement, composed of the workers and peasants. (The statue at Hutatma Chowk of a worker and a peasant carrying forward a torch is a symbolic representation of that struggle). Balasaheb's father, the noted Keshav alias Prabodhankar Thackeray as also a part of this Leftist front. And yet Balasaheb decided to create his niche by attacking the infant Left. Within a year, the Sena announced who its enemy was: the migrants and the communists.
Thackeray used to rant against migrant South Indian employees, terrorise them, then frighten managements into recruiting Marathi employees. That was a fight against 'lungi walls' or 'Madrasis'. The Sena considered all South Indians to be 'Madrasis'. Soon the Sena turned against the 'Reds' and declared its aim was to 'cleanse' Mumbai from the influence of the communists.
The vitriol was so vicious that soon violent clashes began between the Sena strike breakers and the Red strikers. A firebrand communist leader, Krishna Desai, was murdered in the mill areas (where today stand the towers and Mumbai's fashion restaurants). This was a warning to other communists. This was also the first political murder in Maharashtra. Balasaheb openly defended the murder. The cleansing of the 'Reds' had begun.
Despite all this, there was no chance of the Sena getting its own majority and coming into power. The charisma of Balasaheb could not work its magic in other parts of Maharashtra. That was the reason for the Sena's alliance with the BJP. The alliance combined Marathi militancy with aggressive Hindutva. Till 1985, the Sena and the BJP had even fought elections against each other. In fact, the bases of the Sena and the Sangh Pariwar were not only different, but hostile to the other.
Shiv Sena support emerges mainly from the urban youth and from the working class. The BJP base on the other hand, is composed of the relatively stable, upper-caste, urban and well-off middle class. Culturally they are poles apart, but politically they came together, because they knew that independently they didn't have enough of an electoral support base to come to power.
But they could never fully politically integrate and therefore, could not come to power after losing in 1999. Whatever strength the Sena possessed, it came from the charisma of Balasaheb and from the network of socio-cultural activists on the one hand, and terror outfit on the other. Now, both have lost their Godfather.
The main challenge before Uddhav Thackeray will now be to see that the party does not disintegrate.
Memories of Balasaheb will not be of much help. Elections in 2014 will haunt the party and there can be a possible exodus to the MNS led by Raj, or to the NCP, or even to the Congress. If Uddhav is able to keep the party intact, that itself will be a tribute the man who created and shaped the party without any grand vision, without ideology and without a defined programme for Maharashtra or Marathi manoos.
Balasaheb’s larger than life image and charisma could overshadow everything. The legacy of Balasaheb Thackeray is that he provided a collective identity and communal pride to the Marathi Manoos, who was feeling marginalised in the rapidly globalising city of Mumbai.