You loved him, you hated him, but you never could ignore him. That was Bal Keshav Thackeray, a fierce proponent of Hindu supremacism in a secular India who built his chauvinistic politics around the emotive cause of regional pride of 112 million people of Maharashtra, the country's most industrialised state and home to its world renowned film and entertainment industry. He was 86.
Views on Bal Thackeray, known as Balasaheb, were as polarised as the politics he practiced. Known for his caustic tongue, he was idolised by his followers in the Shiv Sena and scorned in equal measure by liberal and secular Indians for his communal, divisive politics that didn't stop with radical expression of views against Muslims and violent action against those opposed to his extreme righwing ideas — including being firmly opposed to the visit of the Pakistani cricket team to India.
The cartoonist turned politician was often portrayed as a roaring tiger, the much cherished logo of his party Shiv Sena, which he formed to accord dignity to Maharashtrians but which became known as a party of restless youngsters out for trouble. He was a demogogue whose strong views polarised the polity at the state and the national level, but he never flinched from expressing himself with conviction despite opposition.
The posterboy of rightwing Hindu and Marathi chauvinism, he never plunged into electoral politics and never contested any polls. He never made it to the national stage either but remained an active, acidic voice, commenting on any and every issue through the party mouthpiece Saamna. The party is virtually orphaned but the canny Thackeray had anointed son Uddhav as the next boss well in advance. In 2011, he even placed grandson Aditya as the next in line for the family legacy.
Born on Jan 23, 1926, in Pune, in then Bombay Presidency, Thackeray started his career as a political cartoonist with The Free Press Journal group in the early 1950s, a contemporary of the legendary RK Laxman, who too was with the FPJ at the time.
He used his cartoons to promote the Samyukta Maharashtra (United Maharashtra) movement, launched in the mid-1950s to crusade for the formation of Maharashtra. His father Prabodhankar Keshav Sitaram Thackeray was one of the five leaders who spearheaded the movement.
In 1960, he quit his FPJ job and began taking interest in politics. As a tool to cash in on the strong anti-migrant sentiments among the locals, he launched a Marathi humour weekly Marmik in August 1960, ironically released by then Congress chief minister YB Chavan. Two months later, in October of 1960, he addressed the first Dussehra rally at Mumbai's Shivaji Park, a ritual that continued virtually uninterrupted for 46 years.
Shaping his political agenda through Marmik, Thackeray initially targeted the Communists and their influential trade unions, followed by south Indians who he said got preferential treatment over locals in jobs in Mumbai and other big cities.
Guided by his father, Thackeray finally plunged into politics by launching the Shiv Sena on June 19, 1966. As the Sainiks vigorously espoused the cause of Marathi asmita (pride) and targeted south Indian migrants, the party's support swelled amongst the poor, lower middle class and middle class Marathis. Spurred by this, Thackeray harped on emotive issues like "Mumbai for Marathis" and "jobs for sons of soil" through the dreaded Sthanik Lokadhikar Samitis - but nobody knows how many jobs it finally translated into.
The situation was volatile. There were regular riots that led to Thackeray's arrest in February 1969 - the one and only time he ever saw the inside of a jail. Political power came when Sena candidates won in the 1967 Thane and 1968 Bombay municipal elections — the latter being the state's cash cow and the country's financial power house. In 1973, it controlled the BMC in alliance with other parties, including the Muslim League, and also bagged the mayor's post. It captured the BMC in 1985 and continues to rule it till date.
After south Indians, the volatile Sena took up movements against Gujaratis, north Indians and Muslims. Its anti-Muslim agitation, a perpetual one on one of its burners - either the front or the back - was among its shrillest. Thackeray's famous comment to Time magazine after the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a vituperative 'Kick'em out!'
The anti-Muslim stance fuelled by the demolition led to Mumbai's worst-ever riots in December 1992-January 1993. It continued for another two months in some small pockets, followed by the retaliatory March 12, 1993, serial bomb blasts in the city. These incidents were largely responsible for catapulting the Shiv Sena to power in Maharashtra in the 1995 assembly elections.
Thackeray, who came to be known as Sena Tiger, could have been chief minister. But he chose to be kingmaker instead, appointing schoolmaster Manohar Joshi as the state's first Brahmin chief minister. In 1989, Thackeray and the late Pramod Mahajan of the BJP designed the winning saffron combination. For nearly a quarter century, despite hiccups, the saffron alliance has survived, rare in India's quicksand politics.
Surprisingly, all this he achieved practically sitting at his Bandra home. During his entire political career spanning over five decades, Thackeray travelled out of Maharashtra only twice — to Lucknow to attend cases related to the Babri Mosque demolition. Thackeray never travelled abroad either, though old timers hazily recall that he had made one or two brief foreign trips in the pre-1966 era. But, the shaper of Maharashtra politics hosted and received dignitaries and people from all over the world at Matoshri.
In Thackeray's later years, the acidic language was reserved mostly for the edit pages of Saamna, which, despite its near-character assassination of most leaders, escaped any major defamation proceedings. During his political years, Thackeray was let down by some of his closest aides -- those like Chhagan Bhujbal, Narayan Rane and Sanjay Nirupam. But the worst blow was dealt to him by his nephew Raj Thackeray in 2005, who formed the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in 2006.
He attempted a reconciliation between his feuding son and nephew - but it didn't happen in his lifetime. Just like he couldn't fulfil his dream of a saffron state and dying under the flutter of a saffron flag.