Mumbai: Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, 86, died on Saturday afternoon after a cardiac arrest, doctors said.
Dr. Jalil Parkar, who made the announcement, said, “He suffered a cardio-respiratory arrest. We tried to revive him, but he breathed his last at 3.33pm, after which we declared him dead.”
Thackeray was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas in May. He was admitted to a private hospital in the city twice, but after his condition kept deteriorating, his family decided in August he will breathe his last at his residence, Matoshree.
Thackeray is survived by sons Jaidev and Uddhav, who is the executive president of the party.
The funeral rites are due to be held on Sunday.
Security has been stepped up in the metropolis in the wake of his death, and party leaders have asked supporters to remain calm.
Thackeray had a gift for oratory that he parlayed into a political movement. For years, he lived on the fringes of the public consciousness—after all, his message was notoriously reactionary in an India still struggling to live up to the secular ideals of its founding fathers.
Thackeray preferred a vitriolic, rabble-rousing style, perfected by others in this country and elsewhere right through history. The aim was to rally support for the Shiv Sena by fostering a sense of victimhood and then providing the audience with easy targets—he started with south Indians, then graduated to Muslims.
A key part of Bal Thackeray’s ability to use the spoken word well was being able to see people and events through the eyes of a cartoonist—he was one before entering public life—and communicated to his Marathi-speaking audience the caricatures he drew in his mind.
Take, for instance, his description of agriculture minister Sharad Pawar as maidyache pote (sack full of flour). He used the phrase, which was an instant hit with his admirers, in an anti-Pawar campaign before the 1995 Maharashtra elections that brought the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine to power in the western Indian state. The two parties are still allied to each other, although the relationship isn’t without its tensions.
Thackeray’s rhetoric, peppered with double entendres and abuse, sidestepped political niceties and favoured style over substance. The crowds that packed his rallies lapped it up when he ran down rivals. He even ridiculed politicians from his own party—one of his favourite targets was Manohar Joshi, a former speaker of the Lok Sabha and known for being a bit squeamish about the rougher side of the business.
It is ironical that Thackeray, who is a self-confessed ardent admirer of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, was influenced by the left wing British cartoonist David Lowe, whose fiercely critical caricatures of Hitler earned him fame.
Manjul, the cartoonist with English daily DNA, said, “I have studied Balasaheb’s cartoons and he had mastered the art of giving the message which he wanted to convey with very few lines, and he was among the best among his contemporaries. His caricatures of Nehru as a child will make you laugh without any need to understand what the captions said and his caricature of Indira Gandhi brought out the darker side of Gandhi’s personality very aptly. I am an admirer of him as a cartoonist, but not what he stood for. He used his art for purposes other just making you laugh.”
For Thackeray, it all began in the 1950s when he quit the English-language daily, Free Press Journal, where he worked as a cartoonist along with the legendary R.K. Laxman, over the newspaper’s stand that Mumbai should be made a Union territory and not be a part of Maharashtra. He started his own cartoon weekly called Marmik (Apt Comment) modelled on the British weekly, Punch.
Although the modern state of Maharashtra came into existence in 1960, there was a sense of frustration among a section of Maharashtrians that wasn’t able to identify with the state’s capital city—business and finance was controlled by the Parsis, Gujaratis and Marwaris; the film industry by the Punjabis and the higher bureaucracy by south Indians.
Thackeray tapped the sense of grievance, which was aggravated by white-collar jobs in central government offices and newly created public sector undertakings such as Life Insurance Corporation of India and Air India also going to south Indians, who were sought after for their fluency in English, knowledge of accountancy and stenography skills.
He started publishing the list of such new recruits in his Vacha ani Swastha Basa (Read and Keep Quiet) pamphlets.
Thousands of young Maharashtrians gravitated to Thackeray, leading to the formation of the Shiv Sena in 1966. At the top of Thackeray’s hate list, apart from outsiders (a euphemism for south Indians in those days), were the communists.
Thackeray’s anti-communist stand came in handy for the state’s ruling Congress politicians, who were seeking to loosen their stranglehold on Mumbai’s unions.
The relationship between then Maharashtra chief minister Vasantrao Naik and Thackeray was so cosy that the Shiv Sena used to be called the Vasant Sena—a pun on the name of Vasantasena, a courtesan in the celebrated Sanskrit play Mrcchakatika by Sudraka.
Naik looked the other way when Sena goons went on the rampage, either ransacking Udupi restaurants in Mumbai or trying to stop the staging of Vijay Tendulkar’s plays such as Sakharam Binder and Ghashiram Kotwal, widely acclaimed as classics but the target of lumpen ire for being supposedly derogatory about Maharashtrian culture.
Despite championing the cause of the sons of the soil, Thackeray’s influence remained restricted to Mumbai until 1985, just before the municipal elections. That was when then chief minister Vasantdada Patil, who wanted to settle a score with then Mumbai Congress president Murli Deora, made a statement that “some capitalists are hatching a conspiracy to separate Mumbai from Maharashtra”.
Sena also benefited from the communal riots of 1984 in Mumbai and the powerloom town of Bhiwandi in neighbouring Thane district as the party had just started championing the cause of Hindutva.
Patil’s comment galvanized the Sena cadre and the impact was such that the party won a clear majority, which had eluded it even at the height of the anti-south Indian agitation, in the municipal election.
Thackeray realized that to remain relevant in Mumbai, he had to expand the base of his party across the state. That opportunity came when Sharad Pawar, who was president of the Congress (Socialist) offshoot, decided to return to the Congress-fold in 1986, making for a vacuum in the opposition space that the Sena filled.
Having correctly read the direction in which the political wind was blowing, he started championing the cause of aggressive Hindutva and forged an alliance with the BJP.
The results spoke for themselves; the Sena, which had one member in the Maharashtra assembly before then, increased its tally to 52 in 1990.
In 1989, the party launched its mouthpiece Saamna (The Battle), which provided Thackeray a platform to spread his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 triggered Hindu-Muslim violence across the country. The country’s commercial capital was about to change forever and the Shiv Sena would be the main agent of that transformation. Thackeray used Saamna to openly advocate attacks against those he saw as the enemy.
That sparked a more sustained and organized bout of religious violence a month after the initial bloodletting. More than 1,000 people died in the violence in December 1992 and January 1993 and then another 250 in the serial bomb blasts that rocked the country’s financial capital in March.
The communally charged atmosphere of the 1990s and the anti-Pawar campaign run by Thackeray and the BJP’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, Gopinath Munde, paved the way for the installation of the first truly non-Congress government in the state in 1995.
The 1990s also saw the rise of the next-generation Thackerays—Raj, the nephew, and Uddhav, the son. Raj emerged as the second most popular face of the Sena after Bal Thackeray, with Uddhav being more of a backroom strategist.
Thackeray senior lost his wife Meenatai and eldest son Bindumadhav within two years of the Sena-BJP alliance coming to power in Maharashtra and started depending more on Uddhav, who slowly took control of the party apparatus. In 2006, Raj walked out of the Shiv Sena and formed his own group, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
Uddhav’s heart condition and the illness of Bal Thackeray have brought the cousins closer once again, although it’s not clear whether that could lead to a political rapprochement as well between the cousins.
One thing even his political and ideological opponents acknowledge is that Thackeray always spoke his mind—however, unpalatable and politically incorrect what he said may have been—and never retracted a statement or blamed the press for misquoting him.
After the Babri Masjid’s demolition in 1992, then BJP general secretary and spokesman Sunder Singh Bhandari blamed Sena activists for tearing down the mosque. Thackeray replied that he would be proud if indeed Sena activists had been responsible for the act.
Equally controversial was his suggestion that a national monument to honour 1857 hero Mangal Pandey be built at the site of the mosque. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ashok Singhal called him a brainless Hindu.
While he may have been overtly communal, Bal Thackeray didn’t harbour a caste bias. He was also open to allowing ordinary party workers to run for election on the Sena ticket. The afore-mentioned Joshi, the former Lok Sabha speaker, was an example of this.
After the Sena-BJP combine won the 1995 election, Thackeray anointed Joshi as Maharashtra chief minister despite him being a Brahmin in a state where the community is a minority. Maharashtra also has a history of anti-Brahmin movements.
Thackeray’s indifference to caste was, perhaps, because of the influence of his father Prabodhankar alias Keshav Thackeray, who was a prominent figure in Maharashtra’s social reform movement and wrote several articles attacking the prevailing social order in the first half of the 20th century.
Thackeray also inherited the caustic wit of his father, who used it liberally in his articles and speeches favouring a casteless society.