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The maverick Mumbaikar

Would Narendra Modi’s march to 7, Race Course Road have been as smooth if Bal Thackeray was still around? Could Thackeray have stopped the aggressive Modi juggernaut that began rolling across the country after September?

Modi treated Thackeray’s party, the Shiv Sena, with characteristic disdain each time the issue of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) relationship with it came to the fore. Thackeray never had a long conversation with Modi, but their chemistry, in any case, would probably not have matched.

Modi is focused on his ambition, he has no time for a relaxed chat, while Thackeray enjoyed his drink (warm beer or red wine), particularly with journalists. He was a witty conversationist and loved mimickry and jokes, especially the below-the-belt variety. He was quick to spot the funnier aspects of people, their absurd contradictions and irrational habits. That was the cartoonist in him.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s balding scalp or Indira Gandhi’s nose or V.K. Krishna Menon’s wild curly hair used to fascinate him. He enjoyed making fun of the famous and the powerful in his caricatures. His barbs against politicians in speeches were more brutal. Thundering crowds would be enthralled by his charisma. Modi, too, has hypnotic skills, but the relaxed, unassuming and humorous style of Thackeray was in a different league altogether.

Sujata Anandan, currently political editor at the Mumbai bureau of the Hindustan Times, has followed this maverick personality for almost 30 years and analysed, interpreted and inquired into this character who loomed over Mumbai for over four decades. Not an easy task, since it involved facing violent mobs, verbal abuse, and occasional threats.

Despite the pleasant public demeanour, Thackeray was a “don" of sorts. Some think the term “fascist" is too strong to describe him, but the kind of mayhem Mumbai saw under him, the fear psychosis people experienced, the targeting of Muslims, south Indian and north Indian people only go on to show that the DNA of the Shiv Sena is quintessentially fascist, more in its style than in its ideology.

Anandan has explored Thackeray’s style as well as substance (or the absence of it). Her book, Hindu Hriday Samrat: How The Shiv Sena Changed Mumbai Forever, is not a conventional biography of the self-styled “Hindu Hriday Samrat", but a sociocultural and political account of Mumbai (with references to Maharashtra).

Thackeray was more a manifestation of the Marathi Mumbaikar’s angst than a political person. His father, Prabodhankar (real name Keshav and later editor of the weekly, Prabodhan), was a leader of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, which had its roots in Marathi identity and history.

Chhatrapati Shivaji, the founder of the first Marathi kingdom in the 17th century, continues to be the icon of the Marathi people. Hence, it is in his name that the Shiv Sena was to be organized. The idea was originally conceived by Thackeray’s father, there was no plan to create a political party. At the very first Shiv Sena rally, Thackeray had declared that his organization would work militantly to preserve and promote Marathi pride, language, culture and the legacy of Shivaji, but would never join politics.

How that resolve disappeared within one year is an interesting story, narrated by Anandan in all its anecdotal detail. In hindsight, one can say the Shiv Sena became a political party by accident. The organization that was born on the street to fight for Marathi rights had identified south Indians as villains—“lungiwalas", as they were called—for supposedly blocking jobs that should have gone to Marathi youth.

Hindu Hriday Samrat—How The Shiv Sena Changed Mumbai Forever: HarperCollins India, 278 pages, Rs.499
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Hindu Hriday Samrat—How The Shiv Sena Changed Mumbai Forever: HarperCollins India, 278 pages, Rs.499

The Sena could get social acceptability because Thackeray managed to attract the Marathi professional class, which was beginning to feel marginalized in the city. It was because of this class, which either genuinely feared getting sidelined in the growing metropolis, or because of the angst that had become a collective Marathi mindset, that the Sena could root itself in society. That is why, the Shiv Sena in Mumbai is qualitatively different from other parts of the state.

The subtitle of the book, How The Shiv Sena Changed Mumbai Forever, is fitting. From the megalomania of the Sena supremo to the intellectual bankruptcy of the leadership, from hyperactive activists to ardent do-gooders, from trade-union organizations to student unions, from the builder lobby to Bollywood, the Sena’s presence was near universal. That foundation cracked first in the early 1990s, when Chhagan Bhujbal, a senior leader, revolted.

In the last seven-eight years, the Sena has faced many jolts. The revolt of Narayan Rane, the Sena chief minister in 1999 and a popular rabble-rouser, was a major shock to Uddhav Thackeray, heir apparent to Balasaheb. Soon after, Uddhav’s cousin, Raj, a charismatic young leader from the Thackeray dynasty, also revolted.

These revolts showed that Balasaheb’s appeal was on the decline, though he was healthy and active at the time. Yet, both Rane and Raj seemed to have failed in further splitting the Sena, and did not make any significant mark on the politics of Mumbai or Maharashtra.

The BJP now seems to consider the Sena weak, Uddhav a lacklustre leader, and the cadre demoralized. The former appears to have also decided that the stunning victory of the saffron front in the 2014 Lok Sabha election was entirely due to the Modi wave.

In 2009, when the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance won in Maharashtra, the BJP and the Sena were so crestfallen that they did not know how to reorganize. They also feared that the defeat could strengthen Rane and Raj. But there was another Hindu Hriday Samrat emerging on the horizon around this time, from the neighbouring state of Gujarat. Bal Thackeray did not endorse the rise of this rival to that claim. In fact, to puncture Modi’s balloon, he suggested that the ideal prime ministerial candidate was Sushma Swaraj.

The hard-core loyalists of Balasaheb and the Sena are still privately hostile to the Modi-led BJP. Some Sena leaders feel they should go it alone in the assembly election, or they could lose the claim for the post of chief minister to the BJP. The BJP, too, seems to think that it should break the alliance and form a government of its own, as in New Delhi. But the marriage will survive, because neither is yet confident of winning full victory without the support of the other.

If Anandan’s “anti-hero" was alive and kicking today, would he have succumbed to the wicked charm of Modi? After all, Balasaheb was the product of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, which was stridently opposed by Gujaratis. For the proud “Marathi manoos" in Mumbai, the “villain" was then another Gujarati leader, Morarji Desai.(Hindustan Times is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint.)

The writer is an editor and political commentator based in Mumbai.

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