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    Posted on 17 November 2012

    Bal Thackeray's hallmark was his spontaneity. He liked to make statements that shocked and made headlines

    By Kumar Ketkar

    Bal Thackeray: 23 January 1926 - 17 November 2012

    I met Bal Thackeray nearly 50 years ago in his modest ground floor flat at Shivaji Park, in central Mumbai. In today's parlance it could have been described as a “one BHK” apartment. But in those days, it was merely a lower middle class house with no fancy furniture nor any "interior decoration". There was no question of a TV set then. There was an old radio on the shelf and two cane chairs in the so called drawing room. His brother, Shrikant, opened the door and asked me to sit on one of those chairs.

    I was a college student in my teens and had gone to invite him for a literary function. Bal Thackeray's only reputation (if it can be called even that) was that he was the editor of the first and only cartoon weekly, Marmik. The weekly was slowly gaining popularity because of its no holds barred attack on the political class. He was not widely known, forget being popular. He was in his mid-thirties then. Slim, short, almost non-descript. I had brought him to the venue in a taxi. He used to smoke a pipe. The pipe looked large when compared to his small and unassuming persona.

    It was not easy to collect students or people to hear him. We had put up a large canvass and a blackboard on the dais. He was to demonstrate the art of caricature drawing. He was scintillating with his sarcastic barbs and even as he spoke, he drew delightful caricatures of VK Krishna Menon, the then defence minister under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and some others. He drew Panditji with just seven lines, showing his bald head, pleasant smile and a rose. Altogether, about 70 people, including students, attended the function.

    About three years later, Thackeray was to address a mammoth gathering of nearly 40,000 people at Shivaji Park. This ground had seen great and historic meetings, including the one when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had formally declared the formation of the state of Maharashtra on May 1, 1960. It was a proud moment for the people of Mumbai. I was in school then and the day was declared Maharashtra Day. Thousands of schoolchildren were brought to the ground to witness the historic event. It was an inspiring event and there was hope and enthusiasm in air. In 1966, for Bal Thackeray to hold the rally and announce the formation of the Shiv Sena on the same ground was like he had directly joining the political Ivy League.

    Between 1960, when the state of Maharashtra was formed, and 1966, when the Shiv Sena was launched, the country had been on a roller coaster ride. The rise of the Shiv Sena and the emergence of a maverick leader like Balasaheb Thackeray cannot be understood without taking into cognisance that tumultuous ride.

    After achieving the objective of creation of Maharashtra, the leftist Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti had been voluntarily dissolved. In the 1962 elections the Congress had come to power with a good majority. But the hope of a better life had begun to wear thin. For cartoonists like Thackeray, the frustration was creatively inspiring. It helped him throw barbs of the artist’s brush at the rulers.

    The economy, particularly after the India-China war of 1962, had begun to show signs of inflation and recession. After Nehru's death in 1964, the Congress felt disoriented. Lal Bahadur Shastri had failed to inspire the party and before he could establish himself as a leader, he too had died. Indira Gandhi had just taken over as Prime Minister and in the initial days, the "dumb doll" provided themes for gags on her. When she emerged as a superwoman, then too she provided great subject matter to Thackeray. He was at once in awe of her and also a trenchant cartoon-critic.

    The mid-sixties saw the rise of many local-regional leaders and political outfits. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK came to power, overthrowing the Congress for good. In Punjab, the Akali Dal entrenched itself. In West Bengal, the Communists began to have their sway. The Naxalite movement too came on the national scene in 1969-70. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the Congress was routed in the 1967 elections and new opposition fronts were born.

    Though the Shiv Sena could not become a regional party in the classical sense, its tiger roared just when this mood of rebellion and anarchy had begun to spread. Many a commentator saw in the rise of the Shiv Sena, a new militant Maharashtra.

    Balasaheb's hallmark was spontaneity. He liked to make statements that shocked and made headlines. Though in private, he was a shy and even timid person, he quickly realised that it paid politically to remain in the news and controversies. His attacks on South Indian migrants — he called them "Madrasis" — led to attacks on Udupi restaurants and some middle-level clerks. Most stenographers then were Tamilians or Keralites. This narrow Marathi chauvinism instantly brought heavy criticism from the liberal and cosmopolitan classes and the English press. Balasaheb cunningly used that criticism as attacks on Marathi pride by the “Sethji” owned capitalist media.

    Those brought up on leftist political slogans, during the movement for Maharashtra, could easily accept that line. Though the Shiv Sena was emerging as an anti-communist outfit and sending gangs of strike breakers to divide the trade union movement, its slogans tilted to the left. This was textbook fascism. Nazis were national socialists too. It is important to note that a majority of the followers of the Shiv Sena came from the ranks of the working class and also from traditional communist families.

    Thackeray used to openly praise Hitler and publicly talk against Gandhi and non-violence. That used to encourage the lumpen and wayward youth to take to violence. Many so-called leaders of the Shiv Sena, including corporators, MLAs or even MPs have such criminal pasts and much of their wealth too has come from crime covered up by SS politics.

    This was the backdrop of the murder of trade union leader and communist MLA Krishna Desai. That was the first political murder in Maharashtra. The gang that killed Desai was made of young Shiv Sainiks who were encouraged by the Sena supremo. He even sheltered and defended the murder. It was a warning to other leftist trade union leaders. Balasaheb kept changing targets, from "Madrasis" to communists, from Biharis to Muslims, from liberal writers to Dalit poets, from the plays of Vijay Tendulkar to films by Deepa Mehta, but the medium of attack was almost always violence and terror. The journalists who criticised the Sena (including this writer) were quite often targets of the Sena's wrath, egged on by Balasaheb himself.

    Until Balasaheb cleared the alliance with the BJP, the Sena remained essentially a party of the lumpens. But there were also some social workers, inspired by cause of the Marathi pride, and some members of the educated middle class who were feeling marginalised in the new corporate-MBA culture. However, the organisation had the overall cover of the underworld under the political umbrella of Balasaheb. Most of the strikes and bandhs that the Sena gave a call for were not spontaneous, but motivated by the fear psychosis that could be generated by them. But the bandhs by and large remained Mumbai-centric events. In rural Maharashtra, most of the bandhs failed. This is because the Sena appeal, Balasaheb's charisma and the fear-psychosis network could not transcend the city limits. That is the reason why the Sena could never become a full fledged regional party. All political parties in the state (and some even at the Centre) were in awe of Balasaheb. Indeed, his halo had the ring of that fear and terror. The BJP used these attributes of the Sena and Balasaheb strategically. They acquired a militant arm for its "parliamentary Hindutva" and a maverick leader as the brand ambassador.

    However, this brand ambassador was an unpredictable character. He did not really care for the alliance. His whims were sometimes spontaneous and sometimes calculated. In fact, he had learnt a technique of faking a whim to get something he desired politically. The Sena was born and grew on street. So it lacked a certain middle class respectability. Its alliance with the BJP provided that respectability to the Sena and a political status to Balasaheb.

    After Balasaheb, it will be difficult for Uddhav Thackeray to retain that unpredictable aspect of charisma and that mercurial nature, which confounded the media and made him controversial. Also, Uddhav does not have the communication skills and the straightforwardness of his father. The long years made Balasaheb Thackeray into a legend. It is not easy to hold on to this metaphysical reality. The reality of the Sena will soon degenerate into virtual reality. The virtual reality of the Shiv Sena will then disappear in cyberspace.

    Kumar Ketkar is Editor, Dainik Divya Marathi
    [email protected]

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    Posted on 17 November 2012



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