Balasaheb Thackeray’s ability to win friends and influence adversaries made him a national figure, feared and revered at the same time.
The film Thackeray—Bollywood’s latest attempt at capturing the era of Shiv Sena founder Bal Keshav Thackeray—has sparked renewed interest in ‘Balasaheb’ or ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’, who remained a newsmaker till the end.
It joins the growing league of biopics on political personalities in 2019, perhaps aimed at making the most of their legacy for greater political dividends. On the flip side, films like Thackeray reveal the sharp reality of the total bankruptcy of an icon’s inheritors.
Hindu Hriday Samrat
Nearly 53 years back, in June 1966, at Bombay’s (now Mumbai) Shivaji Park, Balasaheb’s father, popularly known as Prabodhankar, it is said, had announced he was gifting his son to Maharashtra. (Balasaheb Thackeray: The Legend Tiger of Maharashtra by Vinod Jena)
Today, the fabled Sena Bhavan, the headquarters of the Shiv Sena, overlooks that very park. But the party drew its power from ‘Matoshree’, the Thackeray residence, in suburban Bandra.
In his heyday, no one could contest Balasaheb’s iron grip over the party and Maharashtra politics. He could collect all the stones thrown at him and build a fort out of them. While the party was being built brick by brick, he never shied away from bluntly putting forth his views.
Unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, Balasaheb did not leave any scope for the question ‘who after him?’ During his last days, he clearly spelt out his successor and nominated his son Uddhav Thackeray to lead the party.
But will merely a claim to Balasaheb’s legacy sustain his party in today’s competitive politics?
Making of a Marathi state & rise of Sena
The Shiv Sena originated as a party to spearhead the interest of what was then Bombay, the cosmopolitan metropolis and commercial capital of the country teeming with cotton mills — the centre of the associated labour movement led by the Communist parties.
Though the party itself was a by-product of a larger Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti (United Maharashtra Movement), the Shiv Sena’s early strength was the city of Bombay, which was the capital of the then united, bi-lingual state of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
The Congress party under Nehru was opposed to the creation of linguistic states but had to give in after the death of Potti Sriramulu, leading to the creation of Andhra Pradesh. Yet, the demand for a separate state for the Marathi-speaking people was not considered seriously and the States Reorganisation Committee (SRC) in 1956 recommended the creation of a bi-lingual state for Maharashtra-Gujarat with Bombay as its capital, keeping Vidarbha outside Maharashtra.
This sparked a backlash and mass agitation for a separate state, culminating in the formation of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti on 6 February 1956. Balasaheb’s father Prabodhankar Thackeray was a key leader of the Samiti.
The Samiti grew so strong that in the general election held in 1957, candidates of this organisation defeated stalwarts of the Congress party by securing 101 out of 133 seats, including 12 from Bombay city. The Congress party now had two adversaries to fight, the Communists and the pro-Marathi formations.
Between 1966 and 1970, some Congress leaders were believed to have effectively used the Shiv Sena to fight the Communist trade unions but had to face a total rout when confronted by a much stronger political force—one that turned out to be their nemesis. (Urban Violence in India: Identity Politics, ‘Mumbai’, and the Postcolonial City by Thomas Blom Hansen, Chapter 2, P 64)
The era of Thackeray
Balasaheb Thackeray inherited the ‘Maharashtra for (Marathi speaking) Maharashtrians’ thought that turned parochial, giving his party a complete hold over the city his father had ‘gifted’ him.The astute leader that he was, Balasaheb soon realised the need to grow and spread his movement across the state.
His ‘Hindutva’ campaign in the 1988 Aurangabad civic elections gave him a decisive victory over his immediate ideological rival—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was a much-needed break from the “Marathi Manoos” campaign to attract a larger vote bank and offered the Sena a new (Hindutva) template to ascend to power.
With his declaration, ‘My Hinduism is nationalism, not communalism. I am proud of being a Hindu’, he outdid even the BJP in claiming the ‘Hindu’ sentiment.
It was his judicious and timely moves, shrewd political calculations and ability to win friends and influence adversaries that made Balasaheb Thackeray a national figure, feared and revered at the same time.
Upon Balasaheb’s death, before his son Uddhav took charge as Shiv Sena chief, he toured the state in 2012-13 to meet party functionaries and grassroots-level workers. Uddhav’s son Aditya joined him, ostensibly to meet members of the Yuva Sena, the party’s youth wing.
These interactions were expected to create a wave of sympathy for the party and also boost its electoral prospects. The challenge to Uddhav’s claim to inherit the Shiv Sena fiefdom ironically came not from political contemporaries or adversaries but from within his family, especially cousin Raj Thackeray.
In the last few years, the Shiv Sena’s relevance in Maharashtra politics has been challenged by the BJP. In the 2014 assembly election in Maharashtra, the Sena’s decision to not contest in alliance with the BJP did not work to its advantage.
The 2017 election to the prestigious Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) – which was considered a Sena citadel – saw a neck and neck contest between the Shiv Sena and the BJP. The lack of a convincing victory led to questions being raised on Sena’s leadership. Such defeats for the party were unthinkable in Balasaheb’s time.
In today’s changing political dynamics, the top leadership of the Sena would do well to recall Balasaheb Thackeray’s sharp intellect, commitment, ability to be flexible to achieve goals and, most importantly, the determination to serve a cause, unconcerned by criticism.
Even the Hindu Hriday Samrat would agree.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’.
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