Posted on 20-11-2012
Filed Under (Politics) by Rashtrakut

He was originally a cartoonist by trade.  He never held political office.  He was reviled, hated and feared by millions.  Yet the death of Balasaheb Keshav Thackeray brought India’s commercial capital Mumbai to a standstill.  Two million people (including many of India’s film, commercial and political elite) attended his funeral which included state honors and a 21 gun salute.  The state of Maharashtra was shut down, partly from respect and more so from fear of his thuggish followers.

Thackeray’s claim to fame and power was his political party the Shiv Sena which he founded in 1966.  His virulently anti-communist party was originally encouraged by the state’s ruling Congress Party as a rival to Mumbai’s dominant communist trade unions. It was also a nativist regional party that tapped into the resentment of native Maharashtrians who felt displaced by immigrants from the rest of India (particularly South Indian Tamils, Marwaris and Gujaratis).  It also aggressively embraced Hindu causes and engaged in Muslim baiting.

The Sena’s rise to power was steady, winning control of the Bombay municipal corporation in the 1980s and the Maharashtra state government (in alliance with the BJP) in the 1990s.  However, the Sena could not stay at top of the peak.  Power brought factional infighting and later a split as Thackeray designated his surviving son Uddhav as his successor instead of his thuggish but more charismatic nephew Raj.  Raj Thackeray founded his own political party which split the Sena vote and prevented a return to power at the state level.

Thackeray attained national notoriety in the 1990s when his party was accused of causing the anti-Muslim Bombay riots in 1993.  Over the years he shocked the intelligentsia by professing admiration for Hitler and engaging in crude Muslim bashing.  He was even briefly stripped of his right to vote for soliciting votes with inflammatory statements.  Yet Thackeray had a strong base of support from blue collar Maharashtrians who benefited from social services from local Shiv Sena branches and appreciated a son of the soil party that vocally supported their interests.

Many educated Maharashtrians, like this blogger, had little use for the Shiv Sena.  The Sena displayed little tolerance for dissent and was notorious for using brute force and thuggery for perceived slights.  As an example, in 2001 after the death of Sena leader Anand Dighe in an accident its thugs ransacked and burnt down the state of the art hospital where he died.  The hospital has never been rebuilt and its shell still stands as a mute reminder of Sena thuggery.  When Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was banned in India, Thackeray told Muslims to learn how to take their lumps.  Yet when a later Rushdie book “The Moor’s Last Sigh” contained a caricature of Thackeray, it was banned in Mumbai to protect his sensitive feelings.

However as a cousin noted a few days ago, Thackeray was not that different than the chauvinistic regional chieftains in other Indian states.  The primary difference was the openness with which he uttered his prejudice and sent his thugs to suppress dissent.  He was the first man to give a legitimate alternative to the over-powerful Congress party in Maharashtra.  Yet in the grand scheme of things the influence of Thackeray and his ilk is largely negative to the Indian political fabric.  A country as diverse as India with political parties looking primarily and often solely to protect their parochial interest runs the risk of turning the country into the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In his last years, Thackeray was a bit of a defanged tiger.  His nephew Raj Thackeray had stolen much of the nativist thunder from the ailing old man.  He and not the designated heir Uddhav is likely to be the ultimate heir of Thackeray.  And so Balsaheb Thackeray’s legacy will live on.  How India manages to contain it will decide whether the Union of India survives or slowly splinters.

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