|Bal Thackeray - 23 Jan 1926 to 17 Nov 2012
|Photograph: Raghu Rai
Despite the profuse iconography, the overpowering gilt throne, and the cigar, which in this instance is clearly not just a cigar, it’s difficult to surmise that Bal Thackeray was an exceptionally slight man of five feet two inches.
Through the play of light and shade, and Thackeray’s hood eyes, Raghu Rai captures his stature with exactitude. The photographer recalls going to Matoshree one morning in 2000 for “the easiest photo-shoot ever of a politician”, and being stopped by an imperious Thackeray at sharp noon saying it was time for his wine and cigar. “Great, I said, more props for me.
Would he mind if I shot him with both, and Thackeray said, ‘Go ahead’.” Not too many Indian politicians would publicly concede to either indulgence. (‘What’s a man without a few vices’, he often said). Let alone be photographed indulging. But Bal Keshav Thackeray was the anti-politician.
He never contested an election. He genuinely never aspired to public office be it of the chief minister or the prime minister. He was proudly incorrect, and he had no political ideology. Writer and editor Kumar Ketkar called him a “nirgun, niraakar wonder”.
On the Tiger’s trail
Thackeray coined the designation of remote control for himself when Sonia Gandhi was still the Sphinx of Indian politics. But from 1966 when he founded the Shiv Sena to his dying day, he kept an iron-fisted and rarely velvet-sheathed control of his organization.
Through 46 years in public life he retained sway, relevance and charisma. “There is not a single comparable case in India,” said Ketkar, citing examples of Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu who was successfully challenged by MGR, of NTR in Andhra Pradesh who was called into question by his own son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu, and the various splinters of Janata Party that spawned Deve Gowda, Ramkrishna Hegde, Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh, Nitish Kumar and George Fernandes.
Secession, by first Chhagan Bhujbal and then Narayan Rane, though serious blows to the party, made no dent in Thackeray’s supremacy. The severing of ties by Raj Thackeray in 2006 was the first real challenge: it greatly aged the old man and created confusion in the ranks.
But so closely has Raj molded himself on Thackeray’s politics and mannerism that he appears a man distancing himself from his own shadow. If he disregards his uncle’s dying wish for a reconciliation with Uddhav and the Sena, he stands to look like an ingrate.
“If you understand what kind of a party the Shiv Sena is, and if you have limited ambition, you can survive in it,” said Manohar Joshi, former educationist, former chief minister, and current construction magnate.
|Thackeray launching Saamna, with a young Chaggan Bhujbal (left), and Pramod Navalkar (second from right). Not since independence had there been a politician who used mass media to such compelling advantage as he did
First audacious campaign
The Shiv Sena was the only leading political outfit in India that did not have a written constitution governing party affairs or an affiliation to the election commission of India until 1989. (Nor was there any provision for elections within the party until 2003 when Uddhav was ‘elected’ executive president).
Instead, each morning hundreds and thousands of Sainiks woke up to Saamna — the party-run newspaper — to read their Saheb’s writ, gauge the party line, and not unlike Tatler’s society columns, find out who’s in and who’s out of favour. From Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar, Vijay Tendulkar, Sonia Gandhi to MF Husain, he had a view on everyone.
“By launching Saamna (Face-off), he forced everyone to take daily cognizance of him,” said journalist Nandkumar Teni, who was a senior editor on the team that started the newspaper.
Thackeray’s brief to the team was simple: except for the edit page, which was his exclusive space, the rest of the newspaper should be ‘like the Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park’, where everyone gets a voice.
At various corner meetings Bal Thackeray would park, assemble the PA system, jump up on the bonnet of his beat-up Fiat and begin his inimitable rhetoric.
Not since independence had there been a politician in India who used mass media to such compelling advantage. After he left the Free Press Journal as a cartoonist following disagreements with his editor A B Nair, Thackeray launched the weekly Marathi magazine, Marmik (Satire) in 1960.
(It greatly helped that Bombay had a high literacy rate of 58.6 per cent even then). Like the Sena later on, the publication turned out to be a family-run enterprise.
He drew the cover page and other cartoons, his father Prabodhankar, a former school teacher who had fought for the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, contributed light humorous pieces, while his brother Shrikant, Raj Thackeray’s father, wrote up the features.
“The march of the magazine in the first three years took place through Thackeray’s desired hallway: light, lilting fun, comic burlesque, and satire,” writes Vaibhav Purandare in his book The Sena Story. “… It represented colour and a special brand of fun, as against a dreary, muffled environment that had come to exist soon after the creation of a separate linguistic state.
This environment formed a dark backdrop to the sour, slow-moving lives of Mumbai’s Marathi-speaking people.” The sourness Purandare refers to was the residue of country-wide clashes for creation of states on the basis of language.
In 1953, Andhra Pradesh was carved out of the Madras Presidency and three years later reorganization led to the formation of Karnataka, Kerala, and Madhya Pradesh. The Bombay Presidency was partitioned in 1960 amid considerable violence to create the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Though Maharashtra got to keep Bombay, the resentment among Marathi-speakers at the exclusion of Belgaum and Nipani never washed away. In this pervading mood of sullenness, a friend brought to Thackeray’s notice the extraordinary number of non-Maharashtrians listed in the Bombay telephone directory who held top corporate jobs.
This inspired an audacious political gimmick, first of the many that dotted his political career, and the crass but catchy slogan, ‘Hatao lungi, bajao pungi’. Chhagan Bhujbal who was then an engineering student at the VJTI recalled Thackeray reprinting entire lists of the non-Maharashtrians names from the directory under a column that exhorted, ‘Vacha ani thanda basa’ (read, and sit quiet). These weekly reiterations resulted in excited readers sending their own lists of non-Maharashtrians in prominent positions to the magazine.
Encouraged, Thackeray ratcheted up his campaign against the non-Maharashtrian, changing the slogan of his column to ‘Vacha, ani utha’ (read and awake). With this construct of The Other, the campaign laid the cornerstone of Thackeray’s political philosophy. Each time there has been an Other to attack, Thackery and the Sena flourished, whether it was the South Indian, the Communist, the immigrant from UP and Bihar, the Muslim, or the Pakistani.
Which is also why the party is left flummoxed by Raj Thackeray; the Other, this time, is really them. The somberness that has gripped the party was reflected in the Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park on October 24, an annual ritual.
Despite the prominent portraits of his father Prabodhankar, wife Meenatai, and son Bindumadhav, all deceased, and the presence of his son Uddhav and grandson Aditya on stage, the liveliest element in the flaccid proceeding came from a non-family member.
Ramdas Kadam, Member of Legislative Council, evoked the usual motifs of Qasab and Muslims, peppering his speech with profanities that raised a few forced laughs. Ultimately it was left to an unusually reflective Thackeray to recapture attention through his video-taped speech, his last public appearance. Dadar, he said, where he had founded the party in 1966, was where after all these years, it now stood split.
Then, stapling his long artistic hands, he appealed to Raj to return to the fold. For people who have been closest to him, watching Thackeray subdued by intimations of mortality, was both sobering and painful.
Estranged daughter-in-law Smita Thackeray who once wielded formidable clout in Mumbai, recalled that the one outstanding feature of Thackeray’s personality had been “his confidence”. “No matter how tense the situation would be, he always appeared to be in control and completely confident. This gave all of us strength.”
Walk the talk
Unlike many other Indian leaders, Thackeray did not have the usual advantages of caste - he was a Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu.
With Meenatai, his love and companion
The community, largely urban, constitutes a few decimal point percentage of the population, and traditionally serviced the Maratha empire as bureaucrats; he had no dynastic leverage; none of the glamour that their film careers afforded comparable leaders like MGR and NTR; and nor did he have money.
At least not to begin with. Thackeray’s early career as a public speaker was fashioned thanks to a beat-up Fiat in which he would drive around Mumbai and Thane with a collapsible public address system. At various corner
meetings he would park, assemble the PA system, jump up on the bonnet and begin his inimitable rhetoric. “Maharashtrians had a certain inferiority complex that manifested itself in arrogance — Balasaheb understood that and played to that,” said lawyer and former Member of Parliament, Adhik Shirodkar, who defended Thackeray in scores of cases over the decades, including those where his vituperative speeches or writing had resulted in rioting and death.
“Balasaheb would say exactly what was on his mind irrespective of the consequences. What he would do though is that after a contentious speech he would call me up to ask, ‘Kuthla gunha kela ka me?’ (Have I committed any crime?)” The lawyer would shake his head “like the Nandi bull”, and assure his leader that all would be well.
Like his friend, actor and filmmaker Dada Kondke, Thackeray had a taste for ribaldry that entertained his audience endlessly. “What is this sarva dharma samabhav?” he would ask disdainfully, hand on his hip at public meetings. “It’s like asking someone, ‘Tumhara naam kya?’ ‘Baburao.
Aur baap ka naam pura gaon!” He also had the cartoonist’s skill of the devastating put-down. When friend and bête noire, Communist leader S A Dange, railed at a workers’ rally organized by the Shiv Sena in 1984 (he was there at Thackeray’s behest) that the party did not have a theory and it was impossible for a political party to survive without a theory, Thackeray riposted with stinging accuracy.
“We have survived for 18 years but how is it that despite a theory, your organization is finished?” This arrogance that his followers loved fanned their violent impulse. Careful never to indulge in it himself — from the beginning he had a thespian’s appreciation for the pedestal, and the ability to stay on it - Thackeray unfailingly condoned it.
“Don’t come to me like losers with bandaged heads, instead come to me only when you are wearing the victory pheta on your head,” he would tell his early followers. This was the time when Bombay was ruled by bootleggers, smugglers, slumlords, and doughty trade unionists.
Violent clashes involving a stabbing or two were frequent and ‘challenge meetings’ (by rival groups) in places like Taikalwadi, Khandke Building, Portuguese Church and Borkarwadi, is what got young men’s adrenalin pumping. One of Thackeray’s former bodyguards, Sanjay Ayare, who still swaggers around Mahim, was witness to the 1970 murder of Communist leader Krishna Desai that reshaped both Bombay and the Shiv Sena.
Desai, a powerful leader who represented the Maharashtrian working class, was stabbed to death at Parel; his killers were men who owed allegiance to the Sena. Thackeray reportedly congratulated Desai’s murderers saying, “We must not miss a single opportunity to massacre Communists wherever we find them.”
Desai’s death signalled the end of Communist hold and the rise of Sena’s domination over trade unions and the politics of Bombay’s working class.
Manohar Joshi swearing in as Shiv Sena's chief ninister in 1995; The severing of ties by Raj (right) in 2006 three years after Thackeray picked Udhav (left) as his heir was the first real challenge
The birth of thokshahi
“The Party’s violence was a manifestation of the inferiority complex of the marginalized and lumpen Marathi youth,” said Ketkar. “It became a strategy, like the British National Party in the sixties which attacked Indian migrants for stealing their jobs, because like many other Marathi persons, they (the Sainiks) kept nursing real as well as perceived grievance that they are neglected, ignored, marginalized, humiliated.
This feeling gives the Sena, and now Raj, a certain emotional power.” By promoting thokshashi as a culture and at the same time using Shivaji as their icon, Thackeray who had not studied beyond class IX, legitimized the cult of manliness and Maratha bravery.
Thomas Blom Hansen writes in his seminal study, Urban Violence in India, “It (Sena) made a populist political idiom of the defiance of public authority as a way to protect fundamental cultural values and the chastity of women; it created a vehicle for collective action, for example the network of shakhas; it embodied a generalized cause to fight for, and finally, it promoted a charismatic leader who, in dramatic and colourful language, could turn the feeling of marginalization into a sense of power and potency merely by virtues of numbers and being a plebeian — simple, muscular, courageous.”
Chhagan Bhujbal remembers with a certain nostalgia his actionpacked days in the Sena. “In 1973- ’74, there was a huge garbage pile at Mazgaon that was not being cleared. We exchanged several letters with the BMC but no action was taken. So one day, I hired a truck, got the garbage loaded into it and drove straight to the ward office.
I then walked into the ward officer’s airconditioned room with its big table, and off-loaded piles and piles of that garbage on his table. ‘Saheb,’ I said to him with folded hands. ‘To come and clear this was a big taqleef for you, so we decided to assist you. I am sure you can clear this now’.”
Gajanan Kirtikar, head of the Shiv Sena’s Sthaniya Lokadhikar Samiti Mahasangh, (Platform for rights of the locals) -- another brilliant Thackeray invention -- recalled marching to the Air India building with Thackeray in those early days when the supremo still participated in direct action instead of issuing diktats from the confines of his home.
“We just barged into the general manager’s room with our list of demands and when he tried At various corner meetings Bal Thackeray would park, assemble the PA system, jump up on the bonnet of his beat-up Fiat and begin his inimitable rhetoric. With Meenatai, his love and companion »PAGE 13 to argue, one of our men stepped forward and slapped him hard.”
“And Balasaheb-- what did he do? “Nothing. He watched. Once injustice is established then there is no point in any discussion or debate. That’s the Shiv Sena style.” Kirtikar whose SLSM has more than 40,000 members, worked closely with banks, insurance companies and airlines to ensure the use of Marathi and adequate representation of Marathi-speaking people in these organisations.
He was charged for rioting in the Jogeshwari-Goregaon belt during 1992-’93, and when his party came to power two years later, was made minister of state for home, and boss of all those policemen who were trying to nail him in the riot cases. Kirtikar says he dealt with the cops by buying copies of the police manual and the Indian Penal Code.
“The bureaucrat’s style is to bamboozle you with legalities and rules and regulations in such a way that the minister gets frightened and does the work they want. But I had read all the rules myself so there was no conflict for me…”
Law and order
Thackeray’s own relationship with crime and punishment was a rather complex one. As with all men who disdain the rule of law he awaited retribution with great trepidation. When the Shiv Sena came to power along with the BJP in Maharashtra in 1995, it closed 13 of the 14 riot cases pending against Thackeray.
One case remained, of causing enmity between communities through his editorials in the Saamna. Perhaps the least of his sins. But when the Congress returned to power by the end of 1999, Chhagan Bhujbal who had joined the NCP, Congress’s coalition partner, after defecting from the Sena, became home minister.
Partly to show his clout, partly to settle old bitter scores, he ordered that Thackeray be arrested in the case. M N Singh, a non-Maharashtrian, was Mumbai’s new police commissioner. In 1994 Singh had foiled Thackeray’s plan to do some grandstanding in Aurangabad during the agitation over the renaming of the Marathwada University to Babasaheb Ambedkar University.
The slight was not forgotten and Singh was shunted from operations to an inconspicuous administrative assignment during the Sena’s stint in power. But now he was back at the helm, and the day before he was to be produced in court, Thackeray called Singh. This is how he recalled that conversation: Thackeray: Are you going to arrest me? Singh: Yes, Balasaheb.
Thackeray: Do you know consequences? The city will burn. The country will burn. Singh: It’s your city to burn, but please understand that if you do, we will not look the other way. Thackeray: But why do you have to arrest me? Why can you not file a charge sheet without showing arrest? Singh: If I do that it would seem as if I have a deal with you. Thackeray: So you will handcuff me and parade me through the streets?
“His concern was public humiliation. He did not want the police to go to his house and neither did he want to come to the commissionerate,” said Singh. For 48 hours Mumbai held its breath. Eventually, Thackeray was arrested from the sea-facing bungalow of the Sena mayor, taken to court, and released within an hour. All sides claimed victory.
The city exhaled. On another occasion Saamna and Thackeray as its editor attracted privilege motion in the Legislative Committee over a cartoon drawn by Raj, who was the paper’s official cartoonist. Thackeray faced imminent arrest. While backroom channels were opened for negotiation, a livid Thackeray called his news editor Nandkumar Teni and instructed him to not run any Raj cartoon without his prior approval.
“And Raj should not come to know that I have said this to you,” he instructed Teni. Every day Raj would file his cartoon to Teni who would send them to Thackeray and who would just not respond. This continued for weeks, culminating in Teni’s resignation from the newspaper. “Raj had become convinced I had something against him.”
Disturbed by the noise of crackers, Thackeray sits down in the middle of his speech at an election rally in Chowpatty, while Gopinath Munde, Pramod Mahajan and LK Advani look on, rather amused
By this time, Thackeray, who had witnessed the eclipsing years of Nehru, the rise and fall and assassination of Indira and then Rajiv Gandhi, the disintegration of the Janata Party and the ascendancy of Sonia, was faced with the dilemma of a second act. In the best tradition of drama, the second act was to turn darker for him personally and for his politics.
His public rabidity against Muslims coincided with the great loss of his love and companion, Meenatai, the death of his son Bindumadhav, public estrangement from another son Jaidev, and his own failing health.
An ischemic heart, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and very real threats to his life post the Babri masjid demolition, largely kept him within the confines of Matoshree, his home in Bandra (East).
A team of 179 police officers guarded him round the clock while the police bunker outside his bungalow gave the impression of a siege within. His enforced isolation accentuated his obsessive compulsive streak for order and cleanliness. During its one stint in power (1995-1999), the Shiv Sena demonstrated a rather schizoid relationship with the city.
Bombay was renamed and recast as Mumbai. While on the one hand its government legitimized existing slums, on the other, pavement dwellers were ousted to start work on 55 flyovers and other ambitious infrastructure projects which is their main legacy.
While Thackeray envisioned a world-class city, Pramod Navalkar, one of the party’s leading lights, went around confiscating chairs from a nightclub because they resembled the female torso.
For a party and a leader programmed for confrontation, the shift to governance was never going to be easy. Thackeray, dispensed justice and solution in his usual direct style. He received petitioners, heard them out, and simply picked up the phone to instruct the concerned minister on the course of action. (Legend has it that the controversial Enron project was cleared like this after its CEO Rebecca Mark went to meet Thackeray with what she disingenuously called Disney cartoons.
They were actually original cells worth their weight in gold and greatly treasured by people who know a thing or two about cartooning). “I never said no to anything that Balasaheb asked for,” said Manohar Joshi, his chief minister. “He didn’t believe in democracy so how could I? Immediate treatment was his solution to all ills.”
On Saturday following his death there was debate in the government whether to give Thackeray a state funeral. At the time of going to press the decision veered against it as Balasaheb Thackeray had never held or believed in a government or a constitutional position.
His send-off would be by the people who loved him, revered him, were sometimes incited by him, and who have been left bereft by his death.
Thackeray and films
A great film buff, Thackeray enjoyed meeting films stars and entertainers possibly more than he did politicians. Sometimes he would give personal clearance to a film after it was screened specially for him, as happened in the case of Mani Ratnam's Bombay. At other times he could restore an actor's fortunes with one statement as he did with Amitabh Bachchan.
At the time when the actor was tarred by allegations of involvement in the Bofors scandal (later disproved), people in Bombay went on a rampage and tore off his film posters forcing Thackeray to step in. "He is a great artiste and he should not be disrespected," wrote Balasaheb. Vandalism of Bachchan's posters stopped overnight. The grateful star never forgot this gesture.
Thackeray's wife Meenatai was the great love of his life - she died in 1996 following a heart attack at their farmhouse at Karjat. She died en route to Mumbai and before she could get medical attention.
A bereft Thackeray famously disavowed God at her funeral. The Contessa in which she died is still kept at Sena Bhavan in her memory.