To Understand Modern India, You Need to Know Bal Thackeray
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because India’s global significance should be matched by a global understanding of its history.
By Aayush Soni
It’s impossible to understand the new leader of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without understanding his right-wing party’s cousin, the Shiv Sena. And it’s impossible to understand Shiv Sena — or for that matter, the city of Mumbai — without understanding the late Bal Thackeray, former chief of the party that stands a few steps to the right of the now dominant BJP. During forty years of governance, Thackeray, a former cartoonist turned cigar-smoking, xenophobic, Hitler-loving politician, stirred up controversy with almost every move he made at the helm of a crucial political group. The man had blood on his hands.
Samrat details how Thackeray and his party left an indelible mark on the politics of one of the most important cities in Asia.
Soon after founding the Shiv Sena in 1966, Thackeray demanded that Gujaratis and South Indians leave Mumbai because they were depriving native Maharashtrians of employment opportunities. But his identity mongering didn’t stop there; Thackeray was later accused of inciting communal riots in Bombay in December 1992. Yet, such was his influence that Thackeray was never once convicted in any of the riots cases. And, people loved him.
A new book tells his story, and comes at a good time to play catch-up on your Indian history. Samrat: How the Shiv Sena Changed Mumbai Forever (published by HarperCollins India) is an incisive account in which Sujata Anandan, a journalist for the Hindustan Times newspaper details how Thackeray and his party left an indelible mark on the politics of one of the most important cities in Asia. She talks to OZY about Thackeray’s changing political positions, his campaign for “Marathi pride” and the modern face of the political party.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell us a bit about Bal Thackeray’s start. How did he enter politics — and how did he end up creating such a cult of identity surrounding Maharashtrians (people from the state of Maharashtra)?
He began [public] life with a very healthy contempt of politicians … the Shiv Sena was never meant to be a political organization. It was just meant to be a cultural organization. I mention in the book that there were three kinds of Shiv Saininks — the ones who joined for the Marathi [cultural] cause … and those who indulged in violence. [Those who] joined for the Marathi ethos thought that the Shiv Sena was a cultural organization, neither on the left or the right, but just to protect Marathi culture and language.
What did the Mumbai of Thackeray’s age look like? You mention that local Marathis had begun to feel like “second-class citizens” in the capital of their own state. Thackeray capitalized on that sentiment.
As I write in the book, Maharashtra was a very peculiar state because it was cosmopolitan and had people from all communities. So you had Bohra Muslims, Gujaratis, Sindhis, South Indians, Punjabis … all kinds of people. This was also an industrial city — and the industrialists were all Gujaratis and Parsis and Bohra Muslims. The bureaucracy and top management in the private sector was filled with South Indians. But the workers were all Maharashtrians — they were migrating to the city from other parts of Maharashtra, which were very backward, economically. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the government undertook a major redevelopment exercise of south Bombay [the city’s posh neighborhood] … workers couldn’t afford the new houses that came up. So they found that they were being pushed further into the suburbs and they weren’t getting the better jobs.
And that is when Bal Thackeray came in.
Excerpt: Bal Thackeray was ever the flip-flop man: blowing hot, blowing cold, in love with the enemy one day and hating his friends most of the time. But if there was one emotion that truly defined the Sena tiger, it was fear — not exactly the fear that he instilled among various sections of the people over four decades, but fear for his life. And at the root of that fear was the alleged Communist conspiracy of the 1960s to “assassinate” this man who was perhaps never destined for greatness but had that greatness thrust upon him, almost against his will.
When did Thackeray go from this narrative of dealing with the outsiders to coming into a full political ideology? He eventually found his way to Hindutva, the right-wing philosophy behind Shiv Sena and now related to the BJP.
He cold-bloodedly shifted to Hindutva politics because the Marathi issue only worked for 7 to 8 years. After that, the Sena was on the verge of becoming irrelevant. And the Marathi issue didn’t work outside Bombay … In other cities like Nasik, Nagpur, Kolhapur, people didn’t care. So then he began to experiment with Hindutva politics and by the mid-80s, he honed [that ideology]. It was a cold-blooded and calculated shift.
Your book ultimately makes the point that Thackeray is still relevant to politics in this very important state — the second most populous in India. How does that manifest?
Even in the Lok Sabha [the national general] elections, the Shiv Sena party made ample use of Bal Thackeray. The campaign was in his name. There is a very clear understanding in the Sena that Uddhav [Thackeray’s son who now heads the party] doesn’t have the charisma and Raj [his nephew who broke away to form his own political party, because he’s away from the Sena, the impact is lost. Uddhav is a better person and he’s a gentleman. He always wanted the image of his father’s party to be cleaned up because he didn’t like that goonda [thug] kind of image. But somehow the Shiv Sainiks don’t allow him to do that. He might want to clean up the party but he has no charisma and has to ride on Bal Thackeray’s image. So they are going to make ample use of him in the election campaign.
Across the rest of India, are we seeing a huge resurgence of the right wing? What many people don’t understand about India still is how much of a battle there is for regional identity. Will there be a shift to the right wing to address all of those needs?
Regional aspirations need not be addressed by a right-wing party. There is the Telugu Desam, the Assam Gana Parishad, the Biju Janata Dal, the Trinamool Congress [regional political parties of the states of Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Orissa and West Bengal respectively] … they’re all addressing regional aspirations of their people and they’re not right-wing parties. They’re left-of-center parties. From time-to-time, they may be in alliance with the BJP but you don’t need to be a right-wing, violent party to address regional aspirations.
Aayush Soni is a journalist and glutton living in New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @AayushSoni.