FOR the millions who turned up at Shivaji Park and the streets of Mumbai to pay homage to Bal Thackeray, it was a moment of personal loss. Of bidding adieu to someone who held his or her hand in moments of doubt, crisis and joy. That Bal Thackeray meant so much to so many millions is the biggest tribute that can be paid to any mortal.
Thackeray started his political life in 1966 with the setting up of the Shiv Sena. The first time ever a party with an audacious Hindu name. Success came fast. First the party captured the trade unions in Mumbai, for long the stronghold of the Communist parties. Though Shiva Sena set out with an ‘anti-non Maharashtrian’ plank, it soon overgrew that brand. Bal Thackeray converted his Sainiks into soldiers of the Hindu cause. Against a political discourse that was seeped in Gandhi, Ambedkar and Marx, Bal Thackeray offered a more powerful icon in Chhatrapati Shivaji.
Until the 60s, it was rather a common, regular affair in Mumbai to see traffic come to a standstill, roads blocked by namaz being offered by Muslims. It was a kind of show of strength for them, to demonstrate what they could do. The political parties, the administration and the citizens were quiet and helpless. Shiv Sena under Thackeray changed that profile of a city under siege. They organised ‘aartis’ in temples with crowd spilling on to the roads, blocking the traffic. Now, the police had to act. And they did. They were forced to end one to end the other. Such a dramatic and clever strategy set Bal Thackeray apart from the politicians of the day and caught the imagination of the ordinary man. He unequivocally opposed the Mandal Commission recommendations on reservations. His party followers were in large numbers from the communities who were to benefit from the Mandal move. And yet Bal Thackeray did not think of the political fall-out and the votes that would go away. He made Hindutva a viable politics.
For a man who was a consummate politician, Thackeray never held any official position. He was content to give directions and remote control the reactions. His one call, one gesture could shake the city. He was aware of his power and never shied away from acknowledging it. Thackeray was one of those politicians who spoke what he felt was right. He did not nimble-foot his words for the sake of sounding politically correct or to please the audience. He openly denounced the biased media, many a times telling ace editors and celebrated anchors what he thought about them. And yet, the media lapped up what he said and thirsted for more.
Arm-chair political analysts and activists gave him many sobriquets and accused him and the Shiv Sena of playing a huge part in the horrific Bombay riots in 1993. And yet the reverse would be true. But for the restraining hand of the Shiv Sena chief, the riots would have been much worse. The Congress which was in power then, failing in law and order, sought to shift the blame on the Shiv Sena using various sources. Bal Thackeray, it must be noted, was aggressive and was never apologetic about the Babri Masjid demolition, even when tall Hindu leaders were diffident.
Bal Thackeray has been consistent on several issues which were close to his heart. He was a committed anti-Pakistani. He felt that no peace can work between the two countries till Pakistan ceased to behave like a rogue state and stopped sponsoring terror in India and sheltering anti-India forces on its soil. He and his party attempted to thwart any move by the government to use Mumbai as a host for films, sports or cultural event for Pakistanis.
Patrick French, biographer of V S Naipaul, says that Naipaul had seen the devotion that Thackeray was getting, as early as 1975, when the party was less than a decade old and had hardly made any electoral mark. Naipaul said “The middle-class leadership of the Sena might talk of martial glory. But at this lower and more desperate level the Sena had become something else: a yearning for community, an ideal of self-help, men rejecting rejection.”
Dignity and voice – these are what Bal Thackeray gave to the ordinary Mumbaikar— from the Dabbawallahs to the office-going millions. That’s why they were all there, when he passed away. To pay their last respects, lest they feel guilty of ingratitude the rest of their lives. The crowds beaming on television were not the ones waving hands at the camera, for a show. But men and women in mourning, unashamed of the tears flowing down their cheeks. The best memorial that the Shiv Sena can build for him is not stone in a prominent spot in the city. It is in nurturing his ideals and his people. No one can be the patriarch that he was. But one can definitely be something next best — a true inheritor of that legacy.