THE hypnotic spell that Bal Thackeray had cast on Shiv Sainiks when he addressed the first rally of Shiv Sena on October 30, 1966 continued till he breathed his last on November 17 and his mortal remains were consigned to flames on November 18, 2012. He was probably the first leader in independent India to have brought such a large chunk of population under the spell of his mesmerizing personality. In death as in life, the Shiv Sena chief demonstrated his hypnotic appeal as millions from across the state thronged Shivaji Park for his final darshan. This was probably the biggest ever funeral of a leader the country had witnessed after independence!
The demise of Balasaheb Thackeray marked the end of an era in the polity of independent India. Bala Saheb was an embodiment of conviction, courage and valour. He was a powerful orator, a consummate communicator; and forthright in his thinking. Deriving inspiration from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Thackeray founded Shiv Sena on June 19, 1966, primarily to instill a sense of pride in the ‘Marathi Manoos’. And he succeeded in his mission to a great extent! Initially he received material and logistic support from the then Congress stalwarts in Maharashtra like Chief Minister Vasantrao Naik, S K Patil and Vasantdada Patil. He did not even hesitate to support the infamous Emergency clamped by Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1975. But the victory of Shiv Sena’s Ramesh Prabhu in 1987 Vile-Parle by-election on Hindutva plank proved a turning point in the history of Shiv Sena. A party which had a purely regional base suddenly found the much needed spring board of Hindutva to enter the arena of national politics. Aligning with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the Shiv Sena formed the first ever non-Congress government in Maharshtra in 1995 with Balasaheb as its proud ‘remote control’.
Starting his career as a ‘cartoonist’ in the Free Press Journal, Balasaheb Thackeray soon jumped into the political field with his Shiv Sena raising a strong voice for the ‘Marathi Manoos’, who was then deprived of his due following the influx and influence of the ‘South Indians’ in government jobs and ‘Gujaritis’ in business world. Shiv Sena soon made inroads into the trade unions and established its hold over the Communist-dominated industry unions in Mumbai. Sena’s aggressive style of persuading the regional issues soon became popular and it carved a place for itself in the minds and hearts of the ‘Marathi Manoos’ and in the regional politics of Maharashtra. Bal Thackeray left the Free Press and started his own weekly called Marmik in Marathi which is still publishing. He used his cartooning style to enrich the contents of Marmik which became a popular weekly during those days. He was assisted in bringing out Marmik by his brother Shrikant, father of Raj Thackeray.
Balasaheb’s father Keshavrao, who was popularly known as ‘Prabodhankar’ Thackeray, was a socialist and anti-Communist to the core. He was one of the pioneers of Samyukta Maharashtra movement then and created mass awareness through his powerful writings published in Prabodhan during the heyday of that movement in the early sixties. He passed on the baton of anti-Communism to his son, whom the Congress groomed in their fight against the leftists. It was he who suggested the name Shiv Sena for his son’s new organization.
Initially, Shiv Sena concentrated on fomenting regional sentiments of ‘Marathi Manoos’ and took the Communist by the horns. They succeeded in breaking the leftist hegemony in trade unions in Mumbai, at times resorting to violence. Since the Congress wanted it that way, its government simply allowed it to happen. Many Communist leaders of that period accused the Congress government of acting hand in glove with Shiv Sena against them. The Maharashtra-Karnataka border dispute also helped Shiv Sena establish its strong regional credentials and create its wide constituency in the politics of the day.
Shiv Sena under Balasaheb Thackeray has taken up the cause of voicing strong concerns over the anti-Hindu attitudes, festivals and motives. Its strong opposition to Valentine Day, Pakistani artists, and writers and of course, to Pakistani cricket players was always under strong criticism from the secularist and progressive blocks. The strength gathered by Shiv Sena helped Balasaheb Thackeray to develop relations with Bollywood stars. The presence of many stalwarts of Bollywood including Amitabh Bachhan speaks volumes for the influence the departed leader wielded in that field also. A K Hangal, a staunch Communist was exception to this bonhomie he developed with Bollywood. His directives to thespian Dilip Kumar to return the highest Pakistani award of ‘Nishan-e-Imtiaz’ against the backdrop of the Kargil war, ended his friendship with Kumar.
Thackeray, however, praised Salman Khan for celebrating Ganesh Festival at his home defying the ‘secular’ diktats. But gave rise to a controversy over Mani Ratnam’s film ‘Bombay’ which was based on the 1993 riots in Mumbai. He had very good relations with Amitabh Bachhan. When Bachhan was recuperating in Breach Candy Hospital, after getting seriously injured while shooting for ‘Coolie’, Balasaheb went to see him and presented him a cartoon sketched by him.
Balasaheb had to witness the breaking of Shiv Sena as one after another stalwarts like Chhagan Bhujbal, Narayan Rane, Sanjay Nirupam and finally his own nephew Raj Thackeray deserting him when he needed them most. His views on Mandal Commission report cost him Chaggan Bhujbal who was the OBC face of Sena. Narayan Rane, whom he elevated to the post of the Chief Minister too left as Balasaheb made no secret of his plans to hand over the reins of his party to his son Uddhav. In 2006 Raj too followed the suit and formed MNS which made considerable dents into the vote bank of the Shiv Sena indirectly helping the Congress to win the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Maharashtra.
The Shiv Sena and sainiks played an important role in promoting Hindutva as a political ideological plank and garnered sufficient votes which took them to the seat of power in the state in the aftermath of 1992 Ayodhya movement. But they could not repeat the feat. It was Bal Thackeray who shared the dais with BJP leader LK Advani during the latter’s ‘Somnath-Ayodhya Rathyatra’ at Mumbai and spoke strongly in support of Hindutva ideology. He succeeded in creating his image as icon of Hindutva in the later days. It was Balasaheb again who exhibited his ‘courage of conviction’ by declaring that he was proud of the Shiv Sainiks for their role in pulling down the disputed structure at Ayodhya.
Millions of Hindus believed in him and saw in him their messiah. He succeeded in cementing an emotional bond between him and his followers who became fans of his style of mimicking popular politicians and appreciated his style of criticising them in a language which common people would understand and admire. Did not the presence of millions of people at Shivaji Park during his funeral speak loudly of his popularity?