I vividly remember the day Bal Thackeray announced the formation of the Shiv Sena (he became “Balasaheb” many years later). It was a truly mammoth gathering and the people there were charged with an inexplicable energy. I was in my late teens and there were thousands of others from my age group.
Bal Thackeray was not a well-known leader then and yet such a large crowd had gathered with expectations. He was known as the editor of the Marathi weekly Marmik and particularly as a cartoonist with an iconoclastic brush.
His name was familiar to journalistic circles because he was a colleague of R.K. Laxman at the Free Press Journal. But Laxman was already a celebrity.
Bal was also known because of his father Prabodhankar (Keshav) Thackeray, a firebrand speaker and a scholarly editor.
The Shivaji Park ground was packed to hear this new star, but the crowd did not know what he would say. The day was June 19, 1966. Only six years had passed since the state of Maharashtra had been formed. There was disappointment in the air and a kind of anti-Congressism dominated the political mood.
The “Marathi manoos” had fought for the creation of a Maharashtra state but felt marginalised in the capital city of Mumbai, where the bloody struggle had taken place with the loss of 106 lives. The national economy was passing through a “stagflation” and unemployment was at its peak. Marathi youths born at the time of Independence had come of age, having completed school and college but with no prospects of a job.
These were the “sons of the Marathi soil”, with frustration in their heart and anger in their eyes. Most were the children of the lower-middle and working classes in Mumbai. They had begun to feel betrayed by the political leadership.
Mumbai was the capital of Maharashtra but where was the “Marathi manoos” in that great cosmopolitan city? He was jobless and there appeared no hope for him. Bal Thackeray used to express this anger and frustration in his cartoons and in the weekly in the most provocative manner.
“Don’t keep quiet, rise and rebel” used to be the appeal in the weekly. That campaign had been going on for about a year or so.
The huge mass of people had gathered at Shivaji Park in response to that appeal. The audience waited with bated breath for a call to some sort of direct action.
Bal rose to speak, welcomed by deafening applause, and, seeing the mood, thundered that the time had come to throw the migrants out of Mumbai. It was these migrants who, with support from the Congress rulers, had stolen the jobs of the aspiring Marathi youth.
Who were the migrants then? Not the Biharis or “bhayyas” from Uttar Pradesh but the “Madrasis” or “lungiwallahs”! All the south Indians, according to Bal, were “Madrasis”. Even as the massive meeting dispersed, attacks began on Udipi restaurants. Within a week, the south Indian community had begun to feel threatened.
The Shivaji Park rally had surpassed the expectations even of Bal Thackeray. He had no plan, no programme and no politics. Indeed, he wanted the Shiv Sena to be a non-political organisation to fight for the rights and the pride of the Marathi people.
But in the politically charged atmosphere of the 1960s, with the elections of 1967 approaching, it was impossible to remain non-political. Thackeray had no ideology, no vision to offer. He was just a militant expression of the then prevailing Marathi mood.
Although the Sena had no candidates in the 1967 elections, it decided to campaign against the leading Leftists — George Fernandes, S.A. Dange, Acharya Atre (the fierce editor of Maratha Daily who had spearheaded the movement for the creation of a Maharashtra state) and V.K. Krishna Menon (who had quit the Congress and, as an Independent candidate, had the support of the Left).
This in itself was a strange political decision because, in effect, the Sena was helping the Congress by campaigning against the Leftist opposition. The Sena supremo explained his position by saying the “Lal Bavta”, i.e. the communists, were a greater threat as they controlled the trade union movement — so, they too were responsible for blocking Maharashtrians out of jobs. It was a weird piece of logic. But there was a hidden agenda behind it.
Mumbai was a working-class city offering a strong base to the communist unions, particularly in the textile industry. That was considered the vanguard of the trade union movement.
The Congress government as well as private industry were wary of the communist influence over the city. In the Shiv Sena, both found an instrument to confront the comrades.
Within a year or so, the Shiv Sena began storming the Leftist trade union offices and targeting their leaders. “Jala do, jala do, Lal Bavta jala do,” went the slogan.
The vast ranks of the lumpen youth went on the rampage against the communists, trade unionists and the “Madrasis”.
Balasaheb Thackeray had now emerged as a militant Right-wing political force, sometimes supported — even encouraged — by the state Congress. That perhaps explains why most Congress leaders, from Sharad Pawar (now in the NCP) to Vilasrao Deshmukh, had the best of equations with the Sena chief.
Thackeray embraced the politics of Hindutva much later. In fact, he used to be a virulent critic of the Sangh parivar earlier — a legacy he had inherited from his father, a social reformer who was against pujas and pandits, mandirs and mantriks.
But when Balasaheb realised that his writ did not run beyond Mumbai and Thane (at the time), he decided to expand his political base by joining hands with the BJP. Although their relationship was never really cordial, they carried on because of political exigency.
Their alliance could come to power only because of their combined strength. Their failure to repeat that performance shows how ruptured their internal relationship was.
The last two presidential elections too demonstrated how weak their alliance was, with the Shiv Sena supporting Pratibha Patil in 2007 and Pranab Mukherjee this year. That also explains the Sena’s strategic relationship with the Congress.
Balasaheb always remained a mercurial figure. He never aspired to direct political power: he preferred to hold the remote control. He wanted power without accountability. He wanted his party, and even other parties, to be in awe of him. He knew he was widely adored, worshipped and feared. He enjoyed that and this is why he used to issue diktats.
His calls for bandhs were not an appeal. They were an order, and even governments understood it and rarely made efforts to keep the offices in Mumbai working. In that context, it is necessary to understand that he did not really have that kind of hypnotised following all over Maharashtra — although he had a larger-than-life image not only in the state but all over India. I have seen the kind of awe he inspired even in Pakistan.
He remained at the helm of the party he had created, and shaped and controlled it for over 45 years. There is no other party or organisation in India with that kind of record. Without him, many in his party — and even people outside it — will feel orphaned politically and socially.
And without him, politics in Maharashtra will be rather lacklustre. Although he could not create a powerful regional party, he remained a force to reckon with. His charisma held the party together even after the rebellion by his nephew Raj or after the departures of Chhagan Bhujbal and Narayan Rane.
Maharashtra will not be the same without the myth and legend that Balasaheb was.