The pall of gloom, tinged with fear,
which has enveloped Mumbai because of Bal Thackeray's illness may
be a measure of the Shiv Sena chief's political clout but can
hardly be regarded as a tribute since it underlines his parochial
brand of politics.
Thackeray is the first of the regional leaders who came to the
fore in the 1960s as the Congress began to decline. But unlike
leaders like C.N. Annadurai in the DMK or Parkash Singh Badal in
the Akali Dal, who tried to outgrow their image of being concerned
solely with Tamil Nadu or Punjab, Thackeray is unapologetic about
his sectarian outlook being restricted only to Maharashtra.
Not only that. His influence is confined mainly to Marathis - and
that, too, the illiberal sections - rather than to the other
communities living in the state. There is little doubt that this
constricted vision is the outcome of the line pursued by his
father, Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, who was involved in the Samyukta
or united Maharashtra movement for the division of the state of
Bombay into Maharashtra and Gujarat.
The linguistic parochialism, which led to the formation of
Maharashtra in 1960, subsequently mutated into various forms of
sectarianism, whose focus changed from anti-Gujarati to anti-"Madrasi"
or south Indian when Thackeray constituted the Shiv Sena in 1966
to propagate an aggressive version of Marathi sub-nationalism.
With the rise of the Hindutva movement in the 1990s, the Shiv Sena
switched its attention from Madrasis to Muslims and claimed credit
for the demolition of the Babri Masjid on Dec 6, 1992. More
recently, north Indians, mainly Biharis, have been the target of
such chauvinistic campaigns.
What this obsessive parochialism, which has been accepted as a
creed by Balasaheb's son Uddhav and nephew Raj, means is that
Thackeray has never acquired the kind of political respectability
which other provincial leaders like the DMK's M. Karunanidhi or
the AIADMK's J. Jayalalitha have secured, enabling them to forge
alliances with pan-Indian parties. As far as the Shiv Sena is
concerned, however, only the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with
its pro-Hindu agenda, has been willing to align with it. No other
party, and especially the secular ones, will touch it with a barge
pole. What is more, the recent offensive against Biharis, mainly
by Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) but with the
Shiv Sena's tacit approval, has compelled even the BJP to be wary
of Thackeray because the BJP's base is in northern India.
Thackeray, however, seems to revel in his isolation. It makes him
stand out just as his admiration for Hitler does as someone who is
not bothered about being politically correct. It also marks him
out as a person who never minces his words. On the contrary, the
sharpness of his comments, which the sober-minded may find
jarring, apparently touches a chord among large sections of
Marathis, and also anti-Muslim and anti-Congress elements outside,
if only because their directness is in contrast to the
mealy-mouthed insincerity of the average politician.
True, this pugnacity makes him feared rather than loved, but
Thackeray appears to have made up his mind to play a role
different from that of other politicians, all of whom try to widen
It is noteworthy that in a country where even the so-called
national parties have become regional because of the restriction
of their influence to particular areas, the Shiv Sena's narrow
focus on a section of Hindu Marathis makes it one of a kind - and
not an outfit which is likely to be widely emulated. While it is
customary for Bollywood to show politicians as cynical and
untrustworthy, films which hint at portraying the Thackeray family
show them as mafia dons.
What is noteworthy about the family is that it hasn't shown the
slightest interest in breaking out of its parochial mould. From
the patriarch Keshav Sitaram, who was known as Prabodhanker for
bringing out the magazine Prabodhan (Enlighten), to his great
grandson Aditya, who is Uddhav's son, the family is happy to hold
on to its sectarian niche. The role that Aditya played, for
instance, in ensuring the scrapping of Rohinton Mistry's book
"Such A Long Journey", with its unflattering observations about
Marathi chauvinists, from the Bombay University syllabus, showed
that he is very much a chip of the old block.
The insularity of the clan has not however come in the way of a
split, with Raj Thackeray forming his own outfit. The effect has
been politically harmful for the family because of the division of
the Marathi votes between them to the benefit of the Congress.
Hence the belief that the latter prefers to prop up Raj - like
keeping the police away from his unruly cadres, for instance - so
that the MNS can cut into the Shiv Sena's votes. But both the
outfits have retained their intimidating presence on the streets.
Balasaheb has acquired greater fame, or notoriety, than his
father, Keshav Sitaram, who was hardly known outside western
India. Till now, however, neither Uddhav nor Raj has shown a
capacity to outshine him.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at