Sunday, November 18, 2012

Me Mumbaikar

On 26th April 1986, The Times of India carried a cartoon depicting a khadi-and-Gandhi-cap clad politician cautiously touching a sleeping tiger. The tiger roars back, taking the neta by surprise. “He’s alive!”, the neta exclaims, while the common man watches on. It was the story of the 1985 BMC (Bombay Municipal Corporation, then) elections, whose results had just been declared and a seemingly dormant Shiv Sena had scored a surprise victory. A picture is worth a thousand words, and so was this R.K.Laxman cartoon.

Though the Shiv Sena had been formed nearly two decades earlier, it had largely remained on the periphery of the State’s politics until then. With this victory in the BMC, the Sena saw a strong resurgence, and Bal Thackeray quickly capitalized on it, swaying the local Marathi youth, hit hard by the influx of migrants and the devastating textile strike by Datta Samant in 1982. The Sena has almost continuously controlled Mumbai since then, and when in 1995, Manohar Joshi was sworn in as the 15th Chief Minister of Maharashtra; Thackeray’s power reached its peak. (The term ‘remote control’ first came into political parlance with this very arrangement)

Among his detractors, Bal Thackeray evoked extreme reactions. His contempt for democracy, anti-Muslim rhetoric or use of strong arm tactics made him a soft target of the pseudo-secular intelligentsia. But there is one thing Bal Thackeray could never be accused of – hypocrisy. Thackeray spoke what his heart said, and it was this very forthrightness that endeared him to his masses.

Thackeray’s success came, not because of, but in spite of, an unfriendly media. It has rarely been reported that the Shiv Sena runs one of the largest ambulance networks in the country. Its Sthaniya Lokadhikar Samiti provided jobs to hundreds of jobless youth in the 1980s and early 90s, literally pre-empting them from joining the underworld during the heydays of Mumbai gang wars. At the peak of the Mandal Commission controversy, when even the supposedly upper caste parties like the Congress and the BJP dithered, Bal Thackeray launched a scathing attack on caste based reservations, risking his political career, but staying true to the principles he believed in.  Long before Vajpayee’s Roads Revolution, the Sena – BJP government built a network of more than 50 flyovers in the city, without which city traffic would have come to a standstill today.

In later years, Thackeray tried to expand his base outside Maharashtra, shedding his pro-Marathi stance and embracing the Hindutva agenda. This earned him a large non-Marathi following within Mumbai, but the Sena could not make any meaningful dent outside Maharashtra.

Today, Thackeray leaves the Sena in a precarious state. As corruption dominates the political discourse, the Shiv Sena finds itself on a sticky wicket. Raj Thackeray’s MNS (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena) has split his Marathi manoos voter base down the middle. How Uddhav takes up these challenges remains to be seen.

While most of Maharashtra’s politicians come from regions such as the Konkan, Vidarbha, Central Maharashtra or the sugar belt, Thackeray was the only leading political figure who had his roots in Mumbai. Till the very end, Thackeray remained in Mumbai, trusting his life to doctors who belonged to the very faith he was accused of targeting.

He loved Mumbai and fought for Mumbai. For this and this alone, Balasaheb Thackeray will be badly missed.


  1. "He loved Mumbai and fought for Mumbai. For this and this alone, Balasaheb Thackeray will be badly missed." - I disagree. He did his best to ruin what Mumbai stands for, a cosmopolitan city where Parsis, Kutchis, Jains, Sindhis, Tamils, Biharis, Bohras, Sunnis and indeed, people of every faith and colour live and work together. Who mourns his passing? Who are the 2 million at his funeral? Only the Marathi-speaking migrants to Mumbai who he tried to bring to the forefront through violent means.

    1. In response to your comments, as well as similar views expressed by others, I clarify my thoughts on the issues raised:

      On spreading hatred: I know several non-Marathi people who have high regard for Thackeray, and though the Shiv Sena has governed BMC for several years, and Maharashtra for 5 years, I have not come across any instance of victimization of the non-Marathis at the hands of the Sena. I do not know of any person or family who has left Mumbai, or refused to come to Mumbai for the fear of the Sena. Being pro-Marathi is not the same as being anti-non-Marathi, nor is pro-Hindu the same as anti-Muslim or anti-Christian.

      On violence, hooliganism, etc.: Digging up cricket pitches to oppose India-Pakistan cricket match, beating up taxi drivers, tearing down film posters deemed to be offensive, disrupting Valentine’s Day celebrations, burning effigies of M.F.Husain (or similarly controversial) artistes - is this the violence that one wants to hang Thackeray for? Let’s be serious. Compare law and order in Mumbai to reign of loot, rape and murder that has been unleashed by political goons in U.P, the law of the jungle during Laloo Prasad’s tenure in Bihar, the political murders and violence blamed on the Left in West Bengal and Kerala, the anti-Brahmin and anti-Hindi violence of the DMK, as well as the present day criminalization of politics in Tamil Nadu, and of course the massacre of 3,000 innocent Sikhs in Delhi – cannot all this be traced to political parties dominant in those regions? Compared to this, Thackeray’s actions such as those above, blown out of proportion by the media look like a child’s tantrums. Mumbai remains one of the safest cities in India to live in, and it has been so even during Shiv Sena’s rule in the State.

      On criminals in politics: In whatever data I have seen on criminals in politics, where several NGOs have done a lot of work, the Shiv Sena compares favorably to other political parties. There is no evidence on record, not which I have come across, which suggests that the Sena has more proportion of criminals among them than other parties, or have more heinous offences listed against them than others. If such data exists, one can bring it to my attention and I will revise my opinion. My guess is, if the history of criminalization of politics in India is ever written, the Shiv Sena may get a small reference, while there will be several others vying for top honors.

      Concluding remarks: Let me clarify that I don’t seek to justify any violence, nor am I a Shiv Sainik myself but credit must be given where it is due. As educated intelligent people, it is important for us to distinguish facts from opinions, look at actions not words and separate truth from propaganda. Thackeray was not a saint, but his sins were overstated by a biased media who never reported his virtues (Thackeray introduced reservation for Kashmiri Pandit refugees in Maharashtra, how many are aware?). I believe Thackeray loved Mumbai like no other politician did. That is what I have tried to bring out in my article.