Why Maharashtra Loved Bal Thackeray

By Nandakumar Kamat

IT was a timely and astute master stroke by the liberal and cultured Maharashtra Chief Minister, Mr Prithviraj Chavan. He permitted Mumbai’s Shivaji Park public ground, a location famous for Shiv Sena’s Vijayadashmi rallies known for fiery speeches of its’ supremo to be used as temporary cremation spot to perform the final rites of the departed leader Balasaheb Thackeray with full state honours.

The state government was just bowing to the wishes of the people. With this single act the Congress-NCP led government still dominated by the Maratha lobby sent an interesting signal to the kingmakers in New Delhi. They might have locally differed with the ideology and political style of Balasaheb and Shiv Sena - but they were united as Maharashtrians at such hour.

Marathi is world’s 19th popular language. No government in republic of India can ignore Maharashtra and Mumbai - the megapolis which is undisputed economic heart of the nation. As country’s richest state with more than $200 billion GDP, being second most populous, third largest state by area, Maharashtra contributes 15 per cent of national industrial output and over 40 per cent of India’s national revenue. Maharashtra like Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab and Tamil Nadu had been in forefront of freedom struggle and social reforms. Balasaheb Thackeray had understood the economic and political importance of his state and never hid his dissatisfaction about the increasing dilution of Maharashtrian influence in power politics of Mumbai and New Delhi. He successfully emerged as the voice of the Maharashtrian cultural pride. Over an active political period of 46 years he filled a leadership gap with his fierce nationalistic oratory, drew unflinching loyalty from cadre-based grassroots level party followers and used his impeccable social and cultural networking ability to reach out to artists, journalists and industrialists. Even journalist and TV anchor Nikhil Wagale who seemed to have got carried away by the ocean of the people on Mumbai’s streets was so effusive in his praise on his channel that he seemed to forget the treatment he had received in the hands of the cadres in the past.

Great Political Void

Why Maharashtra loved Balasaheb? After Tilak, Ambedkar, Savarkar - Mumbai and the nation had not seen such a charismatic leader. The proof was there for the whole world to see on the historic Sunday - November 18. The whole country watched on Sunday the tsunami of more than two million people on streets of Mumbai who came out spontaneously to pay their tributes to Balasaheb Thackeray. A large part of this ocean of people probably comprised the grass-root level cadres of Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). For non Marathi speakers and those who follow only the English language press and non Marathi electronic media such outpouring would superficially seem to be another ‘Hindu backlash’ or resurgence or a sudden show of strength. But they fail to understand the pulse of Mumbaikars and Marathi-speaking people of Maharashtra. There is a sense of loss and a great political void.

A critical reading of the social, cultural and political history of Maharashtra in 20th century, from original Marathi sources is required to understand the course which Balasaheb Thackeray and Shiv Sena - the nationalist party founded by him followed. His father Keshav Sitaram also known as a ‘Prabhodankar Thackeray’ was himself a great reformist personality. He fought against casteism and social evils. Balasaheb’s first lessons in social work and political organisation came from his father. 1966, the iconic year of foundation of Shiv Sena is also important. India had just come out from a war with Pakistan. Prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri died on January 11 and the new prime minister Indira Gandhi, sworn in on January 24, was virtually unknown as a leader. The undisputed leader of Hindu nationalist ideology, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar had died in February 1966. The country was passing through several crises. War with Pakistan was won but it had unnerved impoverished India which still depended on imports of food grains, arms, and ammunition and heavy machinery.

As a journalist and artist, Balasaheb was also witnessing the alarming transformation of Bombay. He felt that the Marathi leadership was not sensitive to Marathi aspirations. He needed a platform and an agenda to build what he saw as a pro Marathi leadership with – ‘Marathi and Maharashtrian first’ as the slogan. He also attempted to fill the gap left behind by the demise of the great Hindu nationalist and reformer- Savarkar. That’s how within a few months of Savarkar’s death we saw the rise of Shiv Sena - a regional nationalist party. Subsequently it attempted to fill a political and cultural niche by invoking regionalist agenda and an exclusionary ideology. This distanced the migrants and minorities from the party. But despite the curtailed vote banks, Balasaheb made impossible possible, by bringing to power the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance for the first time in Maharashtra’s history.

Setbacks

Balasaheb faced many setbacks due to his unwillingness to compromise on issues like the report of Mandal Commission - which led to exit of once loyal and powerful OBC leaders like Mr Chhagan Bhujbal. It is difficult to say what millions of non Marathi migrants in Mumbai who have made the megapolis their permanent home feel after Balasaheb’s death. But definitely they would now expect Shiv Sena to change radically and follow a more inclusive, progressive politics. All over the world mega-cities like Mumbai draw migrants because that’s the historic rule of urban economic magnetism. But it is basically the fear of demographic and cultural dilution followed by economic and political marginalization which causes a regional backlash in any state. Maharashtra loved Balasaheb because he spoke from his heart and won the hearts of the middleclass looking for some respect, identity and recognition. His death brought to an end a very eventful era in politics of western India. Our 62 years old republic needs to now seriously tackle the many disturbing and serious questions about constitutionalism and federalism on which his politics was founded because even small, miniscule, harmless states like Goa with zero national nuisance value are clamouring for ‘special status’. The face of politics in western India post Balasaheb would be now radically different.

(As a very special case and being sensitive to needs of journalism, this week’s series on ‘Knowledge based Sustainable Mining’ by Nandakumar Kamat has been suspended and the same would continue and conclude next week)