I write this as a quintessential Bombayite; as one whose identity was intrinsically woven into the idea, the ethos, the feeling that was Bombay. The occasion? The passing of Bal Thackeray, the man who I consider was singularly responsible for changing identity.
My analysis, however, is aimed to be objective and not in the least personal.
1. Thackeray was born in 1926: Considering he was born well into the pre-independence era, although he professed an almost jingoistic version of nationalism, he was not in the least influenced by the Congress culture or by Mahatma Gandhi or even the freedom movement.
2. Thackeray’s CKP, middle class, Marathi speaking orientation: It is obvious that he was born into an upper caste, educated, not-at-all-deprived background that was already politically active. His zeal for preserving the Marathi identity could have been his father’s legacy which he perhaps took on as a means towards an end.
One does not know what the turning point was or if there was any, but once he became the sole driver of the cause, he seems to have found his niche in regionality and the ‘end’ remained within the geographic borders of Mumbai, at best Maharashtra.
He built an empire on the foundations of something as intangible as ‘pride’ – Marathi pride. Which is also the reason why his empire remained regional. Although he did not necessarily play caste politics, his target base was always middle class and Marathi speaking.
3. He was a cartoonist in Free Press journal: Needless to say, it shows his intellectual orientation – of seeing things in different dimensions and using the tools of the media to ultimately spread his ideology.
He knew exactly how ‘soundbytes’ work and how to use them. He knew exactly how the power of communication and by extension, the power of media works. Although a journalist in a sense, he did not however, believe in the concept of journalistic ethics.
4. Control of Municipal corporations and a single stint in the state assembly:
I would see the Shiv Sena’s control over the municipal corporation as merely his narrow vision of localizing his politics. Political strategists would ideally begin at the grassroots, build their bases in municipal corporations and eventually go national.
But then, Thackeray was no visionary. He was content with ruling over a city – almost with a vengeance. A city, for which he had no greater vision than a change of name, a chain of low-cost food stalls and lower-level clerical jobs for his people. He never envisioned anything bigger either for the city or for the people who followed him.
And so in electoral politics, he never rose beyond the municipal corporations. The only time his party came to power in the state was with an alliance partner and not on its own merit.
5. His undermining of democratic processes: Thackeray’s lack of respect for democratic processes was evident in the way he imposed his will over the people through sheer muscle power and permeating a culture of fear. Interestingly however, he painstakingly built a parallel state over the past several decades, shakha by shakha (RSS style) with mini power centers in the form of pramukhs at each of these shakhas.
6. Power and Thackeray: 20 lakh people came out onto the streets of Mumbai for his funeral. Something no leader, political or otherwise, might be able to command anywhere in India today. These are people, whose lives, imaginably were touched by Thackeray somehow. But unbelievably, such a massive support base could not bring his party to power in the state in so many years, which again proves the inherent dichotomy of Thackeray’s power politics.
Thackeray was a genius of sorts, in that he knew how to identify and tap impressionable minds with aggressive energies, make them feel important and that’s it. He neither let them rise above their economic class nor social class. He never let their aspirations go beyond seeking to rise up to the lowest rung of the ladder.
His power also came from courting the rich and the famous and the glamorous not by overtly cultivating their friendships, but by covertly tapping into their weaknesses.
He wrested Mumbai from the clutches of the strong communist dominated trade unionists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. But did he give Mumbai a better alternative for that? Perhaps not.
7. The State honor for Thackeray: That could at best be a political decision for the Congress government in the State.
8. Thackeray’s single most achievement: The taming of a city. The city on which he ruled. But the city which gave him all the power and influence, got nothing in return from him. It not only lost its name, it lost its very identity, its ethos, its culture, its cosmopolitan fabric.
9. The future of the Marathi identity: I can say the situation in Maharashtra is similar to what happened in Andhra Pradesh after N.T. Rama Rao. NTR, as he was known, rose to power with his “Telugu bidda” (Child of Telugu)… the equivalent of the Andhra son-of-the-soil credo…