Hypocrisy is the trademark of our politicians. Indeed, there is a yawning gap between what politicians in India preach and what they practise. In such a nauseating climate of double dealing when people find a leader who is straightforward and brutal in his frankness they are drawn towards him. Bal Thackeray even had an admiration for Hitler but the people allowed him his idiosyncrasies because they believed that he stood by what he said. Some say that the support that he announced for Emergency had to do with his own fear of arrest but others who swear by his courage pooh-pooh this strongly.
One may vehemently disagree with the late Balasaheb Thackeray on some of his divisive views but there is no denying that he was never sheepish about what he felt and in supporting a cause that he believed in, even if he was isolated in his conviction.
The sheer numbers of people that lined the streets of Mumbai on the day his mortal remains were being carried to Shivaji Park for cremation — 20 lakh as per estimates — speaks volumes of the popular support this icon enjoyed. Yet, the cold reality is that the legacy that he leaves behind is one of belligerence and antipathy. The whole edifice of Shiv Sena was built upon a certain hate agenda — be it against south Indians in Mumbai at one time, Gujaratis at another time, against communists, or Muslims, or against Pakistan or anti-migrants (directed at Bangladeshis). It was essentially an agenda playing to the sense of deprivation of the young Maharashtrians who were angry at the system that denied them jobs as others from outside enjoyed the fruits of development and progress. In the ultimate analysis, he was a demagogue par excellence who knew the pulse of the man in the street. He was a Mumbaikar all the way who knew what were the aspirations of his people.
This writer recalls a morning in the heydays of Shiv Sena when he was shopping for vegetables at a Colaba market in the early 1990s. There was a truckers strike because of which the prices were running high. A shopper asked the vegetable seller what was the price of potatoes. The seller quoted a high figure and when the buyer objected he rudely told him to get lost. Just then another man stepped in and asked the vegetable seller the price. On being quoted the same price, he slapped the man hard across the face to the spontaneous burst of claps. Those accompanying the man who slapped said he was a Shiv Sena volunteer. Such strong-arm methods with an ultimate good purpose went down well with the poor.
Where will the Shiv Sena be without Bal Thackeray? His son Uddhav who is the anointed inheritor of the legacy is by no means a good rabble rouser or even one who has his finger on the pulse of the people. Balasaheb’s nephew Raj Thackeray is much more in the Bal Thackeray mould with his demagoguery and a charisma which is closer to that of his uncle. Balasaheb had made up his mind years ago that his legacy would be carried forward by Uddhav and not Raj, which is what led to the parting of ways with Raj carving out his own party.
The hostility that characterised the relations between Uddhav and Raj after they parted ways has dissipated to some extent in recent months with Raj reaching out to Uddhav when the latter had two angioplasties within months and with the cousins having grieved together over the demise of Balasaheb — but that does not mean that the estranged cousins would come together.
Even as the funeral procession was wending its way to Shivaji Park, the simmering differences surfaced as Raj was believed to have been told that he would not be one of the pallbearers and that Shiv Sena leaders and deputy leaders would take turns to carry the casket. Reports say this angered Raj who went back home only to return for the final rites in the evening. The old animosity may only have quietened temporarily and may recur especially if Uddhav finds his cadre deserting him to be with his more fiery cousin. Alternatively, the two cousins may decide to forge an electoral alliance so as not to cut into each other’s votes.
In the last Lok Sabha and Assembly election Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) can gloat over the fact that it was a good spoiler for the parent party but the division of Hindutva votes between the Bharatiya Janata Party, Shiv Sena and MNS only helped the Congress. This time around, if the three parties forge a common front, there is no reason why the combine cannot pose a more formidable challenge to the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine, which will have a possible anti-incumbency mood to contend with.
The BJP has not always had a smooth ride with the Shiv Sena when Bal Thackeray was calling the shots. Despite being a long-term ally of the BJP, there was no knowing when the sena would chart its own course on an issue. In the 2008 presidential election, Bal Thackeray chose to support Congress candidate Pratibha Patil while the BJP and its other allies endorsed Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. This year too, the Shiv Sena did not go with the BJP-supported Purno Sangma but opted for Pranab Mukherjee.
So long as he was at the helm, no one in the BJP dared ask the mercurial Bal Thackeray why he was not fulfilling the alliance dharma. Now, neither will Uddhav have the clout to defy nor will the BJP take his defiance lying down, especially with Raj Thackeray waiting in the wings to strike up an alternative alliance. More than anyone else, this is Uddhav’s time of challenge and Bal Thackeray’s son will have to justify the trust that his father reposed in him.
Within Maharashtra politics, Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar and his lieutenants will perhaps try to poach on the Shiv Sena. Many of the erstwhile Shiv Sena leaders, especially Chhagan Bhujbal, Narayan Rane and Sanjay Nirupum will strive to weaken the sena now that Balasaheb’s overpowering presence is not there. A lot would depend, therefore, on the equation between Uddhav and Raj in combating the challenge.
The Shiv Sena is indeed at the crossroads.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a veteran journalist and author.