Fear and loathing in Mumbai
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To shut down a city is always an odd power. In a city built on transactions and trade, where a crumbling state government leaves no one in charge, it is a terrifying power. For three decades, Balasaheb Keshav Thackeray shut down Mumbai on behalf of those whose rage he grasped. This was the rage of former Marathi mill workers in search of a job. This was the unease of the middle-class in Shivaji Park and Dadar at Maharashtrians becoming minorities in their own city. And this was the resentment of city officials — from constable to revenue inspector — who, having left home in the interiors of Maharashtra to work in their state capital, were forced to police an unintelligible land. If this were any other city, this rage would be a mere footnote of history. Instead, the centrality of Mumbai to India led the Shiv Sena and its charismatic chief to pioneer many of the trends that are now the staple of Indian politics.
The Shiv Sena understood, before most other parties, the relationship between corporate money and politics. The setting was the collapse of Mumbai's textile mills, leaving behind lucrative land and angry workers. In the raging fight between organised labour and mill owners in the late 1960s, Balasaheb Thackeray, supporting mill owners, appealed to the ethnic identity of workers rather than their class background. This relationship continued much after he won that fight, with Sena local units forming close ties with local business. In a moment laden with irony, when mill land was final auctioned off in 2005, Shiv Sena leaders bought Kohinoor Mills for Rs 421 crore. Thackeray defended the purchase since the buyers were Maharashtrian.
Balasaheb was the first to reap the bitter harvest that urban migration in India would cause; more like him will come. Before Muslims, Balasaheb targeted the south Indians who stole jobs from Maharashtrians. After Muslims, he turned on northern Indians for much the same reason. The Shiv Sena's gory role in the 1992-1993 anti-Muslim riots — chronicled in chilling detail by the Srikrishna Commission — was an opportunist use of the Hindutva wave that swept north India in the early 1990s. The Sena will always remain the party of the Maharashtrian insider in Mumbai.
Balasaheb reflected the middle-class anti-politics of the 1970s, an angst now captured by Arvind Kejriwal and Anna Hazare. He expressed disdain for electoral politics, a dirty game he played for the sake of the "people". He refused, like Jayaprakash Narayan before him and Sonia Gandhi after, to enter government. His distaste for electoral politics was typically middle-class. It was also smart strategy. He escaped blame for the inevitable disappointment with his 1995-1999 state government. He was within yet beyond politics, wielding the "remote control" while his minions were blamed for the quality of the show.
For all his trend-setting, this consummate cartoonist refused to be caricatured by others. He remained his own man. Like his father before him, Thackeray opposed the caste system. This cut both ways. He placed caste reformers B.R. Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule in his pantheon of Maharashtrian greats, and formed electoral alliances with the Dalit leaders Ramdas Athavale and Namdeo Dhasal. But he was also, in 1991, one of the few politicians to oppose the Mandal commission report on OBC quotas in Central government jobs. In an era of media-shy prime ministers, Thackeray's acidic cartoons in the Marmik weekly of the 1960s and later editorials in party mouthpiece Saamana made for a delightful, if disturbing, read. His passion for his own freedom of expression did not extend to others. His sainiks threatened and assaulted those who dared insult their chief. Despite the temptation to stride the national stage, he remained rooted to Mumbai. Visiting world leaders, pop artists and national politicians trudged to Matoshree (his fortress home in Bandra East) for his blessings, rather than the other way around. He was never seduced by his own sharp tongue, and allowed political adversaries such as Sharad Pawar and Sunil Dutt to become personal friends. And bedazzled by stars of all hues and religions, this most communal of men embraced uncritically that most secular of Indian inventions: Bollywood.
Balasaheb's final years saw the tiger fighting extinction. The Hindutva wave that swept the Shiv Sena to power in 1995 has now ebbed. The Shiv Sena has not won Maharashtra since 1999, despite an incompetent ruling government. Its iron party discipline has rusted, its cadre plagued by defections. When Narayan Rane left for the Congress in 2005, he took with him the Shiv Sena's only hope of winning the Konkan coast. And Balasaheb's insistence on hoisting his son as successor led to his charismatic nephew Raj Thackeray forming his own party and splitting the Sena vote-bank.
An ageing Balasaheb responded to these challenges, not with the machinations of a swift-footed politician, but with the doggedness of a believer. He railed against Bangladeshis polluting his beloved city, and refused Pakistan permission to play cricket in India. For his was not a politics only of opportunism. It was a politics of principle. And that principle was fear: the fear he evoked as well as his own. It was the fear of his middle-class colony in Bandra East, living precariously amidst the Muslim slums of Behrampada and the swamps of Dharavi. It was the fear of losing face, of losing home, of losing a city. This mesmeriser of men feared being unable to stop Mumbai from changing. So he chose to shut it down instead.
The writer is a lawyer and PhD candidate at Princeton University
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