From drawing cartoons with potent messages to etching for himself a larger-than-life image on Maharashtra’s political landscape, Bal Thackeray was the mascot of Marathi pride and Hindutva who aroused extreme emotions but could never be ignored.
The 86-year-old Shiv Sena supremo was idolised with almost God-like devotion by his frenzied Sainiks and demonised in equal measure by detractors. The maverick ways of Thackeray always led both his friends and rivals to underestimate him politically as he called the shots in State politics, often playing the role of a kingmaker. For some, the Tiger of Maharashtra was also a cultural icon.
Thackeray, a fiery orator who could bring the country’s financial capital to a standstill with a wave of his finger, charted a new course when he launched a cartoon weekly Marmik in 1960, which contained satirical pieces that fired up the “Marathi manoos” to fight for their identity and existence. In this endeavour, he was probably taking a leaf out of the books of his father Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, a writer who actively participated in the ‘Samyukta Maharashtra Andolan’ — the movement for creation of a separate state for Marathi-speaking people with Bombay as its capital.
Soon enough, Thackeray launched Shiv Sena on June 19, 1966 to champion the cause of Marathi ‘sons-of-the-soil’, seeking job security for Maharashtrians, who were then facing stiff competition from Gujaratis and South Indians. .
The frail-looking Thackeray’s fiery oratory skills caught the imagination of young Maharashtrians, although many felt it bordered on jingoism and chauvinism. Thackeray raised a veritable army of street fighters whom he would use to obtain jobs for the Maharashtrian youth in numerous textile and other industrial units dotting Bombay, earning the epithet of ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ (emperor of Hindu hearts). Though Thackeray never contested an election himself, he sowed the seeds of a full-fledged party when his Shiv Sainiks began controlling trade unions in a variety of industries, including Bollywood. Shiv Sena quickly grew into a well-oiled political machine and gained control over the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in the 1980s, riding the pro-Marathi plank.
Thackeray’s biggest moment in politics came when he struck an alliance with BJP in 1995 and formed the government in Maharashtra for the first time after tempering his strident pro-Marathi ideology and embracing a broader Hindu nationalist agenda. He ran this government by what he himself called “remote control”. However, he never occupied the post of chief minister.
A firm believer in the aphorism that familiarity breeds disregard, Thackeray meticulously created a larger-than-life image of himself, eschewing mingling with supporters and making up for that by giving grand ‘darshan’ from the balcony of his heavily-guarded Bandra home Matoshree. Pakistan and Muslims were often the target of vitriolic attacks by Thackeray.
Seated on a throne with multiple images of a tiger, Thackeray virtually lorded over Mumbai for years, receiving political leaders, captains of business and industry and film personalities at his residence, all without holding any position of power.
Known for his anti-migrant views, Thackeray ruffled the feathers of Hindi-speaking politicians when he described Biharis as a “burden” in many places in the country in the aftermath of attacks on north Indians by activists of MNS, floated by his nephew Raj Thackeray.
In an interview to a national English daily, Thackeray was once quoted as having praised even Hitler.
“Hitler did very cruel and ugly things. But he was an artist, I love him (for that). You have to think (about) the magic he had. He was a miracle...killing Jews was wrong. But the good part about Hitler was that he was an artist. He was a daredevil. He had good qualities and bad. I may also have good qualities and bad,” Thackeray had said.
In 1991, Thackeray’s party suffered its first major blow when Chhagan Bhujbal, who had served twice as Sena’s mayor of Mumbai, defected to the Congress in protest against Thackeray’s opposition to the Mandal Commission report on reservations for OBCs.
Thackeray suffered a personal loss when his wife Meena died in 1995. The next year, Thackeray’s eldest son Bindumadhav died in a road accident. The biggest setback Thackeray received was in 2005, when Raj, his nephew, left Shiv Sena and formed his own political party, MNS, in 2006, a development that also dashed Sena-BJP’s hopes of returning to power.