The Thackeray family’s dubious inheritance (Comment)

October 25th, 2008 - 10:42 am ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata PartyThe Thackeray family’s parochial agenda has a long history. It all began with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s father, Keshav Sitaram, who was a member of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, the organisation which spearheaded the agitation for a separate Maharashtra in the 1950s.But Keshav Sitaram’s chief claim to fame was his penchant for “violence in politics”, as an entry in Google says. The recourse to violence during the agitation led to the creation of the two separate states of Maharashtra and Gujarat on May 1, 1960, ending the proud concept of the ‘mahadwibhashi rajya’ or the great bilingual state, which the Bombay presidency earlier was.

A feature of the agitation was the anger expressed against Gujaratis living in the united province presumably because their entrepreneurial skills enabled them to dominate its commercial life.

Herein lies the root of the parochialism which has marked the politics of Keshav Sitaram’s descendants. While Bal Thackeray built his political career by, first, targeting the south Indians and then the Muslims, his estranged nephew, Raj, is focussing his energies on the north Indians with occasional diatribes against the Gujaratis, who have evidently not been forgotten or forgiven by Marathi chauvinists.

In all these cases, envy of the success of outsiders has been a motivating factor for the disgruntled “sons of the soil” and their self-appointed champions. Just as the Gujaratis were enterprising traders and businessmen, the south Indians were known for their profitable idli-dosa joints, serving the typical items of fast food which are popular all over the country.

If north Indians are being attacked now, it is because of their ubiquity as taxi drivers and vegetable vendors. Only Muslims were targeted for being Muslims as a result of the communal propaganda against them carried out by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena, especially in the period when the Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindu fanatics.

The main reason, however, why such blatantly divisive politics have thrived in Maharashtra is the political space left vacant by the Congress’ decline and the failure of the Left and other more broad-minded parties to grow, such as the Socialist Party, which included widely respected leaders like Madhu Dandavate and Mrinal Gore, or the Peasants and Workers Party or the Republican parties, which squandered B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy.

But that is not the only reason. An even more relevant explanation for the thriving of the Sainiks with their open preference for street fighting and intimidation of opponents is the encouragement given to Bal Thackeray in the early years of his career by the Congress. The latter’s objective then was to use the Shiv Sena’s muscle power to browbeat the Communist trade unions.

The similarity of such cynical tactics with the tacit support given to Bhindranwale in Punjab by Sanjay Gandhi and Zail Singh to undermine the influence of the Akalis is obvious.

The same parallel can also be detected in the Vilasrao Deshmukh government’s pussyfooting in the matter of cracking down on Raj Thackeray and his supporters in the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), who have followed up their attacks on north Indians by acts of arson and random violence after their leader’s brief arrest.

If the government had shown half the energy it had shown earlier in rounding up bar dancers in Mumbai and concentrated on checking the MNS’ rowdyism instead, then the city would not have been on tenterhooks for so long.

The calculations of the Congress leaders of Maharashtra apparently are that by allowing the MNS to grow, the Shiv Sena’s base can be eroded. There may be some truth in the idea, self-serving though it may be, but the danger is that this cynical ploy may backfire, as it did in Bal Thackeray’s case in the 1960s, and let Raj Thackeray become a new Frankenstein.

An additional problem for the Congress and its partner, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), is that their pusillanimity vis-a-vis the MNS may induce the voters to turn away from them. However, the Congress and the NCP have probably realised that the electorate has no one worthwhile to turn to since the BJP, which is primarily a north Indian party, is nervous about the impact of the MNS’ agitation on its own supporters.

As a longstanding ally of the Shiv Sena, which is no less xenophobic than the MNS, the BJP will be hard put to present its case, especially in the absence of Pramod Mahajan, their articulate leader in the state who was killed by his brother in 2006.

The Maharashtra situation, therefore, has become a tangled web as the state relives the parochialism of its past to the detriment of its present and future. Mumbai, the much acclaimed financial capital of the country and the home of Bollywood, is now virtually at the mercy of hoodlums, who can pounce on anyone who cannot speak in Marathi.

The city is being strangled by groups that have always had chips on their shoulders against south Indians, north Indians, Gujaratis, Muslims et al who have gravitated to Mumbai because of the many opportunities that a metropolis of its size provides.

The result of their intolerance is that Marathis may come to be seen as ‘kupmanduks’ or frogs-in-the-well, forever on the warpath against outsiders. Just as Narendra Modi makes every Gujarati seem communal-minded, similarly the Thackerays are likely to distort the image of Maharashtrians in the eyes of the rest of India.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at

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