Thackerays give a bad name to Maharashtra and Marathis (Commentary)

May 17th, 2008 - 8:57 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Raj Thackeray
By Amulya Ganguli
Raj Thackeray may have convinced himself that he is serving the cause of the Marathi ‘manoos’, but in actual fact he is doing a great disservice to Maharashtra and the sons of its soil. In the years before the Thackeray family became a force to reckon with, the state was known to the rest of the country via a veritable galaxy of leaders who were revered all over India - Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, M.G. Ranade, Jyotiba Phule, Pandita Ramabai et al.

In more recent years, Maharashtra has been identified with men of letters like Vijay Tendulkar, politicians like Y.B. Chavan, to whom Jawaharlal Nehru turned to replace Krishna Menon as defence minister after the Chinese invasion of 1962, and sportsmen like Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar.

All of them made Marathis hold their heads high. The same cannot be said of the Thackerays - Raj and his even more virulent uncle, Bal Thackeray, and the latter’s son, Uddhav. All of them have been playing the same belligerent parochial card redolent of small town mentality to build their political bases.

It isn’t only crude sectarianism that has brought infamy to the family. What is more to the point is its unabashed recourse to violence via bands of lumpen elements, which made Bal Thackeray acquire the virtual status of a godfather, who is feared rather than admired.

Since Mumbai is the home of Bollywood, it is hardly surprising that a film modelled on Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” has been made by Ram Gopal Varma, named “Sarkar”, in which Amitabh Bachchan plays the role of a mafia overlord whom the audience can easily identify with Bal Thackeray.

The latest round of disturbances in Mumbai and some other Maharashtra towns is the result of Raj Thackeray’s campaign against the north Indians, mainly the people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, on the plea that they are crowding Mumbai and depriving the locals of employment opportunities.

No one is unaware, of course, that this propaganda is an attempt by Raj to steal his uncle’s thunder and carve out a political space for himself in the aftermath of the rupture in the family over who will secure Bal Thackeray’s mantle - Uddhav or Raj. As a more effective public speaker, Raj had expected to be the successor but since Bal Thackeray anointed his son to be the leader of his party, the Shiv Sena, Raj formed his own outfit, the Navnirman Sena.

Although he started out with a more inclusive and sober agenda, the Navnirman Sena’s poor performance in the local polls evidently made Raj rethink his tactics in favour of a more aggressive chauvinistic line.

Perturbed by the crowds which Raj attracted at his last meeting and the support extended to him by the well-heeled like writer Shobha De and actor Nana Patekar, dispelling the impression that it is only the lower middle classes which back him, Uddhav too has been itching to launch a parochial movement.

Apart from targeting migrants, Uddhav’s latest ploy was to attack institutions which still used the old name of the city, Bombay, like the Bombay Scottish School and the Bombay Stock Exchange. Those who still preferred “Bombay” would be “forced to flee”, Bal Thackeray has said. Clearly, he is nobody’s model for an ideal grandfather.

To the rest of India, it might seem perplexing that Mumbai, the country’s financial and film capital, which has long been known for its cosmopolitanism, should virtually be held hostage by the Thackerays.

The explanation lies in the Congress’ cynicism dating back to the 1960s when it used the Shiv Sena to undercut the city’s communist trade unions, creating a Frankenstein in the process. The similarity with the Congress’ encouragement of the Sikh separatist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Punjab in the 1980s to needle the Akali Dal is obvious.

Currently, the ruling Congress in Maharashtra is seemingly unwilling to act against the two Senas for two reasons. One is that it is unsure of their hold on the middle classes, with their fear of being swamped by the migrants from other states. The other is that the Congress hopes that the competition between the two Senas will damage both of them in electoral terms.

But whatever the politics, the fact that the Thackerays have remained a major political force for four decades does not enhance the reputation of the state and its people. It is no secret that the image of a state’s leaders rubs on to its denizens. Thus the anti-Muslim Narendra Modi’s electoral success makes virtually all Gujaratis appear communal-minded and Lalu Prasad’s contrived mannerisms as a rustic make all Biharis seem bucolic.

The Thackerays may no longer come to power as they did in the mid-1990s in the company of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because of differences that have arisen between the two parties over harassment of the people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. As an essentially north Indian party, the BJP is extremely unhappy over the behaviour of its one-time ally.

As long as the two targeted the Muslims, there was no problem. But it is different this time. Besides, the two have had other points of disagreement, as over the Shiv Sena’s preference for Maharashtrian Pratibha Patil as the presidential candidate over the BJP’s nominee, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, of Rajasthan.

But even if the Thackerays fail to reach the corridors of power and are, in fact, weakened because of their internecine battles, they are unlikely to fade away in the near future. The result will be that their militant insular policies will make the whole of Maharashtra appear small-minded.

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

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