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Till the end, Bal Thackeray drew hard lines, kept the Shiv Sena true to its bitter core
The next line of Thackerays may carry on the party with techniques invented and honed by Bal Thackeray, but they cannot recreate his large presence that dominated Maharashtra for over four-and-half-decades. Bal Thackeray was one of a political generation of regional leaders who forged new constituencies based on calls to identity. Unlike many of his political contemporaries, though, he never moderated his platform. The "other" may have taken on new names, but Thackeray's politics continued to be driven primarily by its antipathies, its most consistent basis and principle remained fear.
When he formed the Sena in 1966, he brought in a political style that repudiated democratic citizenship for an aggressively authoritarian "Marathi" mobilisation. In the early phase of the Sena's growth, Hindutva was the subtext, becoming a rallying cry in the mid-'80s, helping the Sena to enlarge its appeal. The framing context for the Shiv Sena's rise was the decline of the city's textile mills, a stagnant labour market and the fading of the communist promise. Born in the space created by the Congress and manipulated by it, the Sena soon came into its own as its rousing challenger, cannily playing on economic anxieties and providing a platform for cultural assertion. Relentlessly, through his cartoons and columns, Thackeray demonised migrants and minorities. Public violence was a conscious performative strategy. The Sena's role in communal riots, like those that tore Bombay apart in 1992-93, has been documented. With its strong organisational infrastructure and its sense for the political theatre, through maha-aartis and fiery rallies, it went from strength to strength, from dominating the municipal arena to winning the Maharashtra assembly in 1995 in alliance with the BJP, and getting an impressive parliamentary tally. Though it lost power in the state in 1999, and was then suckerpunched by high-profile desertions, including nephew Raj Thackeray who formed the rival MNS, it has remained a formidable force. Thackeray's outfit has, in fact, successfully set the terms, with the regular surrender to Sena-style threats against "offensive" art, scholarship, entertainment or sport becoming a defining feature of Maharashtra's politics.