The tiger in winter
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Bal Thackeray was a product of his time, and he leaves behind a party in decline
Not withstanding his larger-than-life image and his ability to bring the country's financial capital to a halt, Bal Keshav Thackeray had lately been a lonely man, and he died a near-lonely death. His rise, from a cartoonist to a maverick politician in the "Godfather" mould, had certainly been meteoric. But it also highlights the Congress's monumental miscalculation in dealing with regional sentiments. Bal Thackeray's political career underlined how wrong India's grand old party could go while addressing regional issues. And it is almost certain that he is not the last such example.
Thackeray was a product of his time, and of the Congress party. His rise has roots in the first reform of the independent India: the States Reorganisation Act passed in 1956, which promised to redraw state boundaries along linguistic lines. However, for its own inexplicable reasons, the Congress leadership was insensitive to the demands of Maharashtrians who argued that Mumbai belonged to them, and should be part of Maharashtra and not Gujarat, as proposed. The Congress's approach ignited the state's first public movement led by Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, a progressive social activist and Bal Thackeray's father. The Samyukta Maharashtra Movement first tasted blood when C.D. Deshmukh, finance minister in the Jawaharlal Nehru cabinet, resigned accusing the Congress leadership of an "anti-Marathi" bias. One of Mumbai's brightest sons, with many accolades to his credit, Deshmukh was the first Indian to have led the Reserve Bank of India in 1943. His challenge to Nehru stoked an anti-Congress sentiment, kindling the fire that eventually resulted in the birth of the Shiv Sena.
Meanwhile, completely oblivious to local sentiments, the Congress imposed Morarji Desai on Maharashtra. Adamant politician that he was, Desai ordered the state police to fire on Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti protestors, resulting in 105 deaths. It was against this backdrop that the young Bal Thackeray decided to give up his job as a staff cartoonist in The Free Press Journal to set up a loosely-structured, tightly-run outfit called the Shiv Sena. It remains true to that vision even now. The Sena was never truly a political party. It was at best an organisation that espoused the Marathi cause, and at worst, a rag-tag grouping that gave a platform to many a lampoon. It survived and flourished because of the Congress's cockeyed politics, which kept ignoring Marathi sentiments. Leaders like Bhanushankar Yagnik, Rajni Patel, Murli Deora, Kripashankar Singh etc became the face of the Congress in the state, and their main task was to rein in Maharashtrian leaders like Yashwantrao Chavan, Vasantrao Naik, Vasantdada Patil, Sharad Pawar and many others.