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From Sarkar to Raj- The fractious legacy of Bal Thackeray

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Vijaya Dar
Born in Kashmir. Indic by culture. Occasional writer, avid reader. Love serious cinema, but not TV. Eternal student.

17th November 2018 marks the sixth anniversary of the day when the death and funeral of Bal Thackeray brought Mumbai to a complete halt for two consecutive days. It was not the first time that this son of the soil had managed to bring all activity to cease, something that did not happen even when Bollywood’s first superstar, Rajesh Khanna, passed away. The Tiger of Matoshree would roar no more, but such was his hold on this Megacity that no one dared to move out on normal business. How then should one define his legacy?

My first encounter with the late Balasaheb Thackeray’s outfit was sometime in 1973 on a day when his father died. Until then he was a minor chieftain, still trying to find his feet in the overcrowded political sphere of Mumbai and Maharashtra. But on that day, when his father died, he let loose his cadre on the hapless shopkeepers of Dadar and forced them to down their shutters. I happened to be in the market and saw how quickly the shopkeepers were intimidated into obedience. The Shiv Sena cadre consisted mainly of the Marathi speaking village folk that had come to Mumbai to eke out a marginalized existence working as daily-wage labourers in the city’s sweat shops. Balasaheb had cunningly used the son-of-the-soil stratagem successfully to give these rootless people an identity, while metamorphosing the non-Marathi speakers into demons who had wrongfully occupied their lands and deprived them of their rights on the jobs and in the economic activities of the city/state.

Soon, the Shiv Sena had grown into a potent political force catapulting its founder to a position where he could sup at the high table with the big guns of all the leading political parties of the time. All sought his party as an ally for he could deliver muscle to electoral campaigns that till then was provided by the underworld. Balasaheb also cleverly positioned himself as a champion of the Hindus when the Congress and the various parties left-of-the-centre began to woo minority votes following the failure of the Janata Party experiment in 1979. This, naturally, brought him closer to the BJP that rose phoenix-like from the ashes of the Jana Sangha. The slogan “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain” found immediate resonance in the hearts of the Hindutva-wadis who were ready to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra.

However, for Balasaheb, Hindutva was only a step in the ladder to political power. Although he never deviated from his support to the Hindutva movement, the BJP would soon find out that his loyalties could not be taken for granted. Balasaheb would ditch them whenever it was convenient for him. Using his cadre to break into the labour movement in Mumbai, he gradually gained control over a very large number of workers’ unions. The murder of Datta Samant and the decline of George Fernandez as a Union leader would make him the sole arbiter on behalf of the millions of workers across Mumbai and its industrial suburbs. At the same time the underworld also lost a lot of its influence due to many encounter deaths, and inter-and-intra gang killings. Dawood Ibrahim with his assistants fled to Dubai and Karachi while Chhota Rajan and other gang lords too had to flee to safe havens outside India. I do not know how much the Shiv Sena benefited from the absence of these (un)worthies, but it would not be idle speculation to think that Ram Gopal Verma’s film “Sarkar” was not totally a work of fiction.

In the first week of January 1993 I happened to be in Chennai on business. However, I had planned to be in Mumbai on the 10th, an important date in my family’s calendar. While Chennai was quiet, Mumbai had been witnessing terrible communal violence in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya that happened on 6th December 1992. Curfew had been imposed at night, and my friends cautioned me against travelling to Mumbai in these fractious times. However, I took the chance and booked a seat on the Indian Airlines flight that landed at Mumbai Airport at about 10.30 p.m. There was no certainty of finding a taxi or any other kind of transport from the airport. One option was to book into the Centaur Hotel near the Airport and to spend the night there. Many of the business travelers on the flight did take that option. But the whole purpose of my trip was to be with the family. I came out to the taxi stand to look for a cab.

Surprisingly, there was a taxi looking for passengers. The driver asked for my destination, and on hearing from me asked me to sit in the back of his cab. He said he would charge me Rs. 150 (about 3 times the normal fare those days) for the journey. I readily accepted and got into the cab. Soon he picked up three more passengers on similar terms, and within ten minutes we were out of the airport. The roads were completely deserted, with not even a soul on the Western Express Highway. The driver began talking and we learnt that he was a retired airman from the Indian Air Force. He commented that the highway was so free that it felt like a runway. He said his name was Arun Patankar, and reassured us that we were safe with him in his little vehicle. The white uniform he was wearing signified that he was the owner of the taxi. In a trice we were at Mahim creek where two people on the road waved for us to stop. Arun kept his foot down on the accelerator and flew past them. We reached Kohinoor Mills, where the Shiv Sena has its Headquarters, without any incident, and without seeing any sign of life on the roads. Here a police party stopped us wanting to know where we were heading. Arun told the Inspector that he had picked up passengers from the airport, and was dropping them at their destinations. The Inspector told him that there was a rampaging Shiv Sena mob ahead, and advised Arun to lower the window glasses, to drive slowly, and to stop when asked. He said that in no case should he try to flee.

We moved ahead and, sure enough, were soon besieged by a mob armed with swords, hatchets, and staves. Arun waved to the mob, stopped the cab, leaned out, and shouted, “Jai Maharashtra”. The mob wanted to know who he and his passengers were. We told them that we had come from Chennai and were visitors to the city. One fellow wanted to see our boarding cards. I showed him mine, and on seeing my name on it he wanted to know the names of the other passengers. Two of them had Christian names, while the third was a Tamil Hindu. Satisfied, the mob let us move but warned that we could again be stopped and therefore should move very slowly. On the sides we could see the smouldering remains of vehicles that had been torched. Menace had a palpable, physical presence and dark figures loomed in the shadows. Another group of armed men stopped us and a similar exchange took place. We went past the Portuguese Church in Dadar and very soon were near Century Bazaar in Worli where the two Christian gentlemen got down. The third passenger was going up to an apartment complex in Prabhadevi. Apparently he lived in Chennai but some pressing business had made him to come to Mumbai in these dangerous times. His brother was residing in the complex and he looked forward to celebrating Pongal with him and his family. We reached the gates of the apartment complex where he got down and was kind enough to suggest that I too could stay in his brother’s flat and go home in the morning. I asked Arun how he felt about it. He said if I were willing to go, he would readily take me home. I thanked the last passenger and told Arun to turn around.

Suddenly, his car wouldn’t start, and for a moment I felt as if fate was telling me not to proceed any further. I was about to shout to the retreating figure of my co-passenger when the engine coughed into action. Arun drove away from the complex and was moving towards Dadar Bridge when another mob sprang from the shadows and shouted for him to stop. Arun stopped and repeated his slogan of “Jai Maharashtra”. One miscreant hit his taxi meter with an iron pipe asking him if he did not know that there was curfew in force and how he dared take his taxi out. Arun pleaded that he was only helping stranded passengers and actually doing a service to the public. The leader of the mob poked his head inside the cab and asked me my name. He wanted to see my passport since I claimed to have come from the airport. Fortunately, he accepted my explanation that I was a domestic traveler and did not insist on seeing my passport. He did not want to see my boarding card either, and waved to the mob to let the car pass. That encounter was really frightening, and but for the presence of mind and the confident manner of Arun Patankar, I may not have been alive to tell the tale. The mob was ever on an edge and one wrong word or move would have resulted in instant annihilation.

We crossed Dadar Bridge and at the roundabout found a police jeep patrolling the area. The police officer too wanted to know what we were doing on the road at that time when the city was under curfew. By then I had enough, and instead of replying, I asked the officer to tell me where he was going. He replied that his patrol jeep was on a round and would be going to Thane. I asked him to stay with our taxi and provide us escort till Ghatkopar. He signaled for us to follow him, and we were again on our way. With the patrol jeep ahead, we reached my apartment building without any further incident. By then it was past one a.m. I offered Arun more than the Rs 150 he had initially demanded and suggested that he could spend the night in my home. He thanked me, declining both the offers. His home was in Dadar area and he would rather go back to his family, as they would be worried about his welfare. I paid him the fare, said good-bye, and waited till the taillights of his cab went out of the compound.

I think Arun Patankar is a true hero of our times. To be concerned about total strangers, stranded by riots, not knowing how to get to their destinations, and to ply his taxi during such dangerous times, is an act of great courage and spirit. That he made a trifle more money than he would normally have made, does not take anything away from his bravery and public-spiritedness. He was putting his life and the means of his livelihood in extreme jeopardy just for the sake of ferrying totally unknown people to their destinations. I am sure he would have safely made it back to his family that night. People like Arun are very rare and they carry with them the blessings and good wishes of countless strangers.

What can one say about the legacy of Balasaheb Thackeray? There can be no doubt that he created a powerful organization that could influence politics at the regional and national levels. Powerful industrialists, movie moguls, and politicians from all the parties sought his goodwill. He was Godfather to the large cadre of Shiv Sainiks who were ready to do his bidding without demur. He was able to bring India-Pakistan cricket to a complete halt, and neither the Central Government nor the powerful cricket baron Sharad Pawar could make him budge. He exercised the power to censor films, publications, and art if they offended his Maharashtrian or Hindutva sentiments. He could bring all activity to a full stop, as he did on the day of his death and on the following day of his cremation. Yet, for all the outpourings of grief by his followers and the paeans of praise sung by the media and the glitterati, one cannot but feel that their expressions were motivated more by fear than by any genuine love for the man. Perhaps the city of Mumbai was heaving a collective sigh of relief at the passing of this Tiger. Perhaps, it may be more appropriate to remember him as Mumbai’s ‘Tigger’! After all, wasn’t he a cartoonist before he became a politician? His son-and-political-heir Udhav does not possess the charisma of the father, nor does his nephew. Raj is a rabble-rouser without the sophistication of the uncle, and will remain a fringe player in Mumbai politics.

Udhav is trying to spread his wings again having announced his party will field candidates against the BJP in the coming MP, Rajasthan, and Chhatisgarh elections. He is testing the waters, so to say, before the General Elections. He is bound to cut into some BJP votes and that might tempt him to go alone or in alliance with the other dynasts. Whatever his decision, it will spell the end of the Sena’s blackmail politics. After 2019 the Sena will go the same way as other dynastic parties as they come to the end of their history.

I cannot see Raj Thackeray merging his MNS with the parent organization and playing second fiddle to Udhav. The Shiv Sena reached the peak of its power and is now inevitably on the decline. For how long will the memory of Bal Thackeray survive in the collective consciousness of the people of Maharashtra is anybody’s guess. The junior Thackeray, Aditya, is not even in the same league as an Akhilesh or a Tejaswi Yadav. Days of entitled dynasts are all but over. If they are still around, it is because their families have amassed huge personal fortunes with which they have bought their passage into legislatures.

Narendra Modi’s big win in 2014 has all but written the obituary of dynastic politics, and 2019 should see the end of the Thackerays, Gandhis, Yadavs, Scindias, Pilots, Abdullahs, etc., as powerful political families. Bal Thackeray, recognizing the decline of the Congress after the Emergency, seized his chance in the city of big bucks. He rode the wave with anyone who would contribute to his success, not like a Shivaji, but more like a Clive, immoral in alliances and implacable in hostilities. But, for me, it is Arun Patankar who truly symbolizes the Maratha spirit of Shivaji, and not the saffron-robed, Rudraksha-adorned Tigger of Matoshree, Bandra.

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Vijaya Dar
Born in Kashmir. Indic by culture. Occasional writer, avid reader. Love serious cinema, but not TV. Eternal student.

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