Thackeray, from beginning to end

Meena Menon
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This biography is pedantic and uncritical of the Shiv Sena leader, except for mild jibes

BAL THACKERAY AND THE RISE OF THE SHIV SENA: Vaibhav Purandare; The Lotus Collection, an imprint of Roli Books Private Limited, M-75, Greater Kailash, II Market, New Delhi-110048. Price Rs. 350
BAL THACKERAY AND THE RISE OF THE SHIV SENA: Vaibhav Purandare; The Lotus Collection, an imprint of Roli Books Private Limited, M-75, Greater Kailash, II Market, New Delhi-110048. Price Rs. 350

Thirteen years after he wrote his first book on the Shiv Sena in 1999, at the age of 23, Vaibhav Purandare produces a second one soon after the death of his subject Shiv Sena Founder Bal Thackeray. The frontispiece is a cartoon of Jawaharlal Nehru with a comment by him saying ‘my congratulations to the cartoonist.’ On the flip side is an evocative tribute after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. In a sense they say more about the proclivities and talent of the late Sena chief than a thousand words.

 The book goes into detail about the rise of the Shiv Sena like it did in the earlier venture titled ‘The Sena Story’, with some added chapters on Thackeray and the two warring cousins Raj and Uddhav. For the most part, it is uncritical and often pedantic, except for mildly jibing at Thackeray’s utterances in an interview, calling it “defiantly uncool”, whatever that means. The publishers have forgotten to delete a line which takes you by surprise in the middle of a paragraph, which gives away the nature of the book inadvertently — “Too detailed commonly known knowledge makes the narrative textbookish.” 

However, to those who want to know the bare bones of the party’s inception and what gave it the momentum in the initial years and spurred it on to win the state, the author obliges. After his first book, a hagiographic account of the Shiv Sena, he manages to get in more adulation, this time to the departed leader.  Starting off with the humungous crowds at the funeral of Thackeray, the author writes that there was none of the violence and disruption usually associated with the Shiv Sena, and of “the quiet and controlled grief that hung over the metropolis.”

Early years

He devotes a lot of space to the early years of the party, its positioning among the “sons of the soil” and its antipathy to the outsider, be it the South Indian, the Gujarati and later the Muslim. He quotes trade union leader, B.S. Dhume, who probably offers one of the few critical statements on Thackeray and his role in decimating unions in the city. So, we have details on how Thackeray formed the Shiv Sena after breaking a coconut, hated politics and called it a ringworm, admired Hitler though he didn’t like what was done to the Jews, liked warm lager beer in his early life and smoked cigars and of course drew cartoons and was a fan of David Low. We also know that he flirted with the Congress and Acharya Atre dubbed the party Vasantsena, alluding to its closeness to the then Maharashtra Chief Minister, Vasantrao Naik. The Congress and the Shiv Sena had a chummy relationship for the best part till it formally allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the mid 80s.

In the last chapter on Thackeray, we are told he may have preached violence but he didn’t like beating children, was simple and well organised, remembered the birthdays of his dear ones and that he is well read and a brilliant mimic. The author closes the chapter by saying that Thackeray is irreplaceable for the Sena. In his almost childlike adulation, Purandare does refer to the Sena chief’s unabashed predilection for violence and offensive language which few would use in public, but he softens this with terms of endearment for his hero’s other less known sterling qualities.

“What does one say of a newspaper owner and editor who lambasts journalists in public and even suggests that they be thrashed? Or of a leader who denounces Bollywood icon Dev Anand one day for selecting a Pakistani girl as a female lead in his film and on realising it’s a case of mistaken identity, instantly makes peace the next morning. Or of a politician who condemns the Mandal commission report even though his party’s support base consists largely of OBCs. Or one who routinely attacks his alliance partner, the BJP, without compunctions? Or a Hindutva protagonist who takes a hardline stance on the demolition of the Babri Masjid and, some years later suggests that a national monument for Hindus and Muslims be built at the Ayodhya site...” and so on.  

In his first, Purandare’s naiveté can be almost forgiven, but here it is jarring. He has dwelt at length on every little detail that went into the formation of the Sena and the way the party grew and the number of seats it won in every big and small election, its dalliances and alliances. Like a bystander, he seems to have recorded anything at all, sometimes selectively, but instead of analysis, he resorts to rhetorical questions like the entire paragraph above.

The book devotes one chapter to the communal riots in the city after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 more as a narrative of what happened, with quotes from the Srikrishna Commission. He reproduces in detail the provocative speeches of Thackeray in the party mouthpiece Samna for which the Sena leader was charged for hate speech under the Indian Penal Code but never punished. Reading those speeches again you wonder why the Congress government did not have the guts to take action against him and never gave permission till date for prosecution. Then you realise you already know the answer.  “The Hindus have opened their third eye,” thunders Thackeray in the paper after the whole city was in flames in January 1993.  Of the Congress inaction, Purandare has this to say, rather approvingly: “Not even the fingernail of the law touched the Sena chief who not only owned up to the Babri Masjid demolition but also the Hindu backlash in January.”

 On the future of the Shiv Sena, its leadership and the possibility of Raj and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena joining forces with his cousin, Purandare turns to cliche. “The least we can do is not rule anything out. Politics after all is the art of the possible.”



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