Like all those who mobilise on the basis of ethnicity and religion, Bal Thackeray fashioned the Shiv Sena’s formidable clout out of political building blocks that were base and primordial. The language of hate and, when needed, violence were deployed to generate fear and insecurity, pride and solidarity. The founder-leader of the Shiv Sena first invoked Maratha pride against the State’s linguistic minorities and then the divisive agenda of Hindutva against religious minorities. Mumbai’s jobless were not offered land or employment, but they were taught whom to blame for all their miseries: the south Indians, the Gujaratis, and the Muslims. As a strategy of political mobilisation, this worked wonderfully well. The Sena’s brand of collective identity and the use of lumpens in direct action displaced trade unionism as the organising principle in political bargaining. Thackeray’s legion of followers raised him to the status of a demigod who could force an entire State to shut down with the mere threat of violence. Of course, the Sena leader did not gather strength overnight. From his days as a caricaturist, he perfected the art of lampooning political rivals, and drew crowds with his acerbic oratorical skills. Like Hitler, whom he admired, Thackeray knew how to command loyalty and inflame passions. Every failing of his opponents added to his muscle power. Although the Sena took time to grow into a political force, and come to power with the help of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in another sense, it was a rapid political success, inspiring organisational fear in opponent parties, and proving to be of political use to the powerful and the moneyed classes.
But the Shiv Sena’s success came at a great price for not only Mumbai and Maharashtra, but India as well. Mumbai’s communal fault lines were thoroughly exploited by Thackeray and his Sainiks, especially in the weeks after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. As the Srikrishna Commission documents, Muslims were systematically killed in riots engineered by Sena leaders. The brazen anti-minorityism of the Sena fed the BJP’s agenda in other parts of India too. Other States in India have seen the rise of regional parties, which too have invoked regional and linguistic pride in their political mobilisation. But none of these parties displays the unreconstructed chauvinism of the Sena. Ironically the one outfit to rival its methods and approach is the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which broke away from Bal Thackeray in 2006. Even as people in Mumbai and Maharashtra mourn the passing of the patriarch, they ought to reflect on the manner in which his sectarian politics diminished the great city and State and demand of his legatees a change of course.