Both critics and admirers of the late Bal Thackeray are agreed on one point. The most unique quality of the late departed leader was his uninhibited candour. He spoke as he felt regardless of how the world would react. One hopes therefore that the same lack of inhibition would be welcomed when displayed by a writer assessing his legacy. A couple of days back a TV channel approached me for comments about Thackeray as a cartoonist. As general practice I refrain from appearing on TV and specially from commenting upon cartoonists. In a moment of weakness I consented. When I met the TV team I inquired when Thackeray had expired. “Oh, no!” the interviewer said. “He is still alive!”
What?” I exclaimed. “Why then are you interviewing me? I consented in a moment of weakness thinking of the exceptional circumstance that an eminent cartoonist has passed away. Forget it, no comments from me!” Mercifully I escaped that interview. After seeing the media coverage following Thackeray’s death I feel doubly lucky. I think that a comment to redress the outpouring of adulation for Thackeray that hogged page after page in the print media will not be out of place.
I saw little of Thackeray’s work as a cartoonist. But from the little that I had seen of it just after entering the profession I can say that he was an accomplished draughtsman. Like his contemporary RK Laxman he seemed to be hugely inspired by the style of the legendary British cartoonist, David Low. I saw too little of his work, because he was based in Mumbai and I started work in Delhi, to comment on the content of his cartoons. But cartoons apart, Thackeray will be remembered primarily of course because of his foray into politics. Editorials and newspaper columns are gushing about his political legacy and his iconic status.
What is Bal Thackeray’s legacy?
Thackeray is described as a strong man and as a Tiger. When he spoke it was the “Tiger’s Roar”. He had dedicated followers who never hesitated to intimidate with violence anyone they chose. Thanks to the absence of a genuine rule of law in this country they could get away with anything. They could terrorize Mumbai. Thackeray in a TV interview said that he was happy that he inspired fear in others. That fear led Bollywood stars and business magnates to flock to him.
But how strong was he really?
The “Tiger’s Roar” became a “Kitten’s Meeaaoow” during the Emergency when he offered unstinted support to Indira Gandhi and unlike many other politicians escaped arrest.
Commentators refer to his political legacy. What was it?
In concrete terms his party never obtained more than eleven seats in the Lok Sabha. His party never succeeded in winning an assembly to rule a state. In real electoral terms he was dwarfed by Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee. Thackeray’s influence and power was concentrated in Mumbai city in which he could dominate and dictate. Ah, but it was Mumbai, the capital of the corporate and cinematic world that he could dominate! Could the national media that runs on corporate money possibly avoid building him up to high heaven?
His very limited electoral success apart, what were the policies bequeathed by Thackeray to Indian politics?
One can safely say that his death will be mourned as a great loss in the darker political segments of China and Pakistan. His policies pursued everything that the enemies of India sought. He divided, destabilized and weakened India. He politically thrived on hatred against first of all South Indians, later the Muslims and most recently people from North India. He did this for perceived political gain with complete cynicism. He compelled authorities to rename Bombay as Mumbai. But he anglicized own name as Thackeray instead of Thakre! In a TV interview he said that he differentiated between no caste and community but only between the rich and the poor. He said he believed only in one India in which all were Indians regardless of caste or community. Contrast this with his actions on the ground targeting South Indians, North Indians and Muslims. He was candid enough to tell a TV interviewer that he supported Hindutva only because it won him votes. One cannot therefore criticize Bal Thackeray of hypocrisy.
How will posterity remember Bal Thackeray?
Will he be remembered as a great iconic figure or as a footnote in history? That depends on how long the present corporate dominated establishment continues to rule the nation. After all, during the 1947 Partition if the tearing apart of one nation, of one people, through a holocaust resulting in the death of a million innocents, accompanied by the displacement of 10 million innocents, all this accomplished in a span of three months, in violation of the solemn pledges made to people, continue to be celebrated six decades later as the successful culmination of a great freedom struggle to make India independent, why might Bal Thackeray’s memory not be enshrined in history as a great political icon?