Bal Thackeray is having the last laugh

Not only are the two factions of the Shiv Sena fighting over his legacy, he is now following in his wife’s footsteps with things finally being named after him left, right and centre

Getty Images
Getty Images

Sujata Anandan

When Bal Thackeray's wife, Meentai, had suddenly passed away when the Shiv Sena was in power the first time in Maharashtra in the 1990s, the state government for the rest its term had made an event of the commemoration of her death and the celebration of her life before that.  Before she died, no one was even familiar with her name. Now roads, bridges, gardens, and arches were all being named after her and every government and party function began with an aarti to her along with one to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and soon the Shiv Sena made her name and face an instant recall.

A disgusted bureaucrat had then said off the record, “Who in god’s name is Meenatai Thackeray? What is her contribution to nation-building? Why should everything be named after her? When Bal Thackeray finally dies, I don’t think anyone will commemorate him as much as he is doing his wife!”

He was right. Thackeray’s funeral was huge but after that, there was little to show in his memory. Even his memorial at the Mayor’s bungalow in Shivaji Park was a transactional event. The BJP had been waiting in the wings for a long time for Balasaheb to finally exit the scene. When he died they thought they were finally on safe ground and could kick an alliance that had lasted the longest in India. But to their horror, neither did the Shiv Seha collapse, nor did it break up as most people had predicted. In fact, in the last decade of his life, Balasaheb had suffered two break-ups and bounced back after his nephew Raj Thackeray and one of his most trusted aides Narayan Rane split from the mother party and took several Shiv Sainiks with them. So the BJP should not have been celebrating too soon.

Uddhav Thackeray, fighting with his back to the wall in 2014, came back with a resounding bang - he posted the best ever solo performance by the Shiv Sena, outdoing even his father’s performance and beating even the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party to second place in the Assembly (after the BJP) which fell short of a majority. The party had to then reluctantly seek a fresh alliance with the Shiv Sena but through the five years between 2014 and 2019, it did its best to obliterate the legacy of Bal Thackeray - except to  set up funds for his memorial in return for keeping the Shiv Sena sweet and prevent it from straining at the leash.

Before the funds were provided for the Thackeray memorial, former chief minister and Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi had bitterly criticised Uddhav for his wishy-washy efforts in setting up the memorial. “If Balasaheb had been alive and wanting a memorial to his own father, he would have shut Mumbai down. Uddhav simply is incapable of fighting like that.” 

That statement estranged Joshi from Uddhav and he was banished to the sidelines. But had it not been for Thackeray's old friend Sharad Pawar suggesting the mayor’s bugalow as a memorial and the Devendra Fadnavis government buying Shiv Seba support with memorial funds, Thackeray today would be a fading memory of the past.

But now he seems to be having the last laugh. Not only are the two factions of the Shiv Sena fighting over his legacy, he is now following in his wife’s footsteps with things finally being named after him left, right and centre. The Uddhav faction named a hospital after him and the BJP and Shinde group named the flagship Samruuddhi Expressway between Nagpur and Mumbai the “Hindu Hriday Samrat Balasahaeb Thackeray Expressway.”

Before the split, even the title of Hindu Hriday Samrat was up for grabs by Narendra Modi and the BJP and as Uddhav Thackeray refused to attend the unveiling of his own father’s portrait in the Vidhan Sabha premises to mark Thackeray’s birthday (as it was a move by the Shinde faction), questions are now being raised about even lesser grounds that Thackeray has for the privilege – in death than when he was alive.

In 1995, the Shiv Sena-BJP government had brought down Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar portraits from ministers’ rooms in Mantralaya and replaced them with those of Bal Thackeray and the late Deendayal Upadhyaya, an RSS icon, who even younger BJP leaders had then failed to recognise.  After the switch was spotted, a huge controversy errupted and the Gandhi-Nehru-Ambedkar photos were duly restored. In retaliation, Thackeray had refused  to allow the Joshi government to set up a memorial to former prime minister Morarji Desai who had a history of conflict with both Thackeray and the Maharashtrians of Mumbai. Now no one will dare bring his portrait down, not the least because his son cannot be expected to disrespect his father and the Congress and NCP are his allies and cannot oppose the move as they had done in 1995-96 when Thackeray was alive.

But on his birthday today, the first after the latest split and after his passing, both factions are fighting hard for a piece of Bal Thackeray. His legacy will always be one of violence and sectarianism and not one that his son seems in a mood to carry forward. The Shinde faction has nothing more than his name to cling to – for no one in the Balasaebanchi Shiv Sena has even an iota of Thackeray Senior’s charisma and cannot really follow  his legacy as the BJP under Modi has already appropriated that space rather more effectively than Thackeray ever could.

So between multiple hoardings from both factions  greeting him on his birthday and blood donation camps – somehow appropriate considering how much innocent blood the Shiv Sena had shed in Thackeray’s time – both sides are left with little more than to await the Supreme Court hearing on Januaru 30 to decide who really owns Bal Thackeray’s party. 

It is a sort of poetic justice for all – the BJP must keep his memory alive much against its will in order to defeat his political heir who can only benefit from being recognised as such. That political heir, his son, must remember his father’s sectarian propaganda even as he tries to shrug off the communalism and wishes to go secular. The leader of the rival faction cannot become his own man so long as he clings to the legacy of his rival’s dead father but cannot risk distancing himself from that agenda, even as the rival mocks him for using his father's name and legacy. And Bal Thackeray, the roaring tiger in his lifetime, is now the cat that gets away with the cream in the fight between his multiple political legatees. 

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