The ‘Marathi Manoos’ challenge post Bal Thackeray

Uddhav Thackeray and Raj Thackeray have a tough job on their hands. Though the brothers may have parted ways but both have in a way inherited the legacy of the ‘Tiger’ of Mumbai and both practice the same ideologies that the late Shiv Sena chief adhered too – that of identity politics and sons-of-the-soil theory.

However, the pertinent question is whether, they have it in them to wear the mantle of Bal Thackeray and whether they have the charisma and the longevity to keep his legacy alive.

Another poser is whether Bal Thackeray’s brand of politics is still relevant today when more than 50 percent of the population of India is under the age of 35. The fact is that Balasaheb was a polarizing factor and the question is whether that is the need of the hour in a country which is besieged by internal turmoil and perceptible outside threats.

Bal Thackeray and his organization’s oxygen were to identify and target one enemy at a time. Governance and vision for the state was often put on the backburner. And this enemy was not someone from across the border – the enemy was mostly from within. So at one point of time it was the South Indians, whom the Sena had opposed since 1966 from settling down in Maharashtra and stealing their jobs. Then North Indians and particularly the Biharis came under their scanner and were blamed of stealing jobs.

Anyway, to project one enemy after another to the cause of ‘Marathi Manoos’ paid rich dividends for Bal Thackeray, so much so that the man who started out as a political cartoonist with the Free Press Journal became an intrinsic part of Mumbai and Maharashtra politics by mid-seventies. He later forged an alliance with the Bhartiya Janata Party to form the government in the state after the 1992-93 communal riots, in which the Shiv Sena workers had allegedly taken an active part.

However, Shiv Sena has been on a decline in the arena of electoral politics since then, even though they may still maintain their stranglehold over the city of Mumbai and even though the city may have come to a standstill for the funeral of the Sena patriarch. The party could never come back to power in the state after one stint and Balasaheb never got another chance to ‘remote control’ the state.

In the given scenario, both Raj and Uddhav have their tasks cut out. While Uddhav is the chosen inheritor of the family, Raj is the one in whom the public sees a mirror image of Balasaheb. When Raj walked out of the family and formed his own party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, it was a personal blow for Bal Thackeray but then he knew that Raj had for long wanted to occupy his chair and probably there was no way that the late Sena chief could make both his son and nephew happy.

But now the family patriarch is gone the road ahead appears hazy. If they continue to play identity politics then they will be branded as polarizing factors but if they do not talk about protecting the rights of ‘Marathi Manus’ and if do not have a perpetual enemy to target then they face the danger of withering away. It is unlikely that both of them can reinvent themselves and not play divisive politics. A case in point – recently, we saw MNS chief threatening to brand Biharis as infiltrators, while Uddhav suggested that Biharis should require a ‘permit card’ to work in Mumbai. Also the Shiv Sena played an important role in sending the Pakistani hockey players, who were in India to play in the Indian Hockey League, back to Pakistan.

The fact is that Balasaheb lasted four decades in the state of Maharashtra without his influence waning because he was considered an astute politician who instilled a sense of fear and awe in those around him. He could shut down Mumbai at his will and filmstars to cricketers to businessmen often thronged at Matoshree to seek his blessings. Yes, he ran a parallel government in Mumbai much to the discomfort of the ruling disposition. But the Congress did not do much to rein him.

Not much has changed now. Filmstars and businessmen still try to keep Raj and Uddhav in good humour. However, there is one fact of life which is sacrosanct – there is place for only one at the top.

Uddhav, who was elected as the chief of Shiv Sena on Balasaheb’s birthday on January 23, has to be given time to see how and where he takes the Shiv Sena. The Sena’s influence may be waning but it is too early to write him off. Also, it would be interesting to see Raj Thackeray fighting for his place in the land of Shivaji.

A question that political pundits often ask is whether there is a possibility of Raj and Uddhav coming together. For the moment, given the ambition that both of them harbour, it seems unlikely. But as they say nothing is impossible in politics.

Post Script: A word about another Maratha strongman who may be considering this to be the best time to regain the space that he lost out to Bal Thackeray - Sharad Pawar. With the Assembly elections due in the state in a year’s time, his Nationalist Congress Party may just project itself as the new redeemer of ‘Marathi Manoos’. Well as they say – wait and watch.