Balasaheb Thackeray has lessons for Indian politics

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Bal Thackeray died yesterday, and all hell broke loose among the polarized opinions. Some respected him for what he did. Others saw him as a fascist. There was very little overlap if any. In my eyes, mass leaders like Balasaheb Thackeray cannot be viewed in isolation from the masses. While it is undeniable that the Shiv Sena held and continues to hold the city hostage with brute force, while it cannot be denied that there have been hideous attacks on outsiders and Muslims, the question really becomes one of trying to understand what is really happening here.

When a politician can use a regional identity and build such formidable politics around it that almost no public figure is seen criticizing him in death, the matter isn’t one of political disagreement, but a question of what drives a sizable part of the population to ideologies that the rest see as unacceptable. If the country is to be whole, there has to be an attempt to include interests of all.

Bal Thackeray and his divisive politics can be dismissed as beneath our attention. However, isn’t this a story that keeps repeating countrywide in various ways across the political spectrum? We see the high success of religious identity politics with parties like the MIM. We see far more xenophobic politics in the name of region among the Kashmiris or Bodos. We see the narrative of the rights of the local people echoed in political orientations as far left as the Maoists.

We could choose to fixate on the unacceptability of a person and refuse legitimacy to views of a significant part of the population, or we could choose to see what it means to India as a whole if such divisive politics consistently finds popular support.

A common factor I find is disenfranchisement. It is less about the desire for superiority and more about the desire for identity to be respected. When we speak of the Marathi Manoos rallying behind Shiv Sena, we could dismiss them as Facists. All of them. And accept that a significant part of the country has interests in bringing fascists to power. Then we fight a perpetual ideological war. Or we could choose to see what the hurt is and see if there are ways it can be fixed to avoid driving people to violent ideologies. This is not about adopting divisive politics, but in identifying the problems being addressed by it to see if more functional solutions that don’t divide people are possible that satisfy the needs perceived by the people, or remove the needs in other ways.

A common factor in all these narratives seems to be a state that will not listen leading to people who think they need to take matters in their own hands if their interests are to survive. These are invariably people without a mainstream voice. What is the Kashmiri who keeps saying that India is trying to colonize Kashmir really saying? What is happening to his identity? What does it mean when a Bodo comes to the point of massacring outsiders (Muslims this time)? What does it mean that thousands of people stand accused of sedition for daring to refuse a nuclear plant? What does it mean when a Marathi Manoos speaks of Balasaheb Thackeray saving the “Marathi Asmita” in a time when Marathis were ridiculed as “ghatis”?

The rest are just the frills. It matters little if Balasaheb Thackeray saved the Sikhs or Kashmiri Pandits. Those are being presented as evidence of his being “good”, but what really got people rallying behind him? They felt that their identity was being bolstered by powerful stands he made. Today, the Marathi manoos often lives in an overwhelming perception of his culture and identity being marginalized. Particularly those who don’t have access to this “modern” India being built around them. Whether factually correct or not, it is experientially true. A person who grew up in the shadow of middle class parents working hard and buying their own home cannot dream of doing the same. This is inflation, but a new class of rich people makes it seem like odds are stacked against him (which they are too). Massive growth in media and muli national industries have resulted in a new class of affluent people who idolize influences that increasingly exclude Maharashtrian ones. It isn’t only about missing influences but about them being inferior.

Marathi accents in Hindi or English are perceived as less refined. Marathi heroes are possible only if sanitized to a generic north Indian image. In the city with the most national media being made, the “average” person portrayed is never Marathi unless it is made in the Marathi language. A job as a peon too needs fluency in Hindi and/or English. It is not just a matter of jobs, but one of identity being perceived as declared inferior to that of “outsiders”

We  can debate the “good man, bad man” thing till the end of time, but the bottom line is that the Marathi person sees much needed enforcing of respect for the identity of “real inhabitants” in symbolic things like Marathi signboards or insistence on Marathi films being played in theaters. And it isn’t perfect, but it feels good. It feels like their existence is valued. As a Sena supporter said recently on the hype about the Biharis “Here Gujjus are owning Mumbai, driving up prices till Marathis are selling and moving to cheaper places, and we are objecting to people doing labor that helps the city run?” The point is that the Marathi Manoos isn’t fooled by the xenophobia. They aren’t fooled by the selective standards. But they want whatever affirmation of their identity possible.

The question really becomes one of why this kind of disenfranchisement happens. Why do things reach such a point where a template of “Indian” takes over unique identities and compounds it by calling a generic rootlessness the ideal? Why does this ideal deny any special bonds between people and their homeland? What is achieved by denying these fundamental identities? Why is the “greater good” at the cost of those being harmed by it? Who do we cater to, by upholding the rights of those with resources to pick the best opportunities everywhere to do it regardless of cost to local sentiments?

For that matter, in a country perpetually outraging over sentiments, how is it that the violated sentiments of tribals, Kashmiris, Bodos, Marathis, Kudankulam locals, and such people invaded by the larger good don’t find validation? A little contemplation shows that it boils down to power – muscle or money. Have money, reach opportunity. Have muscle, influence opinion. Have money, take over the economic capital of the country.

In my view, the real thought on Balasaheb Thackeray’s death does not need to be if he was right or wrong, but what is it that he provided that the supposed rule of law and democracy deprived his supporters of. What is it that we as a country are ignoring? Why are we not able to listen to people?

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6 thoughts on “Balasaheb Thackeray has lessons for Indian politics”

  1. Like always, really admire that you write without being conscious of established ideological stereotypes. Thakeray is dead, whether he was evil or good does not matter as much as what the support he garnered was for and what were the insecurities and concerns of people which he seemed to address and what can be a better way forward. Also the parallels you have drawn with other regional movements which is often avoided just because success levels/methods are different even though the ideology may be related.

  2. Vidyut, What Bal T did was channelise and change the frustration of poor Marathi speaking ppl into hate for others. He did it by appealing to the meanest part of our psyche. Most regional and casteist/communal leaders do the same. It is an easy way to get a crowd and to get votes. It will have the financial support of big business because they always like to divide the poor and break the Unions.
    Bal T was different from other such players in using lmore violence and
    Issue is poverty amidst filthy rich. Issue is global rich converging on poor ppl’s land and pushing them out. Issue is heartless capitalism.
    As far as I know, Bal T was on the side of big business and the rich, helping them to divide the poor. He helped in masking the fact that real issues of the ppl of all languages,caste and religion
    are the same. By his rhetoric ‘other’ poor ppl are the reason for poverty of Marathis he absolved the rich of it’s crime.
    Bal T was part of the problem, but sold it as a solution and many bought it to realise it was a mistake later.

  3. A big argument against Marathi Manoos issue is phenomenon of globalised economy and economic dynamism, suggesting that low income migrants are better and more hardworking than local ones and hence get jobs. That is more or less a polite way of saying, migrants work for 12 hours a day with no weekends off and no overtime and can be abused out of their rights.

    It is a little naive and convenient to think that the “Marathi Manoos” issue is just a unsubstantiated emotive issue. A political party does not remain relevant only on an emotive issue for 40 years.

    Personally I never found Thackeray’s politics very appealing, far from it but I think I would be a little naive for me to think that other politicians (except maybe Vajpayee to a certain extent) are not equally hypocritical and do not use violence and intimidation to beget and maintain power and influence in public life.

  4. Bravo! A very well argued piece, Vidyut. I have a couple of points to add.

    1. The pro-Kudankulam gang keeps waving the report of a 2007 Lancet study to claim that nuclear power is safe. The report is not a blanket certification for the safety of all current & future installations. It bases the safety of nuclear plants on certain conditionalities – that a set of safety standards should exist if a plant is to be deemed safe. While waving the report, they wittingly or unwittingly obfuscate a core point of debate – that the Kudankulam & Jaitapur plants’ adherence to these standards are suspect & not transparent.

    While there might be a set of standards certifying the safety of
    nuclear plants today, the standards themselves are limited by our
    incomplete understanding of sub-atomic physics. Just a few weeks ago,
    the scientific world was celebrating the discovery of the Higgs-Boson
    particle that they’ve been grappling with for decades. We don’t even
    know what else lies there & how it might behave in unknown
    conditions. Is the risk really worth taking when the same energy goals
    can be achieved through safer sources? This report is priceless.

    3. While the media’s questioning of Udaya Kumar’s credentials itself is problematic, what’s even more problematic is their silence on the criticism of these plants by people with proven credentials.

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