tricolor landscape

Balasaheb Thackeray has lessons for Indian politics

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?