Few had imagined that the pencil-thin, bespectacled Bal Thackeray or Balasaheb as his supporters called him would become a charismatic and muscular political demagogue.
Bal Keshav Thackeray, born on 23 January 1926, began his career in the early 1950s as a political cartoonist. Son of a social reformer Keshav Sitaram Thackeray alias Prabhodankar, few had imagined that the pencil-thin, bespectacled Bal Thackeray or Balasaheb as his supporters called him would become a charismatic and muscular political demagogue.
He was a cartoonist with the English language daily The Free Press Journal in Mumbai, which he quit in 1960 to launch a cartoon weekly Marmik. His cartoons were also published in the Sunday edition of The Times of India.
In the 1960s anti-migrant feelings engulfed Maharashtra especially Mumbai and Thackeray sensed an opportunity to become a spokesperson for the Maharashtrian middle-class.
He founded the Shiv Sena on June 19, 1966, declaring that his aim was to protect the interest of the Maharashtrians. Thackeray claimed that the state was being swamped by people from South India and only his party could protect the interest of the sons of soil.
The Shiv Sena was an anti-outsider movement, stoking the flames of regional pride, while also building a formidable grassroots network across Mumbai where Thackeray's words were the rule. The city would come to a standstill as soon as he gave a call and the Shiv Sena's primary objective was to target South Indians, Gujaratis and Marwaris. The party wanted to ensure jobs only for Maharashtrians and used violence against those who were opposed to its ideology.
An effective orator with a sharp sense of the prevailing public mood, Thackeray was a politician in search of an enemy. The Gujarati businessman one day, the South Indian the next and the Muslim another day were his favourite targets. From Maharashtrian pride to Hindutva politics, Thackeray slowly evolved but what did not change was his high-pitched rhetoric and his willingness to endorse the politics of violence through the party's local shakha network.
When the Pakistan team was to travel to India in 1990, Thackeray actively encouraged his supporters to dig up the pitch and break the BCCI office.
The rise of Hindutva politics gave Thackeray the space to become a player on the national stage. After regaining power in the 1985 Mumbai municipal corporation, the Sena struck an alliance with the BJP in 1988, an alliance that has stood the test of time.
The post-Babri Masjid riots provided Thackeray with the perfect opportunity to position himself as the militant protector of the Hindu community, a role that he relished. Thackeray launched Shiv Sena's mouthpiece Saamna in 1989 where he would target his political opponents and the immigrants to Maharashtra in the most vitriolic language. Shiv Sena joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and won the 1995 Maharashtra State Assembly elections and came to power.
For more than four decades, Thackeray ran the Sena with an iron fist. He was a bit like the godfather of a political party, revered by his supporters and feared by his critics. For the Shiv Sena, its role in the 1992-93 riots confirmed Thackeray's status as a charismatic larger than life figure. Playing on the fears and prejudice of the majority community, the Shiv Sena became a partner in power in Maharashtra for the first time in 1995. Typically, Thackeray chose to stay away from the chief minister's chair, preferring to be the autocratic remote control, an individual feared by Mumbai's rich and powerful.
But the years in power, corrupted the Sena. The promises no longer seemed quite so attractive. As an opposition leader, Thackeray was a remarkable rabble-rouser, in power, his party appeared devoid of an agenda. Defeat in 1999 hastened the Shiv Sena's decline. The party began to splinter with several top leaders like Chagan Bhujbal and Narayan Rane moving away from the Sena. Caught in a power struggle between son Uddhav and nephew Raj, an ageing Sena chief could no longer hold the party together. When Raj Thackeray decided to go his own way, it was a sign that the iron fist was beginning to crumble.
Moreover, in July 1999 Bal Thackeray faced legal trouble and was banned from voting and contesting in any election for six years from 1999 till 2005 on the recommendations of the Election Commission. In his last years, Thackeray was very much the tiger in decline. As Sena supporters fought amongst themselves on the streets of Mumbai, Thackeray must have wondered what had happened to his writ. There was a time when it was said that a single word from the Sena chief was enough to bring the city to a halt. By the end, Thackeray had lost the one ability that he had always relied on, the ability to strike fear.