To his followers he was god. To his detractors he was demon. To the liberals he was fascist. To the seculars he was communal. To the system he was challenge. To the media he was enigma. To politics he was toast. To the Hindus he was protector. To the Muslims he was question mark. Yet his personal physician was a Muslim just as the personal physicians of Jinnah were Hindus. This is Bal Thackeray 360 degrees.
An orator who could make his audience laugh and cry, Thackeray emerged as the most charismatic leader of Mumbai, later Maharashtra. He redefined cosmopolitan Bombay into Maharashtrian Mumbai and culturally won the city back to its traditions. Few dared to be on his wrong side. Everyone — Indira Gandhi or Karunanidhi — wanted to shake hands with him. He could still Bombay with his shrill call. He never contested an election, but could make anyone win or lose one. He never occupied any position, but installed and unseated chief ministers. He shared desk as a cartoonist in the Free Press Journal with great cartoonist R K Lakshman. He stormed into public life first as the protector of Maharashtrians against South Indians who were swarming Mumbai. Soon he found that Chatrapathi Shivaji as his icon did not match the narrow limits of his Marathi agenda. Result: He readily transformed Shiv Sena as a Hindu force and gained wider acceptability in national politics. None could really fathom the source of his power. However, what was the source of his power? His courage to court unpopularity was the essence of his power. All politicians are terrified of becoming unpopular. Bal Thackeray defied unpopularity, even revelled in it. This broadly sums Bal Thackeray. This was the Thackeray I knew from a distance; and now the Thackeray I experienced from near.
My first meetings with him were at the famous penthouse of Express Towers in Mumbai. In early 1989, he came to meet Ramnath Goenka. The issue was to form alliances among highly contradicting persons and parties ranging from the ultra-secular and Mandalite V P Singh at one end and the BJP and Shiv Sena with the Hindu and Ayodhya agenda at the other, to defeat the Congress. For V P Singh the Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh was a must to defeat the Congress, something that did not concern Thackeray. V P Singh had been making critical remarks against communal Shiv Sena and other Hindu outfits to prove his secular credentials. This was the background of the meeting. Four persons — Goenka, Thackeray, Prabhash Joshi (Hindi editor) and myself — were present in the meeting.
Thackeray told Ramnath Goenka that he was for an alliance even with the devil he would not like to look at, to defeat Rajiv Gandhi. Goenka then asked me to explain the compulsions of V P Singh to keep criticising Thackeray to foster his secular image to the comfort of the Muslim voters in UP. I told him how V P Singh was already struggling to keep the Mandal and Muslim votes despite his inevitable alliance with the BJP and so he needed some Hindu figures to pass negative remarks and Thackeray’s name was necessarily one. Thackeray asked me how many more times V P Singh would criticise him. I replied “another three times”. Thackeray said “okay”, but added “fourth time, tell him, he cannot land in Mumbai”.
Then, Ramnath Goenka told him that, from the Indian Express side, I was helping the work of building an alliance against the Congress and would need all his support. Thackeray took my right hand, put his right hand in my right palm closed it with his left hand, and told me, “Guruswamy, I have put Shiv Sena in your hands. It is now your responsibility”. I was stunned. I corrected him on my name. The meeting was over. Thackeray left. My friend Perez Chandra, a free lance journalist and a man Goenka immensely liked, entered the room. He and me met Thackeray several times later. We discussed everything that happened. Ramnath Goenka told us that Thackeray’s strength was his courage to say what he believed in — right or wrong. Perez is the only surviving witness. PS: To Thackeray, I always remained ‘Guruswamy’. He could never get my name right.