Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Bal Thackeray's Fractured Legacy

Balasaheb did bring a sense of pride to the Marathi people, but he also encouraged prejudice towards others. He inculcated pride in the name of glorious Maratha history, but reduced this history to a very narrow band

Published: Nov 17, 2012 05:00:19 PM IST
Updated: Nov 23, 2012 01:51:31 PM IST
Bal Thackeray's Fractured Legacy
Image: Reuters
Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray

{Note: We have received an overwhelming response to this article. A few readers have taken offence to the reference to the CKP community in the article.
Mr Ketkar has sent us a letter, clarifying the context and reason for his reference to the community.
Please read it on next page at the end of this article.}

We have received an overwhelming response to senior journalist Kumar Ketkar's article on Balasaheb Thackeray's legacy. A few readers have taken offence to the reference to the CKP community in the obituary.

Mr Ketkar has sent us this letter, clarifying the context and reason for his reference to the community.

Read more:

Balasaheb Thackeray was a celebrity par excellence. He loved the limelight. He enjoyed the controversies. He manipulated the media with ease and often took positions to provoke the elite. He attacked the powerful and privileged. He ridiculed the government and ministers. He made fun of the high and mighty. He looked at the world, not as a politician but as a wild, wayward kid. He used a cartoonist’s brush to lambast as well as laugh. He wore unconventional clothing, just as he used unconventional language.

Yet he was adored by the masses as well as the privileged. Dhirubhai Ambani to Rahul Bajaj, Dilip Vengsarkar to Javed Miandad, Amitabh Bachchan to Lata Mangeshkar, Lal Krishna Advani to Sharad Pawar and Pritish Nandy to Mahesh Manjrekar—have all sought his company and relished photo-ops with him.

What was the magic or the charisma that attracted people towards him? And how did the Thackeray phenomenon take shape? Surely he did not plan or chalk out his career. He was never a planner or a strategist. He was not well read in history or politics. He had very little understanding of economics. He was not even a thinker in the classical or non-classical sense of originality. He never addressed seminars, conferences or gave key-keynote speeches. Indeed, he had no ideas or causes to espouse. Yet he had an appeal which is partly inexplicable and partly understandable in the context of Maharashtra's chequered history.

The Shiv Sena was formed in 1966 almost six years after the state of Maharashtra was formed. It was a time of political turmoil in the country. Indira Gandhi had just taken over as prime minster after Shastri’s death. She was finding her feet in uncertain political sands. The Congress was sort of leaderless and even directionless. The Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, which had spearheaded the agitation for creation of the Marathi State, had dissolved after achieving its objective. The Indian economy was reeling under stagflation. Unemployment, particularly in the middle class, was rising as there was little investment. The generation born after independence had come of age and was looking for jobs as well as a socio-political identity. It was in this political vacuum, that young Bal Thackeray began his campaign through his weekly magazine Marmik. His main message was that Marathi youth are unemployed because of the influx of "upras", the migrants. The Marathi people have been betrayed, he thundered.  This struck a chord with the unemployed Marathi youth in Mumbai. They had found the enemy!  

Neither the Shiv Sena, nor its reincarnation the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, grew beyond this cause. The philistine urban middle class and frustration of the unemployed created the right atmosphere for anyone willing to take up cudgels. Bal, as he was known then, with no political experience, no ideology and no organization entered the fray. His appeal for direct action `inspired’ disoriented Marathi Mumbaikars. The Shiv Sena was born on the streets and thrived on mindless action. It was a text book case of anarchy leading to fascism. Even Bal Thackeray had no idea of what was happening, neither was he equipped to comprehend the complexity. In this atmosphere of chaos people found a leader who was as clueless as them.

No wonder then, that he never had any political position. Not that he could have achieved it, but the point is he never aspired for any post. He enjoyed holding the remote control, even when the Shiv Sena-BJP government was in power. He enjoyed the aura and halo that was being created around him. He had disdain for trappings of power. Also he never wanted the responsibility that came with it. He never wanted to be accountable to anyone. He wanted to be maverick, irreverent, unencumbered and also irresponsible. That was the kind of freedom he wanted and enjoyed.

It is indeed strange, that a man who prided himself for being Marathi, fought for the Marathi identity, invoked Marathi culture and embraced Maratha history, never really took any interest in promoting historical research or going beyond simple references to Shivaji Maharaj. He never bothered to promote the Marathi language. For him, only politics mattered, not as a theme but as a rabblerousing technique. That Marathi identity touched a chord with the mass in Mumbai, which was getting marginalized. Even in the city that was India’s commercial capital, there were hardly any large Marathi-led corporations, very few celebrated Marathi industrialists with global ambition and even fewer Marathi stock brokers.

Bal Thackeray's Fractured Legacy
Image: Savita Kirloskar / Reuters

At another level, there were no Marathi writers on par with Amitav Ghosh or Vikram Seth, no Nobel laureates like Amartya Sen, no Marathi film makers in the class of Satyajit Ray. After the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance came to power, Balasaheb could easily have started robust institutions and projects to promote all this and more. He could also have made efforts to make Marathi a global language. But nothing of the sort was attempted. There was no vision, no program and no strategy. All that would require a lot of cerebral activity and real work. Neither Balasaheb, nor his son or nephew thought it was important. They did not, for instance, consider setting up an art academy in his name. (They might now, if only to thrive on his image).

Despite Balashaeb's father being a social reformer and a militant anti-Brahmin activist- the Thackeray clan is a typical CKP (Chandraseniey Kayastha Prabhu) lower middle-class family from Central Mumbai. This class has never shown any entrepreneurial talent or technological heft. The Maharashtrian middle-class has in fact, suffered from a strange inferiority complex. A state of mind that is misplaced, because it is from this class that the much celebrated Marathi theatre evolved. This middle- class has provided backroom technocrats and artists to Bollywood for decades. Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, or Amitabh and Shahrukh may have dominated the tinsel world, but much of the technical camera work, editing and set designs were done by the Marathi artists and craftsmen. Though the textile mill owners were Marwari or Gujarati, the working class in Mumbai was primarily Marathi. Today, it is not fashionable to appreciate the role of the trade unions, but the workers movement was founded and run by the leading lights like Comrade Dange and S M Joshi. Indeed, today’s middle class, the diaspora or the new consumer class could not have existed but for the formidable trade union movement. This was not the reflection of an inferiority complex, but the militancy of the Marathi middle and working class.

Maharashtra has a fabulous industrial base, skilled workforce, innovative peasantry, cosmopolitan cities, vast educational base, progressive social foundation, spread of women' education and because of the European influence on Mumbai and Pune, an enlightened world view. Shiv Sena and Balasaheb could have done a lot. But instead of building on this foundation, the ethos was narrowed to the idea of Marathi identity and that too without defining or broadening it.

Balasaheb did bring a sense of pride to the Marathi people, but he also encouraged prejudice towards others. He inculcated pride in the name of glorious Maratha history, but reduced this history to a very narrow band. Only the elite could send their children to English medium schools, creating a class divide. . Marathi medium schools lack facilities, give low quality education and have poorly qualified teachers. The Sena leadership sent their children to posh English medium schools, even as they aggressively spoke against the influence of English or Hindi.

Balasaheb Thackeray’s legacy is that that he put Maharashtra on the national agenda, but his failure was that he could not really provide a vision for the state. It is inevitable therefore, that the Shiv Sena will suffer a rather rapid meltdown. Uddhav will not be able to prevent the disintegration. He has neither charisma, nor comprehension of the political matrix. Raj has already formed one strong pole and the other will likely be the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) led by Sharad Pawar, who needs foot soldiers. With no father figure, the Sena will now seek comfort with Pawar.

It is a fractured legacy of his charisma that Maharashtra has to live with now.


We have received an overwhelming response to the above article. A few readers have taken offence to the reference to the CKP community in the article. Mr Ketkar has sent us this letter, clarifying the context and reason for his reference to the community.

To The Editor,
Forbes India,


I am hugely surprised by the mail we been receiving for the past four days, saying that I have criticized, underestimated and undervalued the CKP community. And that I have ignored their achievements. Either my article has not been read in the context or not been read at all, by some respondents whose sentiments and pride I fully respect. I must, therefore, put across the context so that your magazine too is not accused of any bias.

Quite a few non-Marathi channels were referring to Balasaheb Thackreay as a "Maratha" leader and some even called him "Maratha Strongman". That is because most people outside  Maharashtra do not understand the semantic and sociological difference between "Marathi" and "Maratha" on the one hand, and the "Maratha" as caste and its significance in Maharashtra.

Since Balasaheb too was referred to as "Maratha", I thought I should merely mention that he was born in a CKP (Chandarseniya Kayastha Prabhu) middle class family. If the readers read further then the they will easily notice, that I have referred to this middle "class", not "caste". Not only the CKP but almost the WHOLE MIDDLE CLASS in Maharashtra had no prominent industrialists, no stock market brokers, no big businessmen and hardly any Nobel or such laureates of INTERNATIONAL repute. This was not a comment on any specific caste but on the entire middle class comprising over 25 castes. I don't think anybody can dispute that fact.

I have also stated further, that though there were no such industrialists or big-business successes, most of the top leadership of various social, cultural and trade union movements came from the same middle class and hence there is no reason to have any inferiority complex or any kind of diffidence. Balasaheb's father too was a social reformer and leader in his own right who also was part of the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement.

There is not a word against the CKP community or any other caste or community in the article, but just a mention that the middleclass in Maharashtra were not entrepreneurs in the class of Gujaratis and Marwaris and, like other castes even the CKP community belonged to the middle class. There are hundreds of great people from this community and others in the middle class who contributed to the culture and politics and other fields. But I was referring only to the industry, trade and international recognition in other fields.

I am truly surprised at the reaction from the respondents, either out of misreading the piece or misinterpreting the article or prejudice about me for other extraneous reasons. Be that as it may, I think it is my moral duty to keep the record straight and make it clear to you that I have nothing, never had anything against the CKPs or ANY community, caste, religion or linguistic group.

I hope this will help clear the misunderstanding.

Kumar Ketkar 

Bal Thackeray's Fractured Legacy
(Kumar Ketkar, the editor of Dainik Divya Marathi has been a political and economic commentator for close to four decades. He started his career at The Economic Times, and has been editor at The Observer, Maharashtra Times and Loksatta. A Padmashri winner, he has rocked many boats with his editorial views)