One of the minor games of public life is decoding the difference between what a politician says and means. Bal Thackeray, who founded cadre-based Shiv Sena in 1966 and nurtured it into the second-largest party of India’s second-largest state before his death on the weekend, never used code. He said what he meant, particularly when he intended to be virulent. He was indifferent to the consequences of candour, not because he felt he was stronger than his Congress Party opponents, but because he believed that on the particular battlefield where he chose to take a stand, Hindu-Muslim conflict, Congress was weaker than him.
Congress was in power in Mumbai and Delhi in December, 1992, when the Babri mosque was turned into rubble in Ayodhya and riots followed in Mumbai and dozens of other cities across India. An official inquiry confirmed what everyone knew: Shiv Sena had played an instrumental role in the violence, which left 575 Muslims and 275 Hindus dead in Mumbai alone. Congress could not find the political will to prosecute.
Mr. Thackeray was 21 in 1947, when India was partitioned because of the Muslim League’s argument, against the evidence of history and culture, that Muslims could not live as equals in a united nation. The British helped the league become the dominant voice within the spectrum of Muslim communities by giving it the sole place at the high table of negotiations. For the young Mr. Thackeray and others, this was proof, if it was needed, that Indian Muslims could never be patriots. Mistrust congealed into barely disguised rage.
Most Hindus did not agree with him, not then and not now. They refused to blame all Indian Muslims for the misconceptions of the Muslim League. But the price of partition was heavy, both in terms of war between India and Pakistan, the first two nations to roll back European colonization, and in bitter internal skirmishes that poisoned relations between communities.
This, however, was not Mr. Thackeray’s only passion. He sought pride and jobs for his own community, the Marathi people, against the encroachment of other Hindus, whether from Gujarat or Southern India.
He began as a journalist, drawing cartoons for an influential Mumbai newspaper, before he set up his own political party. Reward came when the Shiv Sena was elected in his state. But although Mr. Thackeray hit every button of regional emotionalism, he could never claim power as a natural prerogative. The Shiv Sena has lost far more elections than it has won.
In a slow but inexorable process, India began to change after 1992, and the Shiv Sena did not change as much as India did. There have been no major Hindu-Muslim riots in India since 1992-1993. (The Gujarat carnage a decade later was a derivative of 1992.) The sheer cost of the violence opened Indian eyes to the simple fact that conflict and economic growth cannot co-exist. Common sense insisted that a better economy was the saner option.
The economic reforms of the early 1990s, which came around the same time as the huge spike in ethnic battles, engineered something larger than an economic phenomenon. They altered the culture of politics in very significant ways, by redirecting the equation of electoral mathematics from traditional sources of competition, like caste and religion, toward good governance. This did not – could not – happen suddenly. But all over India (including the north, where the virus had deep roots), politicians discovered that the old formula was being replaced by new urges. India is now in the midst of its second and more important struggle for liberation: In 1947, it won freedom from the British; today, it is unravelling the chains of its own, homegrown demons.
Does Mr. Thackeray’s death mark the passage out of the politics of provocation? We can raise the question today, but the answer will only come tomorrow, from his heirs. There are two claimants to his legacy, his son Udhaav and his nephew Raj. We shall soon learn who commands the vacated space and how the battle of succession is won.
A few weeks ago, some Muslims in Mumbai went berserk during a demonstration, leading to arson and death. In the 1980s, the response in this volatile city would almost surely have been widespread counterattacks. Raj Thackeray mobilized an impressive rally of his supporters in response but controlled it to the confines of rhetoric.
Lives end, but life does not. History evolves. Society shifts its momentum from one fulcrum to another. Politicians can survive by clinging on to the status quo, but they thrive only when they move ahead of the curve that alters social behaviour. The future can only belong to those who recognize the future.
M.J. Akbar is an author and columnist based in Delhi. His most recent book is Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan.