Mumbai : What explains the sea of humanity at Balasaheb Thackeray’s funeral? He was not a universally revered figure, nor did his death come as a shock to his followers.
It was clear from the restrain and discipline shown by the crowd that each member felt a sense of loss. That people perched on creaking balconies, roofs, trees and even electric poles, unmindful of their safety, indicates that they cared for the man.
Despite all his drawbacks, Bal Thackeray was seen as a champion of the cause of the Marathi manoos: the Mumbaikar who felt disenfranchised in his own city.
One can say that he stoked parochialism but Thackeray surely gave voice to the Maharashtrians in Mumbai. It may not have given them to gloat except Bombay’s cosmetic change of name but in the late sixties and seventies Shiv Sena gave a sense of identity and a sense of belonging to the ordinary Maharashtrian who felt marginalised.
Bal Thackeray was able to maintain a bond with the ordinary Shiv Sainik right till the end. He spoke about their fears and prejudices in their idiom. He was witty, though often crass, and a great communicator because he was able to give them emotional security. As an orator, he could keep his audience spellbound. Even today, several youngsters confess to having converted on hearing one of his Dussera rally speeches.
That is not to belittle the genuine work the Shiv Sena shakhas, their local offices, did and still do to a large extent. Anyone with a ration card problem, a school admission problem, trouble with the cops (anything except trouble with a builder) is sure to get a patient hearing if not help at these shakhas.
Apart from his status as patriarch, it helped that Bal Thackeray had such a long innings. Added to this, the former journalist had a penchant for keeping himself in the news by hook or by crook. The man who swore by Marathi ethos had no compunctions in getting Michael Jackson to Mumbai, the man who dug up the Wankhede pitch to prevent Pakistanis from playing in Mumbai invited Javed Miandad for dinner.
And the way he manipulated the media to perpetuate the myth of a benevolent dictator was simply marvellous. Unwittingly, the media magnified Bal Thackeray, even in death.
But there are instances of large gatherings without a media blitz. For instance, six lakh Dalits gather at Shivaji Park every year on December 6 for the Mahaparinirvan divas of Babasaheb Ambekar, who was cremated at the beach abutting Shivaji Park.
That Bal Thackeray never took up a position of power added to his allure as a role model in a society starved of genuine heroes.