One of the minor games of public life is decoding the difference between what a politician says and what he means. Bal Thackeray, who founded the cadre-based Shiv Sena in 1966, and nurtured it into the second largest party of the second largest province in India by the time he passed away last week, Maharashtra, 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 opponents, the Congress Party, but because he believed that on the particular battlefield where he chose to take a stand, Hindu-Muslim conflict, the 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, as in dozens of other cities across India. An official enquiry confirmed what everyone knew, that the Shiv Sena had played an instrumental role in violence that left 575 Muslims and 275 Hindus dead in Mumbai. Congress could not find the political will to prosecute.
Thackeray was 21 when India was partitioned in 1947 because the Muslim League in British India argued, against the evidence of history and culture, that Muslims could not live as equals in a united nation. The British helped the League to 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 Thackeray, and others like him, this was proof, if indeed proof 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 colonisation, and in bitter internal skirmishes that poisoned relations between communities.
This, however, was not Thackeray's only passion. He sought pride and jobs for his own community, Marathis, against the encroachment of other Hindus as well, whether they were from Gujarat or South India. The Left was anathema to his politics. He began as a professional 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 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 after 1992-1993. The Gujarat carnage a decade later was a derivative of 1992. The sheer cost of previous violence opened Indian eyes to a simple fact: 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, towards 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 liberation struggle. In 1947 it won freedom from the British. Today it is unravelling the chains of its own, home-grown demons.
Does Bal 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 Uddhav and his nephew Raj. We shall soon learn who commands the space vacated by Balasaheb, and how he wins the battle of succession.
A few weeks ago, some Muslims in Mumbai went berserk during a maidan demonstration, leading to arson and death. In the 1980s the response in this volatile city would almost surely have been widespread counterattacks. Raj Thackeray mobilised an impressive rally of his supporters in answer, 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 recognise the future.