“I don’t accept your democracy,” he would often say and draw a huge applause from the audience at rallies. His ‘instant justice’ system was his USP, which he used throughout his life to attract popular support.
True to his words, neither did he contest an election, nor allow anyone from the family to enter the fray. When the Shiv Sena was voted to power in the 1995 elections, Thackeray could have become chief minister, but he nominated his trusted man, Manohar Joshi, for the post. This move was considered bold and surprising because a person from the Brahmin community made it to the top — most CMs from the state then were from the Maratha community.
The Sena’s saga of success under Thackeray’s rule began during the Congress’ reign. And it was always described as one that was promoted by the nation’s grand old party. To strengthen the belief, it is said that, former CM Vasantdada Patil, offered a winning formula to the Sena when he gave evasive reply to the late Pramod Navalkar on Centre’s plan to make Mumbai a union territory.
Sena used Patil’s statement, “Even if there is a plan to make Mumbai a union territory, my government will oppose it,” to clinch power in the BMC and further its agenda of sons-of-soil, for the party’s growth. Ever since, the Sena’s growth at the state and national level is mostly attributed to the Hindutva cause.
Between 1985 and 1990, the party had Chhagan Bhujbal as the sole MLA in the State Assembly. But he was a one-man army of the Sena in those days. Later, under Thackeray’s leadership, the Sena won the Vile Parle by-election that became controversial due to Hindutva speeches by top Sena leaders. In ’90s, the Shiv Sena had expanded its base in the Konkan and taken the wind out of the Congress. It also received good support in the Marathwada region.
The Sena strengthened its position in Marathwada by gaining the support of the people who were against renaming the Marathwada University after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. The region saw violent protests against the decision and the majority of the upper class aligned with the Sena. Thackeray’s statement “Gharat nahi peeth an kashala hawe vidyapeeth?” (Why do you want to rename the university when you’re struggling for bread and butter?) struck a chord with his supporters.
The Sena’s staunch Hindutva card further alienated many voters when Shiv Sainiks joined the karsevaks who demolished the Babri mosque in 1992. Before that, Sena strongman Chhagan Bhujbal defected to the Congress with 18 MLAs. The move generated sympathy for the Sena. In March 1993, Mumbai witnessed serial bomb blasts, followed by riots. During the riots, the Sena took to the streets with Thackeray’s orders creating mayhem.
The Hindutva card played by the Sena paid back and the party, along with the BJP, won the State Assembly elections in 1995 for the first time. Thackeray was credited as being the architect of the victory.
Thackeray was known for his fearless speeches irrespective of the fallout. He did not spare personalities form the literary field, either. His remarks that litterateurs are bulls (intended at Marathi writer PL Deshpande) stirred controversy. Similarly, he described Pune MP Suresh Kalmadi as a frog when he approached the Thackerays for the Sena’s support to contest a Lok Sabha seat as an independent.
His political acumen was on display when he distanced himself from the Sena-BJP attempt to dislodge the Vilasrao Deshmukh-led government in 2003. When he realised that the possibility of a Sena-BJP government was bleak, Thackeray declared he was not part of the political gameplan.
Thackeray’s clout declined when his trusted aides —Chhagan Bhujbal, Narayan Rane and Ganesh Naik quit the party in 1991, 2005 and 2000 respectively. The biggest blow came when nephew Raj Thackeray deserted him to form the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in 2006.