You may not have agreed with him, and there were many who did not. But you always knew that he was speaking out of genuine conviction and, I guess, that is what appealed to those who loved and followed him.
I knew him over thirty years and what never failed to charm me was his wit, wisdom and wicked sense of humour. It was part of his infallible appeal, his charisma and he was often able to score sharp political points not through boring, didactic speeches but clever satire that every man on the street could understand and appreciate. I guess it came from his original calling, as a cartoonist. He could reach out and touch people with his edgy sense of humour.
Unlike other politicians, he was rarely preachy, never pompous. His power lay in his simplicity, his easy charm. And that is why he made friends so effortlessly.
I was in Matoshree the day before he passed away and I marvelled at the crowds there. These were ordinary people, day workers and blue-collar guys who were there to show the family their concern for the ailing Sena leader. Yes, there were many Sena workers there too. But there were Hindu purohits chanting Sanskrit shlokas and praying for his recovery. There were Muslims there, kneeling on their prayer mats, praying for his wellbeing. There was the entire media there, many of whom had never agreed with his politics. But the man was so much larger than his politics. And that is what attracted everyone to him. That, and the fact that he spoke a political language few people do any more — the language of patriotism.
What will happen to his Shiv Sena now? What will Raj Thackeray do? Can Uddhav fill his shoes? If you ask me, these are all pointless questions. Thackeray did not just build a party. He created an enduring institution and fulfilled a particular political need. Many hated him. Many feared him.
Many loved him for what he stood for. Now that he is no more, the party will need to retrofit itself to meet the compulsions of the emerging political scenario.
That will be the challenge before his inheritors. To take his legacy and give it a new cutting edge. No, it may not be as easy as it sounds. But it is never easy for any party, any organisation to take ahead the dreams and aspirations of its creator. It will be particularly tough for the Sena because Balasaheb was the party, he was its ideology, he was its heart and soul.
I remember how he called me one day and over a typically frugal lunch, asked me to fight the Rajya Sabha elections on a Sena ticket. It was not one of those typical Rajya Sabha nominations that are mutually decided on the basis of the number of votes each party has. It was an actual election where there was one extra candidate and someone had to lose. Luckily, it wasn’t me. Even though the Sena had two old party hands as their official candidates and I was banking on a few extra votes floating around, Balasaheb’s eloquent pitch worked for me. I sailed through. It was the official candidates who had to struggle. Sonia Gandhi’s handpicked candidate lost.
Of course I will miss him. I will miss our long, languid chats over warm beer and cigars where we discussed books, cartoons, movies, news stories, art and history, magic and metaphor. And, yes, politics. But then, Thackeray never took politics that seriously. For him, it was just one among the many other things that he hoped could make India a better place for the common man. I hope that dream will continue to inspire his inheritors. Only then will the Sena of the future make Balasaheb proud.
Pritish Nandy, a journalist, writer and filmmaker, is a former Shiv Sena Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha