Eye On The Tiger

Bal Thackeray challenged the liberal democratic perception of identity politics being unnatural to Indian democracy.

“The language of the mob was only the language of public opinion cleansed of hypocrisy and restraint”. – Hannah Arendt

“Uthao lungi aur bajao pungi” – Bal Thackeray’s slogan attacking South Indians working in Mumbai (then   Bombay) when he formed Shiv Sena in 1966

When Mumbai brought Bombay to a halt this week following the news about Bal Thackeray’s critical health condition, it reminded everyone about how nativist identity politics matter in Maharashtra’s capital. As Shiv Sena party workers and supporters, political heavyweights and the rich and famous made a beeline to call on the ailing Matoshree patriarch, the mainstream liberal intelligentsia might be wondering again about the appeal of Balasaheb Thackeray. He had always been a startling note in the symphony of Mumbai’s imagined liberal cosmopolitanism, and he had been so from his first profession. When political cartooning in India was generally Centrist and occasionally Leftist in its caricatures and tone, Balasaheb brought a Right-Wing political slant and satire to his cartoons as well as writings.

And when opposition political space in the city was becoming a stronghold of Left-leaning trade unions, he countered the trade unionism in the late Sixties with a vitriolic dose of parochialism, and altered the terms of political discourse in the city (interestingly, there is a view that it was Congress’ ploy to use him against Communist trade unions in the city). Making identity politics feasible and rewarding in the city would perhaps define his political legacy in the city. It’s a phenomenon which confounds the liberal school, and that’s why Ramachandra Guha has remarked in his work India After Gandhi:

“Thackeray lampooned dhoti-clad Madrasis, while his followers attacked Udupi restaurants and homes of Tamil and Telugu speakers. Another target were the communists, whose control of the city’s textile unions the Shiv Sena sought to undermine by making deals with the management. In this most cosmopolitan of cities, a nativist agenda proved surprisingly successful, being especially attractive to the educated unemployed”.

It’s also remarkable to note that there are some well-argued doubts about the pan-Maharashtra appeal of the Shiv Sena party beyond the tag of being a Mumbai-centric party, and more particularly about its ability to penetrate rural Maharashtra (the tag of being an urban voter-based party which somehow managed to form a state government in alliance with BJP in 1995, its most significant success till date). But, to know how the space lying vacant because of Balasaheb’s withdrawal from active politics is going to witness shifting sands of politics, we need to have a look at how the Shiv Sena was doing, in the demographical and territorial configuration of its support base, when Balasaheb was in his political prime (for analytical purposes, it can be taken as 1966-99).

In this context, it’s relevant to recall the study done by eminent political scientist and keen observer of Maharashtra politics, Professor Suhas Palshikar in his work Shiv Sena: An Assessment (published by University of Pune Press, Department of Politics and Public Administration). He has also engaged with this theme and provided some statistical observations in his article, Shiv Sena: A Tiger with Many Faces? (Economic and Political Weekly, April 3, 2004). Some of his key statistical findings can be seen in these tables:

 Shiv Sena – Lok Sabha Elections

Year SeatsContested SeatsWon Votes(%)
1971 3 NA
1985 2 NA
1989 6 4 10.2**
1991 17 4 9.5
1996 20 15 16.8
1998 22 6 19.7
1999 22 15 16.9

Shiv Sena – State Assembly Elections

Year SeatsContested SeatsWon Votes(%)
1972 26 1 1.8
1978 35 1.8
1985 33 1 2.0
1990 183 52 15.9
1995 169 73 16.4
1999 161 69 17.3

Notes: 1. Did not contest the elections in 1977-78 and 1980

2. Till 1990, Reports of the EC mention Sena candidates as Independents

Shiv Sena – Region-wise performance in the Lok Sabha Elections in the Nineties














N. Maharashtra










W. Maharashtra




Shiv Sena – Region-wise Distribution of Sena MLAs: 1990-1999

1990 1995 1999 TotalSeats
Mumbai 15 18 11 34
Konkan 11 15 15 31
N. Maharashtra 2 5 10 36
Vidarbh 9 11 8 66
Marathwada 11 15 16 46
W. Maharashtra 4 9 9 75
Total 52 73 69 288

 Party Preference among various Social Sections: 1999



Party Preference among Caste\Community groups: 1996

Caste\Community Congress Shiv Sena BJP
S. C. 27.7 8.3 8.3
S.T. 37.2 3.7 18.5
OBC (non-Kunbi) 37.2 25.5 15.6
Kunbi 26.0 34.1 13.8
Maratha 37.8 36.0 4.3
Muslim 56.0 1.8 1.8
Other 38.2 12.0 16.1


Caste Composition of Voters of main Parties: 1996 and 1999

(Column percentages) Caste Group

Cong. 96

Cong. 99

SS 96

SS 99

NCP 99

BJP 96

BJP 99

Maratha 20.5 19.6 30.4 30.5 31.5 6.3 19.0
Kunbi 10.6 7.1 21.6 20.0 16.0 15.3 13.7
OBC (non-Kunbi) 28.4 21.4 30.4 34.0 20.0 32.4 32.7
S. C. 6.6 15.4 3.0 3.0 8.2 5.4 2.0
S. T. 6.6 7.5 1.0 2.0 4.1 9.0 5.2
Other 27.7 28.9 13.4 10.5 20.2 31.5 27.5

(Source:  Shiv Sena: A Tiger with Many Faces? by Suhas Palshikar, Economic and Political Weekly, April 3, 2004)

The party has not returned to power in Maharashtra since 1999, and its presence in Parliament has also declined considerably since then.

These findings have to be the backdrop against which the absence of Balasaheb from the political space of Maharashtra has to be looked into. The retreat of Balasaheb from active politics also coincided with a family political succession to his son (and to some extent, to grandson too) and of course, the family revolt staged by his nephew Raj in the form of a new political party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena MNS. A party which is making the Mumbai turf war tougher for Shiv Sena using Balasaheb’s own dose of xenophobic tirade, though directing it against UP-Bihar migrants in place of Balasaheb’s punching bag – the South Indians. Historian Ramachandra Guha has found a hypocritical streak in the Shiv Sena succession story, as he observes:

“For all his professed commitment to Maharashtrian pride and Hindu nationalism, when picking the next Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray could look no further than his son Uddav”.

A box capsule in Mail Today has sought to compress the unfolding political battles in the state as a four-cornered contest with no clear frontrunners.



(Source: Mail Today, November 16, 2012)

As an unsettling figure for the liberal democrat’s quest for rational authority premised, Balasaheb fit into Weber’s explanation of charisma as the basis for authority in some societies and times. And his son’s succession vindicates another Weberian source from which authority is derived – tradition. These are the complexities of the pluralities which experiments with liberal democracy can throw up in third world societies (which by no means suggest that first world democracies are immune to it). The terrain of competitive identity politics and its rhetoric is as much a reality-check for votaries of liberal democracy, as India’s dehumanising poverty and economic disparities are for free market fanatics.


Image By – Satish Acharya for www.sify.com


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  • May his soul rest in peace! Someone who finished militant communist trade union movement in Mumbai! A nationalist to the core!

  • Adn

    Whatever the liberals and pseudo-seculars in media whine about he was a man who spoke the heart of common people and without apologies, without compulsion of being correct and to please cosmos who sit in studio to preach nonsense….

    Brash and stern he did what he believed in for convictions not for political offices….how many politicians have that guts to sit away today……he was non-castiest…..love or hate him…..he was an original patriot who cared for people who connected with him….thats why even in vidharbha and marathwada he is force to reckon with

  • Sankar Ramamurthy

    I don’t understand Guha’s statement “For all his…..Uddav” quoted in the article. Does he mean that if one is committed to Maharashtrian pride and Hindu nationalism, one should not anoint his son as successor? Or does he imply that Uddav is not a proud Mahratta or Hindu nationalist?

    • Sunil

      What Guha’s statement means is that inspite of all the ‘Maharashtrian pride and Hindu nationalism’ he (Balasaheb) seeked to uphold his dynasty by handing the mantle to his son. Clearly there could have been many from the Shiv Sena who could have served better.