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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Demagogue of Hate

Bal Thackeray, India's most provocative political figure, has surpassed his own incendiary record this year on his rise to the top of Maharashtra state


TO HIS HARSHEST CRITICS, he is a demon stoking the fires of communalism and hatred. To many supporters, he is a demigod defending the Hindu faith from the infidels - just like the namesake of his Shiv Sena party, Shivaji, a legendary 17th-century guerrilla leader who took on Muslim invaders. Whatever he does, Balasaheb Thackeray, 69, seldom fails to quicken heart rates or leave a powerful impression. "My words are like bullets," he said in one typical recent interview. "Once I fire a shot I don't care where it is going to hit."

This year, more people than ever got caught in his crossfire. In March, Thackeray's Shiv Sena party formed a strategic coalition with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That gave Thackeray a new legitimacy and a wider platform from which to preach. Though he holds no elected office, he is now widely acknowledged to be the most powerful leader in Maharashtra, India's richest state. He freely admits what others prefer to whisper; that he controls the Maharashtra chief minister "by remote control." "I look upon Manohar Joshi as one of my own sons," he told Asiaweek, "and when he comes to touch my feet for my blessings, I am happy to bestow them."

The electoral alliance with the BJP has given Thackeray exposure far beyond state borders. After the victory, Thackeray said the first order of the government's business would be to hunt down and expel Bangladeshi Muslims living illegally in the state capital Bombay. He has also gained notoriety for his attacks on Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pepsi, Enron, CNN and Salman Rushdie, and his praise of Adolf Hitler. But Thackeray may have gone too far. Last week the Supreme Court found him guilty of "corrupt practices" in the March elections for making "derogatory speeches against Muslims" and inciting "communal hatred."

The Thackeray flame has been slowly drawing on populist fears and ignorance for three decades. The original platform of the Shiv Sena, founded in 1966, called for the expulsion of south Indian Tamils, who had flooded burgeoning Bombay in search of jobs. At the Sena's first rally, the crowd dispersed to attack minority-owned restaurants. In the 1970s, the group developed a virulent strain of anti-communism, while at the same time becoming more militantly Hindu. Urged on by big business, it attacked the state's powerful leftist unions. By 1990, Thackeray was announcing his support for the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in central India. Many also blame him for helping incite the communal riots in Bombay that followed the mosque's destruction at the end of 1992.

In Bombay's slums, the Shiv Sena has set up its own social support system, becoming de facto community policeman. It settles disputes, solves water and electricity problems, and helps the masses find jobs, places in schools and hospital beds. The Shiv Sena is not a political party that bothers with enrolling members or electing party leaders. The mercurial Thackeray appoints his own staff in the style of a Mafia don and brooks little dissent. He is also believed to keep many of the state's movers and shakers, right down to organized-crime bosses, under his thumb.

A spellbinding orator, Thackeray shows little regard for the fears of the minority Muslim community. "Tell me," Thackeray asks, "what is wrong with my saying that this is the land of the Hindus, and that if anyone else wants to live here they should follow the rules and laws that govern the majority community?" Nor does he discourage the cult that is growing around him. When India Today magazine asked him about his near deification by peasants, he replied: "I'll tell you something unbelievable I saw with my own eyes. An old lady took the dust from my footprint as I was about to get in my car and put it on her forehead. What can I do?"

Thackeray is part of a dynasty in the making. He rose to prominence as a talented political cartoonist and newspaper publisher. His father, Keshavrao, was the editor of the party paper, Saamna (Confrontation). It set an aggressive tone for the 1960s, playing on fears of Bombay being swamped by outsiders. Thackeray's son, Uddhav, 36, and nephew Raj, 34, are being groomed to take over the party, although there is resistance from Sena's senior leaders.

Even though his power is still confined largely to Maharashtra, and the Sena holds only two seats in the national parliament, Thackeray has ambitions of expanding his power base throughout India. It is an unlikely scenario, but one that will be tested - and keenly watched - in the run-up to national elections next year.

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