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Bal Thackeray: godfather of nativists in India's most cosmopolitan city

In death as in life, Bal Thackeray divided Mumbai. Mumbaikars shuttered shops fearing violence, while hundreds of thousands thronged the funeral today of the Shiv Sena founder. 

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Over these decades, the demographics of Mumbai changed considerably: The population boomed, the economy raced ahead, and the number of people moving to the city in search of jobs and a better life grew exponentially. Despite these developments, the priorities of many Mumbaikars remain unwavering, says Yashwant Deshmukh, an Indian political analyst and elections expert.

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“Mumbai is changing, but remains the same. Though people from across India have come to Mumbai in the last few decades the thinking about jobs has not changed. The fundamental politics of the Shiv Sena is giving jobs to local people from the state of Maharashtra. It’s less about religious extremism and more about the local identity.”

Mr. Deshmukh says that according to voting data he gathered during the state assembly elections in 2009, Thackeray's son and nephew would be an unstoppable political force in the region if they joined forces. However, the two men are currently dividing Thackeray's supporters, with his son Uddhav leading the Shiv Sena and his bombastic nephew Raj breaking form the family and starting his own popular party. 

“If [Mumbaikar's] ideas had really changed then Raj Thackery, would have been a flop. But he’s clearly not a flop. He’s connecting with third generation middle and lower middle class youth whose ancestors are not originally from the state but who consider themselves to be Marathis. If Raj and Uddhav's parties were not split they could win state assembly elections.”

However, many people in Mumbai don’t believe Raj or Uddhav have the best interest of the people at heart.

“The Shiv Sena and Raj Thackery just give people the perception of giving them jobs," says the Bollywood actor who has lived in Mumbai for over a decade. “They give Marathis someone else to blame for their unemployment. First, it was the south Indians, then the north Indians, and most recently Indians from the northeast. They make it OK for people here to be aggressive because they belong to a city and state rather than really trying to get a job.”

Now that the godfather of the Shiv Sena is gone, Raj and Uddhav must join together and rethink their strategy while diluting or mutating the organization's DNA, says B.V. Rao, the editor of the magazine Governance Now. 

“The mentality of this generation of Indians is different,” says Mr. Rao who worked as a journalist in Mumbai for several years. “The hate-filled tactics the Shiv Sena used in the past will no longer work. Secularism is now not so much about religion. It’s more about the secularism of opportunity. People want good jobs. That basic DNA of the country is changing. The Sena will have to expand their politics and policies to this new generation of Indian aspirations in Mumbai.”

While Rao believes the party will have to reform, experts like Deshmukh, don’t see the influence of the political party changing anytime soon. “You can come as a guest to Mumbai but it’s not your city. If you want to stay here you better follow the local sentiments of the Shiv Sena.”


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