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Why Mumbai is so gripped by the status of right-wing Bal Thackeray

Mumbaikars closely followed news that one of their city's most controversial political leaders may be critically ill, resurfacing questions about succession. 

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The Sena found broader electoral power in the mid-1990s when it allied with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to win the state and later participate in the BJP-led coalition government at the center. Thackeray never held political office but famously said in 1995 that he had “remote control” of the state government. Thackeray was indicted by an independent commission for inciting hatred against Muslims during communal riots in 1993, but he was never brought to trial.

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Power waning

Since the late 1990s, however, the party has struggled to maintain relevance in a globalizing city and in the absence of fresh ideas and a viable second-rung leadership.

Thackeray anointed his relatively peaceable son, Uddhav, as party leader in 2004, over his more popular nephew Raj, who then split to found his own party in 2006, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. The MNS is seen as hewing more closely to the ideological and combative spirit of Bal Thackeray. In 2008, MNS members attacked north Indians who had come to the city for an entrance exam for government jobs.

Given its decline, the Sena party surprised observers earlier this year when its candidates swept city elections with the aid of an alliance with the Republican Party of India, which represents lower-caste Dalits. 

The win doesn’t necessarily portend the re-emergence of the party beyond its stronghold of Mumbai, however.

The gains, suggested veteran journalist and political observer Kumar Ketkar in a column, are a “recognition of the political and cultural reality of this growing metropolis, where the single-largest bloc feels it is being marginalized.”  An editorial in the Economic Times noted that with the city widely felt to be in decline, the win was an opportunity for the Sena “to deepen and widen the party's appeal through honest and efficient civic governance.” 

Whether Thackeray’s illness will bring the son and nephew back together, as some observers suggest may happen, could now determine the survival of his party


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