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

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Rafiq Maqbool/AP

(Read caption) Supporters stand in front of large photos of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray outside his residence in Mumbai, India, Thursday. News that Thackery may be critically ill lead to a surge of supporters in thousands outside his residence.

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Reports that controversial right-wing leader Bal Thackeray was critically ill put Mumbai on tense hold for much of Thursday while raising questions about the future of his party, the Shiv Sena, which controls the city government and is an important member of India’s opposition group, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

Parts of Mumbai reportedly shut down Thursday in anticipation of trouble from Sainiks, as the members of his party are known, gathered in large numbers near the residence of the Thackerays. By evening, the 86-year-old’s condition was reported to be stable and a parade of the city’s powerful and famous was visiting the leader’s home amid tight security. 

Thackeray's declining health is putting the spotlight on the fragile state of his party, which has been riddled by succession struggles for more than a decade and has seemed unable to move beyond its founder’s polarizing identity politics. 

In the four decades of its existence, the Shiv Sena has targeted – sometimes violently – south Indian migrants to the city, Muslims, so-called symbols of Western culture like Valentine’s Day, and more recently, north Indian migrants. Earlier this month, Mr. Thackeray reiterated his opposition to cricket matches between the Indian and Pakistani teams in a front-page editorial in the party newspaper, Saamna, asking party activists to stop such matches from being held in the country.

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