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

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A political cartoonist known for his barbed rhetoric, Mr. Thackeray formed the Shiv Sena (Shiva’s Army) in the 1960s in the wake of the successful movement for the formation of the state of Maharashtra with Mumbai as its capital. Not unlike Tammany Hall in New York, the Sena promoted the interests of local Maharashtrians or “sons of the soil” against the influx of migrant workers to Mumbai, historically India’s most cosmopolitan city and its commercial headquarters, through a network of street cadres.

The Sena’s power grew in the 1970s and 1980s, at the expense of the Communists. Thackeray’s invocation of a proud, native identity especially through the historical figure of Shivaji, a 17th century Hindu Maratha warrior who fought the Muslim Mughals and established a Hindu kingdom, found resonance with disaffected young men at a time of declining industrial jobs. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, the party members’ rough-and-ready tactics gave Thackeray the power to shut down the city.

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.

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.

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