India: Mumbai on high alert with right-wing leader Bal Thackeray in critical condition

The Mumbai and Maharashtra authorities are preparing for the worst as the far right Shiv Sena party's longtime boss languishes in critical condition.

Officials fear an eruption of violence in the event that the 86-year-old demagogue dies. Thackeray, who made his political career fighting for Marathi speakers as waves of migrants from South India and later Bihar came to Mumbai seeking their fortunes, built the Shiv Sena into a party known for street violence.

"I have not lost hope. We are facing a crisis, we shall overcome," Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray said early Thursday, even as his father, Bal, remained in critical condition, according to the Times of India.

Meanwhile, India's financial capital was virtually shut down, as public transport opted to stay off the roads and the police deployed Rapid Action Force personnel around Matoshree and other sensitive areas to prepare for possible riots, said.

"Fearing the worst after isolated incidents of violence last night, Mumbai has downed its shutters as it prepares for the worst," the website said. "Shops did not open since morning."

"Trains remained largely empty as many office goers could not make it to the train stations as other modes of public transport chose to stay off the roads. Auto rickshaws in the suburbs and taxis in the island city preferred to stay off the road as they assessed the situation. The unions had not called for the vehicles to stay off the road but vehicle drivers preferred not to take chances."

"Most office goers relied on private transport to get to their places of work. Many offices even advised employees to work out of home."

In 2003, Larissa Macfarquhar profiled Thackeray as "the Strongman" for the New Yorker, painting a portrait of a modern-day Boss Tweed in a Mumbai with more than a little in common with the city depicted in Martin Scorcese's 2002 film "Gangs of New York."

"For more than thirty years now, Thackeray has been the godfather of Bombay--or Mumbai, as he had the city renamed several years ago," Macfarquhar wrote. "His reputation for vengeance is such that, when he was lampooned, as a character called Raman (Mainduck) Fielding, by Salman Rushdie in 'The Moor’s Last Sigh,' he didn’t need to say a word: Mumbai bookstores didn’t stock the book for fear of reprisals, and even the central government banned it shortly afterward"

"In 1993, Thackeray was widely blamed for inciting anti-Muslim riots in which a thousand people died in less than a week; in the next elections, his party’s support almost doubled. As a fomenter of violence for political gain, Thackeray was a pioneer."

"He never runs for office-he leaves that risky, soiling task to underlings. Instead, he holds court at home, in his sunglasses and necklaces and saffron pajamas, his hair dyed black and slicked into a modified Elvis pompadour."

The danger for India is that, like Indira Gandhi, whose assassination resulted in mass rioting across the country, for all his flaws Thackeray is a remarkably charistmatic, as well as powerful, figure. And as Rajiv Gandhi notoriously remarked in an indefensible effort to excuse the mass murder of Sikh's following his mother's assassination:

 "When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake."