SHIV SENA supremo Bal Thackeray’s death was met by a shaming arc of hypocrisy and capitulation in the Indian media. Its subsequently shrill distress over the fate of the two Mumbai girls who dared mild honesty on facebook completed that circle. All weekend, as they placed lavish verbal florets at the “tiger’s” feet, who did our public commentators think they were feting? The Mumbai police definitely deserves to be hauled up for the outrageous arrest of the girls, but what about everyone else’s collective amnesia and timidity?

For four decades, Bal Thackeray’s corrosive political eminence has been a rebuking reminder of our democracy’s unfinished project. In a polity riven by jostling demands, he did indeed give voice to a version of Marathi disaffection, but his idea of Marathi pride was built on plinths of intimidation, not achievement. In the name of justice, he roused riots not self respect. In seeking correctives for his own, he sought only injury for others. His speeches tore at the fabric of India and led to the death of many. He urged rage against South Indians, Gujaratis, Marwaris, Biharis, UP-ites and Muslims; supported the Emergency; was indicted by the Sri Krishna Commission Report; and according to author Suketu Mehta once infamously declaimed that he’d piss on court judgments. His cadres – drunk on his rhetoric and buoyed by the idea of his invincibility – ransacked cinema halls, outlawed plays, and vandalized media houses. For a few people with private access, Thackeray may have been a charming man, but his public legacy was one of fear, bigotry and arbitrary fiefdom. People revered him because don-like he could bestow favour and withdraw harm at whim. He may have been a gifted cartoonist but he failed the cartoonist’s most basic covenant: a defence of everyone’s right to dissent. His famed forthrightness was a territory he savagely reserved only for himself.

So one can understand the grief of those whose lives and frustration he gave voice to, but what explains the florid excess of the media and the public icons who tweeted and phoned in their obeisance to the “great leader”? Who’s “poignant life” were they mourning; who were they calling “a straightforward, cosmopolitan, spontaneous, large-hearted man”; who did they say “always thought of India first”? Who is the political figure who was given a state funeral on Sunday, wrapped in the national flag? What did that say about the fundamentals of this country?

It is fitting that Bal Thackeray’s death has as many difficult lessons for Indian democracy as his life did. To assess both soberly is not to deny the staggering 20-lakh crowd that followed his cortege or the awed affection sections of Mumbai or Maharashtra had for him. It is to examine the nature of that hold and analyse why.

But in a lapse perhaps unprecedented anywhere in the free world, such dispassionate assessment was almost impossible to find in the days following Thackeray’s death. Three disturbing impulses seemed to have hostaged our collective tongue: self-censoring fear; a false piety about the dead; and an inability to sift the popular from the democratic.

The Sena’s history – encapsulated in its precipitate rage against the facebook girls — makes the root of that fear self-evident. But it is also doubly self-evident then why that fear must be resolutely combated.

The funereal pieties were more inexplicable. Indian tradition might demand that family or close associates not speak ill of the newly dead, but how can it possibly demand that national media itself suspend judgement? “Indian culture” can dictate that public analysis of the dead be decorous, but surely it should remain analysis? How can a country’s media discuss the death of a big political figure without discussing his darkly mixed political legacy? Have our journalistic domains turned into cultural grieving rooms?

The last impulse, however, may yet prove to be the most damaging one. Increasingly, we seem to forget that democracies are not just about electoral arithmetic or popular expression of will. They are about commitment to certain cardinal ideals: individual liberty; equal access for all to justice and opportunity; and the freedom to debate, disagree and compete without inflicting violence.

Democracies across the world are untidy on ground, but if they are to survive, their blueprints must lie in clear-eyed principles. When the roil of evolving societies throw up disquieting popular figures – demagogues, dons, feudal lords: imperfect answers to intense needs – their popularity must of course be acknowledged, but their assessments must always be against higher democratic norms.

Bal Thackeray, therefore, was undoubtedly a very significant political figure, but was he a great one? Significance is a trophy easily bought. Greatness demands a higher bar. To call Thackeray a great political leader, India will first have to find the courage to say, yes, the Marathi manoos needed a voice, but is this the best voice history could have bestowed on them?