MUMBAI Parts of Mumbai were shut down on Thursday as supporters of firebrand Hindu nationalist leader Bal Keshav Thackeray flocked into India's commercial capital, alarmed by reports that he was close to death after a sharp decline in his health.
An official of Thackeray's Shiv Sena party told Reuters that the 86-year-old was in a critical condition and on a ventilator, with doctors attending to him around the clock.
Founder and president of the hardline Shiv Sena (Shiva's Army), Thackeray has long been one of India's most polarising politicians. Although one of Mumbai's most influential public figures, he has been widely criticised for his fiery rhetoric on social issues such as immigration and communalism.
Hundreds of Thackeray's followers kept vigil outside his house in Mumbai's central suburbs on Thursday, under a heavy police presence, including riot officers who barricaded roads and set up a security cordon in case of violence. Protests by party supporters in the past have led to violence.
Shops in areas of Mumbai where Shiv Sena has strong support were shuttered and roads in the typically bustling business district were quiet. The financial markets operated normally, but some banks allowed employees to go home early.
Rumours spread on social media sites on Wednesday that Thackeray had died, but a Shiv Sena spokesman said his condition had improved on Thursday.
"He is being given the best treatment there and his condition is stable," Sanjay Raut said. "He is responding to treatment. His condition had worsened last night, but right now he is responding to treatment."
One of the most outspoken figures of India's Hindu nationalist movement, Thackeray has in the past called for the formation of Hindu suicide squads, once ordered his followers to dig up a cricket pitch to stop the Pakistani team from playing in Mumbai and spoke of his admiration for Adolf Hitler.
Shiv Sena, which has controlled Mumbai's city council since 1996, is a key ally of the national opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. Thackeray's death could spark a power struggle in Shiv Sena, denting its support with its vote base in Maharashtra state, where he has been the face of the party.
(Reporting by Henry Foy and Shilpa Jamkhandikar; Editing by John Chalmers and Ron Popeski)