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An ugly parochialism

An ugly parochialism

Dear Raj,

This is the second open letter I am writing to you since, as was the case four years ago, you refused to do interviews in any language other than Marathi. We have a popular Marathi channel whose ratings soar every time you speak to us. You are a box office hit in Marathi. But Mumbai is no longer a Maharashtrian city. It hasn’t been one for well over a century. By contrast, the percentage of non-Maharashtrians, and especially Hindi speakers, has gone up steadily, even though the rate of increase has declined in the last decade. A substantial number of  the migrants are from UP and Bihar. They are, it seems, the ‘new enemy’.

Four years ago, I had pitched for a course correction after north Indian taxi-drivers in Mumbai were assaulted. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) workers even hurled bottles at the house of  the ultimate national icon, Amitabh Bachchan, suggesting that he was partial to his home state of Uttar Pradesh. At the time, it seemed an act of temporary madness, part of a larger battle you were waging with your cousin Uddhav for control of the Shiv Sena.

Four years later, I thought you had outgrown the politics of hate and violence. Two weeks ago, when you delivered a passionate speech in support of the policemen who were attacked during the Azad Maidan violence in the backdrop of the Assam riots, I could see a political rationale for the demagoguery and your ‘rose diplomacy’ with the constabulary. There was genuine sympathy in Mumbai for the beat constables who had been targeted by a mob of criminals from the minority community.  While the state government pussyfooted over the issue of arresting the ringleaders, you took up a cause that seemed to resonate with a number of  people who were tired of  the politics of “appeasement’’.

But within days of striking a popular chord over the Azad Maidan violence, you have returned to a familiar refrain by calling Biharis ‘infiltrators’ and threatening to drive them out of the city. You may well claim that your outburst is a fallout of  the controversy over the arrest of a teenage Muslim from Bihar’s Sitamarhi district for the desecration of the Amar Jawan Jyoti. But if there is any issue over the mode of his arrest, then it should be sorted between the Mumbai and Bihar police, but to deliberately politicise the arrest is to do exactly what you are accusing the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra of: making the police hostage to vote bank politics.

There must be zero tolerance for those responsible for the Azad Maidan violence. No community has the right to use a sense of ‘victimhood’ to take the law into its hands. Nor should the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar protect any criminal by asserting federal powers. But to stereotype every Bihari as a consequence as an infiltrator is to do irreparable damage to the idea of Mumbai, and, indeed India.

Mumbai, like many great cities across the world, was built by waves of migrations. What would Mumbai have been in the 19th century without Parsee and Gujarati entrepreneurship and in the 20th century without Sindhi and Punjabi business acumen? In the last 30 years, migrants from UP and Bihar have provided a large pool of labour, skilled and unskilled, to service Mumbai’s commercial engine. How many Maharashtrians will readily work as security guards on double shifts, often without minimum wages? Economic needs often drive demographic shifts: assimilation, not aggression is the way to deal with it.

The irony is that there is a political vacuum in Mumbai waiting to be captured by a far-sighted leadership. The ruling Congress-NCP alliance has proved to be dysfunctional: its local leadership has been exposed for its links with real estate sharks and for doing little to stop the criminalisation of  Mumbai’s political ethos. The Shiv Sena, which won the city municipal elections in February, is barely held together by a tiger in the winter of  life. Your cousin Uddhav appears to lack the charisma or the political instincts of Balasaheb.

There is space today then for a political grouping that can promote cultural pride while respecting Mumbai’s inherent cosmopolitanism. When you set up the MNS a few years ago, I thought you were aiming to break with the past: to represent a new, self-confident Maharashtrian identity that would co-exist with growing economic competition. Unfortunately, you have chosen to revive an ugly parochialism which is premised on insecurity and anger towards the ‘other’.

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I guess you believe that only competitive regional chauvinism with the Shiv Sena will get you votes and strengthen your claims to being the true successor to Balasaheb. But the politics of ‘sons of the soil’ is now subject to the law of diminishing returns. Identity politics may get you support from the committed, political machismo may draw applause from the youth, hate speech will attract controversy and eyeballs, but if you wish to be a true leader of Mumbai, you must build a cross-class, cross-community appeal that goes beyond shrill and divisive rhetoric.

Maybe you are a prisoner of your legacy: having consciously tried to model yourself on Balasaheb, it is perhaps too late to break away from the past. Maybe you don’t wish to offer a real alternative. Maybe Mumbai is destined to be caught in the cross-fire of the militant Senas. Which is a pity for a city in desperate need of urban renewal and, above all else, good governance.

Post-script: I have many Bihari friends today, including my driver, an honest God-fearing man from Darbhanga who is driven by a singular desire to ensure his children get the best possible education. He asked me the other day why Raj Thackeray disliked Biharis so much. As a proud Maharashtrian and Indian, frankly, I had no answer.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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