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Melting pot Mumbai refuses to fit Bal Thackeray's vision

AFP  Mumbai, November 18, 2012
First Published: 17:20 IST(18/11/2012) | Last Updated: 17:31 IST(18/11/2012)

The proud host of India's first Starbucks cafe, a melting pot of migrants and the nation's most cosmopolitan city -- the Mumbai of today is not what Bal Thackeray claimed to fight for.

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The brazenly xenophobic politician, who died on Saturday, campaigned for Mumbai -- now home to more than 12 million people -- to eject migrant "outsiders" whom he saw as a threat to the local Marathi-speaking workforce.

His fiery rhetoric lambasted what he saw as decadent foreign culture, and his party's targets included shops selling Valentine's Day cards, Pakistani sportsmen and entertainers, and cinemas showing a film with a lesbian theme.

Despite his devoted following among the working class and his clout in the capital of Maharashtra state, the vision that he sought appeared increasingly out of touch with India's modern financial and entertainment hub.

"Mumbai is an example of unity and diversity, even more so than other parts of India. It's such a multi-cultural city," Vaibhav Purandare, author of Sena Story, a history of Thackeray's right-wing Shiv Sena party, told AFP.

After founding Shiv Sena in 1966, Thackeray targeted not the Gujaratis of big business, but those, such as south Indians, seen to be taking jobs from the ethnic Marathis who felt left behind by economic development.

"He cleverly exploited this resentment. A section of the community responded with alacrity," said Purandare, emphasising the rousing oratory skills of the man often known as "the Tiger".

After Shiv Sena took power in the state government in 1994, it changed the city's name from Bombay to Mumbai to underline the region's Marathi identity in a symbolic move that attracted worldwide attention.

The party -- named after Shivaji, a Maratha king who battled the Muslim Mughal empire -- also stressed pride in the local culture and rejection of many Western influences.

"Apart from taking up the cause of Marathi-speaking youth, the Sena constituted itself as a self-appointed culture police," said a Thackeray obituary in The Hindu newspaper.

But Mumbai in the 21st-century is home to young couples increasingly opting to wear jeans, eat pizza and embrace Western dating rituals including Valentine's Day, while Bollywood movies often promote global consumerism.

Since Starbucks opened its first Indian outlet last month in Mumbai, long queues have snaked outside as locals line up to get their latest taste of imported American culture.

"Shiv Sena cling to these invented traditions of purity. What's working against them is demographics," said Naresh Fernandes, a Mumbai-based author writing a book about the city.

"Bombay has always been a very diverse city."

Thackeray tried to widen his appeal beyond Marathi speakers through Hindu nationalism, allying with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party to win state level power and tapping into anti-Muslim sentiment.

But many observers say his personality was more important to his appeal than his politics -- which were often undercut by his own decisions, such as inviting US singer Michael Jackson to play a charity concert in Mumbai.

And the future of his party is uncertain as the city develops more rapidly than ever.

Thackeray's son Uddhav may struggle to keep the movement together without its beloved founder, and especially since Raj Thackeray -- Bal's nephew -- has set up a rival group to Shiv Sena.

"It is not a party with a very strong central ideology. It's a negative ideology. It took Bal's charisma to hold them all together," said Fernandes.


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