Listening to the Thackeray cousins thunder about the declining status of Maharashtrians in Mumbai feels retro in thought, spirit and language. Back in the 1960s and 70s, one Thackeray spoke for Maharashtrians. In the last decade, two Thackerays have been talking. The theme is the same: hard-working Maharashtrians, persecuted in their city, threatened with marginalisation and worse. That they have been at it since 1966 says it all.
Uddhav Thackeray has questioned the state government at every step it has taken in the past four months. Mumbai’s Development Plan 2014-34 (DP) “should be thrown into the dustbin”, he said, among other carefully-aimed barbs at chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. Uddhav comes across as an opposition leader, not a partner the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. His – and by extension that of the Shiv Sena’s – relationship with the BJP and the government is best described in that splendid social media status: complicated.
Raj, who celebrated nine years of leading his party, would have to rephrase that status as “terribly complicated”. He alternatively praised and lambasted the BJP, Narendra Modi and much else depending on the day of the year. He too described the DP as “a well-designed plan to oust Maharashtrians out of Mumbai”.
There is much to criticise in the Development Plan. There is a need to amplify the criticisms so that the approved version is more democratic, equitable and citizen-friendly. To pick up the Maharashtrian angle and slam the DP for injustice to the community is to be less than honest, narrow-minded and unimaginative. The Thackerays have also spoken out against the proposed controversial Metro 3 but limited it to how Maharashtrian settlements in old Mumbai would be affected.
The DP, as it stands today, is unjust to all Mumbaiites who do not earn a high five-figure salary every month, not only Maharashtrians but people of all communities and ethnicities who made this city their home. The political justification from the Shiv Sena is that its leader is speaking for and to its core constituency, the Marathi manoos. Who then speaks for the other communities? Should there a “Thackeray” for each community in Mumbai?
But there is another question of deeper political significance that must stare the Thackeray cousins in the face. For how many more years can the Senas flog the Marathi manoos issue? The nearly 50-year crusade has not halted the marginalisation of the Maharashtrian in Mumbai. The community and Sena’s bastion of Dadar-Parel-Lalbaug is more cosmopolitan than ever before – not a bad thing, really. Think of the fast disappearing Marathi schools, theatres and libraries. Girgaum’s defining Maharashtrian-ness is being steadily diluted by Jains and Gujaratis. The Thackerays’ crusade has clearly not worked.
A major reason is the peculiar brand of their politics: talk, thunder, threaten, full stop. The assertions were, and are, devoid of a vision and rarely followed up with concrete actions. In turn, this one-point agenda, long past its sell-by date, has limited their political potential and relevance.
Uddhav had briefly flirted with the idea of an “inclusive Mumbai” before the chauvinistic instincts about 10 years ago. Reviving and expanding it would not be a bad idea. If only the Thackerays were to speak for all Mumbaiites, the city and the community would both benefit. Locating ethnicity within a cosmopolitan context is difficult but not impossible. Else, the BJP is waiting round the corner.