At the turn of the century, a multinational brand selling soaps and shampoos had put up hoardings in all major cities — ‘Tell your grandchildren about your new year in New York, not Nagpur’, implying that Nagpur was too down-market a city to share memories and photos of your millennium. If you bought their soaps and shampoos you might just be lucky enough to win a free ticket to New York, it read.
I hail from Nagpur and was outraged. So was my friend, the late Shrikant Jichkar, a former state minister and MP. He had much clout in Nagpur and he organised demonstrations against the company, compelling stores to take their products off the shelves until the company apologised and withdrew the ads.
Nearly a decade later, Nagpur had its revenge: It was the only city in the country that did not report a downturn in 2008 when the world, including New York, was going bust. Fire cracker sales were at an all-time high that year.
But that was no money going up in smoke, for the city is known to harbour the highest tax payers in the country who go about their business quietly without wishing to draw attention to themselves. They had the capacity to sustain through the depression and Nagpur never had a worrying moment in all those years.
But if that multinational brand then thought that Nagpur was down-market, I blame the politicians of Vidarbha for that. The region gave Maharashtra its longest serving CM to date — Vasantrao Naik — who was in office for 11 long years but did not lift a finger to develop Vidarbha. Instead, hostage to the Maratha lobby as he was then, all his developmental efforts were focused on Pune and western Maharashtra, which got roads, dams, factories, jobs and prosperity. Subsequent chief ministers from outside western Maharashtra, like Sudhakarrao Naik (Naik’s nephew, also from Vidarbha), Vilasrao Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan (both from Marathwada) could also do little for their regions compared to western Maharashtra, because they were always under pressure from the sugar lobby, particularly Sharad Pawar, and feared for the stability of their governments if they did not go along with the Maratha warlord.
That stranglehold gone, today Pune and western Maharashtra seem to have diminished overnight and everything is happening in Nagpur. The competitive politics between Nitin Gadkari, the first BJP MP from Nagpur, and Devendra Fadnavis, the first CM from this orange city, has meant that Nagpur got its metro project ahead of a resentful Pune. Always known as a ‘blue stocking’ city but somehow behind Pune in terms of quality institutes, it will now have an Indian Institute of Management as well as an Indian Institute of Information Technology. These projects were cleared by the UPA. But then the government was laidback in its implementation as also with regard to major projects in neighbouring Amravati — a missile manufacturing factory and a wagon-building factory, former president Pratibha Patil’s pet projects which never took off. Now there seems to be furious activity on all fronts, from the metro to the missiles, with both Gadkari and Fadnavis pushing for these to be implemented as soon as possible.
Three decades after I left Nagpur for Bombay to seek opportunities which my one-horse (and one newspaper) hometown did not offer, even news and media here have a future — the stories need no longer be just about farmers’ suicides or Maoist attacks. The heart of India is finally beating and the heart beats are very tangible.