Our dream of ban on cow-slaughter becomes reality now.’ Thus tweeted Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on March 3, when the President gave his assent to the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, 1995.
This came as a surprise to most in the state, since neither Fadnavis nor his party during the election campaign had not talked about this dream, focusing instead on more bread and butter issues such as the agrarian crisis and the state’s massive indebtedness.
Within a month, however, that dream is turning out to be a political nightmare for Fadnavis. He is under attack from all sides, including from his allies, for trying to control people’s diets and also impact their livelihood.
Butchers are up in arms because they will be without work, restaurants are worried they will lose clientele and beef eaters, especially from the poorer sections, fear the loss of a cheap source of protein. A slew of legal challenges have been mounted on all these counts and are being heard by the courts.
To compound the problem, an indiscreet remark by his advocate general in the Bombay High Court, that the ban on cow slaughter is just the beginning of more such decisions has also set off a storm, forcing him to backtrack and say that the AG’s comments were “misinterpreted”.
But the suspicion grew that Fadnavis wants to turn the state vegetarian.
The fault line between meat eaters and vegetarians has a deep political and social subtext, especially in Mumbai.
The mercantile classes, mainly Gujaratis, are seen to be primarily vegetarian and because of their financial clout, are often perceived to enforce their preferences not just within buildings but also in entire neighbourhoods.
The meat and fish eaters, which includes not just the minorities, but also a large number of Marathi speakers, resent this. Not surprisingly the government’s decision on cow slaughter (effectively amounting to a ban on beef) has come in for wide criticism.
There is also the perception that Fadnavis is carrying out the Brahminical agenda of the RSS.
Earlier this week, the government issued another order — multiplexes in the state would compulsorily have to show Marathi films in the prime time slot between 6 pm and 9 pm. On Thursday, according to reports, the state government relaxed the time slot to between 12 pm and 9 pm.
No one can argue against official encouragement to regional language cinema, but the state government did not bother to consult stakeholders or even study if there were enough Marathi films produced on an annual basis. Ironically, the order comes at a time when the Marathi film industry is passing through its most fertile period, with critical and commercial successes being produced with regularity.
The six-month-old government is now seen as one imposing its agenda by diktat rather than consultation. Fadnavis, who was made chief minister by his party bosses, much to the chagrin of other claimants with far longer political careers, was supposed to bring a fresh approach to the state’s problems.
Despite being a Brahmin and from distant Nagpur, two things that are seen as distinct disadvantages in the Maratha-dominated politics of the state, Fadnavis got the job primarily because he had the backing of both the RSS and also the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine.
His lack of a solid political base went in his favour — here was a man who would not have to pander to vested interests of the kind that had a grip on the state.
But his lack of political smarts is showing. On the political front, he has to contend with the Shiv Sena, which, despite being an ally in the government, behaves as if it is the main Opposition party, constantly sniping at the BJP.
Ambitious proposals, such as the Development Plan (DP) for Mumbai, which will form the basis for the city’s growth over the next 20 years, are under attack not just for opening up mega opportunities for builders but also for basic mistakes in mapping the city. The entire emphasis is on vertical growth in a metropolis whose infrastructure is creaking.
Citizens are worried that the handful of green spaces and scores of heritage sites in Mumbai will be lost to developers. Mindful of how this will play out in the municipal elections in early 2017, the Shiv Sena, along with other parties, has demanded that the DP be junked.
Such an eventuality would be a blow to Fadnavis.
A major part of the mutual suspicion and barely concealed hostility between the BJP and the Shiv Sena is the latter’s conviction that the national party wants to capture the Marathi manoos constituency in Mumbai, Pune and Thane, which are traditional Sena strongholds.
With control over the rich Mumbai municipal corporation and 63 MLAs in the assembly, the Sena is still a potent force in Maharashtra and Mumbai politics.
But the last election results showed that Marathi youngsters may no longer be enamoured of the nativist platform of the Shiv Sena and want jobs and personal growth. If they continue drifting towards the BJP, it could be disastrous for the Sena. The two sides are now engaged in a blow hot blow cold war.
Meanwhile, the real problems of the state continue to grow. Farmer suicides, once limited to the Vidarbha region, where Fadnavis hails from, have now spread to drought-hit Marathwada. Mumbai’s powerful business community, already a bit disillusioned at the slow pace of national reforms, is unconvinced that the Maharashtra government has any ideas to boost investment.
The consensus is that Fadnavis is sincere but still learning on the job and too inclined towards inflicting a cultural agenda on a cosmopolitan city and the state in general. Veteran political leader Sharad Pawar has declared that the Fadnavis government will fall before the Mumbai civic elections.
That may or may not happen, but it does indicate that Devendra Fadnavis does not yet inspire political confidence.
Sidharth Bhatia is a senior journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal