By trying to beat the MNS at its own game, the Congress is undervaluing itself.
Not so long ago, the Maharashtra Congress would react to Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray’s brand of identity politics as a vampire to garlic. But today with the civic polls looming in 2012, the Congress-NCP government has taken a stab at copycat politics by declaring that all those who want to own and drive taxis in Mumbai must know Marathi. In addition, the government cited an old rule that states that only those with a 15-year domicile were eligible for licences. When it became apparent that its rhetoric could not match the real McCoy, namely Mr Thackeray’s inflammatory anti-migrant policy, or indeed make a dent in his constituency, Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has backtracked saying even a knowledge of Gujarati or Hindi will do.
All this has nothing to do with language or the ethnicity of taxi drivers, but with the narrow parochial politics that has come to affect Mumbai. The Shiv Sena set the tone with its anti-outsider agenda, that was replicated by the MNS to considerable electoral gain. The Congress, which came to power on the plank of improving infrastructure in Mumbai, clearly got the wrong end of the stick in suddenly trying to become an MNS wannabe. Such politics may suit a one-trick pony like the MNS but surely the Congress-NCP combine should be able to win votes on much larger issues like the appalling civic conditions in this once great city. The Congress with its national appeal is the perfect counter to the identity politics of Sena-type formations and should not have tried to usurp their agenda. In fact, it doesn’t even make for good politics because the MNS, for example, has a core constituency of disgruntled youth as its base and nothing can dent that at the moment.
Not surprisingly, the Shiv Sena and BJP have been elated at the Congress trying to imitate their dangerous rhetoric. The Congress must also be mindful of the fact that it is the party of governance and should not provoke the sort of attacks on migrant taxi drivers that the MNS did last year. To hide behind the excuse that these requirements are part of an old law does no credit to the Congress. The Mumbaikars in whose name all political parties are posturing would be far better served if politicians could come up with a blueprint to salvage the decaying city. Perhaps, when people have a passable quality of life, the cosmopolitan spirit of Mumbai may reassert itself.