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City of dreadful knights

Bloody Mary: Two centres of the new economy are echoing with regional chauvinism, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: May 06, 2008 23:48 IST

Ah, the great Indian city! The lack of urban infrastructure destroying the infrastructure of the human soul. By 2020 Mumbai will have a population of 20 million. Bangalore, already with 6.5 million inhabitants has seen phenomenal growth. Three hundred million Indians live in urban areas; the figure will spurt by 40 per cent in the next 11 years. Whatever the rural romantics may say, India’s future is irreversibly urban. Mumbai and Bangalore are symbols of the urban Indian dream, the first, whose present chief minister claims will be a new Shanghai, the second, which a former cm wanted to make into another Singapore.

But forget Shanghai and Singapore, which instead are the voices that are speaking the loudest for the Indian city? The new voices that are yelling into the urban skyline are anything but urbane or metropolitan. In Mumbai, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray has declared war on north Indians, mimicking what he calls their strange accents, noisy pujas, nasty civic manners and demanding preferential treatment in jobs for local Maharashtrians. Raj Thackeray wants north Indians out of Mumbai. In Bangalore, as the campaign for the forthcoming assembly elections gathers momentum, another ‘son of the soil’ is also demanding reservations for locals. H.D. Deve Gowda’s political manifesto demands 30 per cent reservation of jobs in the infotech and biotech sectors for local Kannadigas.

What do Raj Thackeray and Deve Gowda have in common? In a fast-changing urban milieu, as cities and their enterprises turn global, Thackeray and Deve Gowda have turned aggressively local. In a modernising economy, they have found the shortest possible political ticket to the largest possible grievance — the ever growing grievance of being left out of new jobs that are on offer in a growing economy. Mumbai has always attracted ambitious outsiders. The stock market, Bollywood, organised crime, the vast informal sector, the corporate sector, and the rags to riches possibilities were heady. The singing Johnny Walker was the embodiment of the happy-go-lucky urbanism of Mumbai. Bangalore was once a sleepy pensioner’s paradise with its splendid old rain trees shading the streets from sun, yet has always been a city of strategic and intellectual significance. From the 1950s, the Nehruvian vision dreamt Bangalore’s ‘modern’ identity into existence. Around the parks and bungalows, rose Isro, DRDO, HAL, NAL, giant public bodies that provided the city with the research institutions and industrial growth that created a professional educated middle-class, spurring the subsequent achievements in infotech and biotechnology.

Sixty per cent of Maharashtra’s industrial production comes from the Mumbai-Thane belt. In 2001-02, Bangalore alone contributed 22 per cent of the state’s income. As economist Vinod Vyasulu puts it, Bangalore is a neighbour of San Jose not of Tumkur. Mumbai dreams that it is neighbour to Manhattan. But now Tumkur is demanding its pound of flesh from Bangalore. And the Konkan belt is demanding its share of the prosperity of Mumbai. The provinces are beating at the doors of the rich metropolis, saying we will break this door if you don’t let us in.

Two years ago when Raj Thackeray broke away from the Shiv Sena and launched MNS, he promised to create a modern version of the Sena. Three years after being in the political wilderness, after being wiped out in the Mumbai municipal polls, Thackeray has realised that modern politics is hardly ever successful in a modern economy. Instead, the best way to win votes in a reforming economy is not to join hands with the forces of change but with regionalists and cultural chauvinists, who are unwilling to compete in the open economy, but instead want the benefit of other people’s hard work by securing the privileges of their birth in a particular state.

For the first time in Karnataka, the ‘Kannadiga’ identity is an important factor. From Deve Gowda to Congress leaders like Siddharamaiah all are united in demanding reservations for Kannadigas in the new economy (‘IT-BT’ as it’s called). There is protest against non-Kannada films, English medium schools, even clubs, bars, live bands which represent the ‘outsider’. Karnataka is trying to reclaim Bangalore. Never mind that Infosys on its Bangalore campus alone, employs 18,000 Indians from all over India, many from Bihar and UP. Never mind that Mumbai, a city built by migrants over centuries, has always counted among its loyal ‘citizens’, not just Maharashtrians, but communities from every part of the country, all proudly classified as ‘Mumbaikars’.

Tragically, this important cosmopolitan identity has no political face. As cities become diverse, the politicians who control the cities are insisting on chauvinistic identities, simply because their voters are not in the city.

There is a battle, therefore, about who will manage and control our cities. Should it be the politicians whose vote-banks are not urban? If a CM tries to create urban bodies to manage civic affairs by inducting qualified urban citizens, then he is, like S.M. Krishna, branded as hi-tech and elitist. Yet, the fact is that cities like Mumbai cannot be managed by sugar chieftains of Maharashtra who see the city simply as a collection of real estate to be used for funding political campaigns. Nor can the city of Bangalore be managed by Vokkaliga village potentates whose economic vision only begins with the word ‘reservations’.

Cities like Mumbai and Bangalore need efficient managers and public representatives who will invest in their social and physical futures, by making them as inclusive as possible, creating areas of ‘common space’ between locals and outsiders and creating conditions for wealth generation. Wealth that can then be spent to overcome inequalities between town and provinces. Sadly, the post of a sheriff or mayor is not just undervalued but rendered irrelevant when it is most needed. There is no urban agency that can nurture new identities for our cities. Instead the politicians entrusted with Mumbai and Bangalore are only using the city’s hard earned prosperity (prosperity which can be a great resource for the entire state) to attack the city and its unique ethos.

Delhi, by contrast, belongs to everyone and no one, the reason why regional chauvinism has no place in the politics of the national capital. Because Delhi has statehood, its rulers have a stake in Delhi’s development. Any demand for similar city state status or ‘statehood’ for Mumbai or Bangalore will be violently opposed by the hinterland chieftains.

Delimitation of constituencies has led to great increase in urban voting power in Karnataka this time. In Bangalore alone, the number of seats have gone up from 16 to 28. The rise in urban educated voters is an enormous opportunity for the political needs of a city to be addressed. Once vote-banks change from only rural to urban, urban concerns will necessarily have to be addressed. On the flip side, if urban seats rise, politicians might be even more tempted to whip up urban anger against that caricature enemy, ‘IT-BT’.

But till the status quo is broken, the ‘outsider’, both in Bangalore and in Mumbai, will be the favourite whipping boy, whether they are ‘English speaking outsiders’ who are ‘ruining’ the city with a yuppie culture, or the poor migrant outsiders who are taking up the lower rung jobs. As facilities collapse and the economy becomes more competitive, local jealousy and anger is on the rise. If a city is only abused and exploited instead of being nurtured and used to fund other parts of the state, then India’s centres of new economy will only become sites for ancient conflicts of language and identity.

Sagarika Ghose is senior editor, CNN-IBN