Long before there was ‘monkey’, sorry, ‘maa ki...’, there was ‘bhaiya’. The 1979 Ranji game between Bombay and Delhi at the Wankhede stadium witnessed the repeated chants of ‘bhaiya’ every time Madan Lal ran in to bowl. Ironically, a year or two later, as Madan Lal bowled India to a famous win on the same ground against England, the abuse turned to celebration. In a sense, the contrast was typically Bombay: warm, embracing and cosmopolitan at one level, but unforgiving, narrow-minded, and parochial at another. Mumbai has always been a Jekyll and Hyde city with a fleeting memory span. Madan Lal realised it three decades ago. Now, Amitabh Bachchan is being confronted with the grim reality: a much-loved global superstar one day, targeted as a migrant from Uttar Pradesh the next.
That Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray has chosen to reveal the darker side of Mumbai in the last week should come as no surprise. For more than four decades now, Mumbai’s carefree, ‘bindaas’ spirit (best exemplified in Johnny Walker crooning on Marine Drive “Ae dil he mushkil’ in the 1950s) has wrestled with the forces of nativism and sectarian politics. In a city that prides itself on its comforting urbanism, violence and intimidation have always lurked in the shadows.
Long before Raj discovered the north Indian as the ‘enemy within’, his uncle Bal Thackeray had already uncorked the genie of militant chauvinism onto Mumbai’s political landscape. If Raj targets the north Indian taxi driver from UP and Bihar today, 40 years ago his uncle made a mark by first attacking the shops and restaurants owned by South Indian migrants from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. An opportunistic Thackeray Sr’s hate objects changed over the years. The Shiv Sena started off as an ‘anti-South Indian’ movement; then it took on the communists before settling on the Muslim as the ‘enemy’. If the initial years were designed to nurture the Sena as a ‘sons of the soil’ movement with a staunch Maharashtrian identity, the last 20 years have seen the Sena ‘graduate’ into the party of Hindutva politics, aimed at widening its political base beyond the local Marathi-speaking population. While evolving through its various avatars, one thing has remained unchanged: the Shiv Sena’s search for an enemy and a commitment to the politics of violence as a means to an end. Riots, bandhs and mass killings — the Sena cannot escape the charge of having Mumbai’s blood on its hands over four decades.
To that extent, the nephew is only carrying forward the legacy of the uncle. Over four decades, Bal Thackeray has mastered the art of staying in the arclights by his seemingly outrageous rhetoric and open endorsement of violence. He has also, in the process, been built up as a larger-than-life figure; someone to be feared, reviled or admired, depending on your political preferences. Like his uncle, Raj, too, is a cartoonist, who has consciously modelled himself on the Sena supremo. The mannerisms, the sharp language, even the physical appearance, the similarities are uncanny. An ambitious, charismatic Raj, with one eye on next year’s polls, desperately wants to be like his uncle. But while Balasaheb remains a unique figure in Indian politics, Raj is in danger of being reduced to a caricature of the leader he hero-worships.
Quite simply, Mumbai 2008 is not Bombay 1966 when the Shiv Sena was founded. In 1966, Maharashtra was still a young state, influenced by the linguistic agitation that had led to its formation. The sense of cultural pride in being a Maharashtrian was greater, as was the fear of the ‘outsider’, especially in Mumbai, a city which has been shaped by its capacity to attract people from all across the country. To that extent, the emergence of the Sena was seen by many Maharashtrians as a legitimate platform to express their grievances, especially the economic concerns stemming from increasing middle-class competition for jobs.
Thackeray Sr became a ‘loudspeaker’ of popular grievances, someone ready to question and challenge the dominance of Mumbai’s non-Maharashtrian elites. Membership of a Sena shakha became a badge of honour, designed to compensate for the insecurity being felt in the hostile job environment.
Forty years later, it is questionable whether the Maharashtrian middle-class feels the same sense of anger and alienation. Sure, there is a never-ending battle for Mumbai’s scarce resources, especially housing. But the ‘enemy’ isn’t so well-defined any longer. Comfortably ensconced in the new economy, the aspirations of the new generation of Maharashtrians, like most communities, are going well beyond clerical serfdom. How many middle-class Maharastrians see the UP-Bihari taxi driver as ‘competition’? how many maharashtrians actually feel threatened by the so-called ‘invasions’ of Bhojpuri culture? Ironically, Maharashtrian culture itself has almost willingly succumbed to the march of Bollywood, slowly destroying any sense of pride in tradition and language. As a result, while there is a core group — often of unemployed youth — who will be attracted to the Raj Thackeray style of machismo identity politics, the numbers aren’t large enough to make it a sustainable movement like the original Sena.
There is also a critical demographic difference between the 60s and today. Bal Thackeray’s south Indian ‘lungiwallahs’ were barely 5-6 per cent of the city’s population, and hence were a real ‘minority’. By contrast, the 2001 census suggests that north Indian migrants comprise around 12-14 per cent of the population. The UP or Bihari migrant is no longer a marginal figure in Mumbai’s salad bowl; he is a crucial ingredient in the city’s ethos of economic interdependence.
Politically, this has transformed Mumbai’s map. A Govinda, for example, would not have won a Lok Sabha seat from Mumbai without the staunch support of the north Indian community. The Congress-NCP alliance would not have won 19 of the city’s 34 assembly seats in 2004 without the support of the north Indian migrant. Even the heir apparent to the Sena throne, Uddhav Thackeray, realised the limitations of anti-north Indian politics and abandoned the ‘Mee Mumbaikar’ campaign before the last municipal elections.
Raj, too, must realise the limitations of the politics of violent confrontation. As indeed must those discredited elements within the Samajwadi Party who have emerged as the self-styled spokespersons of Mumbai’s north Indians, creating a sense of ‘victimhood’ within their flock. For an overcrowded megalopolis of over 20 million people, with a rapidly crumbling infrastructure, the last thing required is a rupture in its social fabric caused by visionless political interests.
Maybe, if Raj is interested in the future of Mumbai, he could shift his gaze from ill-advised, high-profile agitations against chhat pujas to more concrete proposals for urban renewal. The train from Gorakhpur and Patna station to Mumbai central isn’t going to stop in its tracks because a lumpen mob insists on it. What can be stopped is the political corruption that has destroyed Mumbai’s body, and now threatens its soul. Why can’t Mumbai’s leaders agree, for example, to stop regularising illegal slum colonies? Maybe, Raj is also a talented film-maker. He should consider making a film that exposes the culprits responsible for Mumbai’s decay. He might even want to get Amitabh Bachchan to act in it.
Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN