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Last of this metro

This past week the city formerly known as Bombay made showing up to see a film an act of courage and protest, and to that extent redeemed its honour. What are the implications of this? Ashok Malik writes.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2010 21:52 IST
Ashok Malik

This past week the city formerly known as Bombay made showing up to see a film an act of courage and protest, and to that extent redeemed its honour. What are the implications of this? First, there is some validity to the assessment that the medium-term decline of the Shiv Sena and similar organisations is irreversible. True, the breakaway Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) did reasonably well in Mumbai/Greater Mumbai in the 2009 assembly elections. Yet, in its current form it can be a spoiler and a rival to its equally cantankerous cousin, not a serious contender for office.

In the near future, Maharashtra politics could devolve into a two-horse race. A very strong Congress (gobbling up Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party at some stage) should dominate. The BJP will probably be first among the others.

Yet, despite the optimism of the Shivratri weekend and despite the emergent clarity to Maharashtra politics, India’s biggest metropolis has not quite turned the corner. In recent years, the city has suffered on two counts. One, the Senas have reduced politics to such a farce that a writer or film-maker thinks thrice before using the word ‘Bombay’ lest he be accused of insulting nativist culture, treason and worse. Two, Maharashtra’s politicians, led by the Congress, have ravaged the city. They have exploited it, converted civic governance into a gigantic property racket, and given back nothing. It’s been convenient to neglect “rich Mumbai” and pretend to care for “the real Maharashtra” instead.

These challenges are not going to go away. The Shiv Sena’s ugly campaign against Shah Rukh Khan may have ended in a fiasco but it will be smarting and desperate to hit back. In an age when all it takes to make a political statement are a dozen thugs and a strategically placed news television crew, the Sena’s (and MNS’) limited voter appeal need not mean a concomitant collapse in nuisance value.

That aside, there is no evidence that the Maharashtra Congress leadership has had a change of heart and now sees itself as a kinder, gentler guardian of its capital city. Rather, it has been quite happy to stir up regional sentiment and do little for urban renewal. Every two years or so, a report is published and the state government promises to transform Bombay/Mumbai into Shanghai — the previous chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, said just that more than once. Then, the blueprint is buried and the commitment forgotten.

Even without the Senas and their cultural policing, the city is a mess. Its infrastructure is so overstretched that a visitor flying in for the day can sometimes do no more than one meeting. No city can condone such embarrassment and still call itself an international business centre.

Yet, nobody is seriously looking at rebuilding Mumbai. Competing strains of parochialism offer the state government a cop-out. The chief minister can always claim he is fighting off the Senas and their ridiculous agenda and so duck tough questions on what he’s doing for his prized city.

There are precedents to learn from. The change in name from Bombay to Mumbai suggested a move to provincialism. It also indicated that the socio-economic priorities of a romanticised hinterland would override the city. Calcutta went through a similar crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, a process that culminated in 2001 with the symbolic switch to ‘Kolkata’. Yet, the city paid a price. Business vanished; intellectual capital emigrated. As its economy dwindled, its cultural vibrancy became a caricature.

Thirty years ago, Calcutta’s self-important rulers thought they could afford to snub managing directors and promote wild labour unrest that would pin down CEOs, and their families, to their homes. By the 1990s, the same rulers were left pleading with junior managers to show some interest in Bengal.

If Mumbai’s physical and psychological atrophy is unchecked, it may not become a Kolkata-style “necropolis” — to use Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s cutting expression — but could still see sections of its stakeholders rethinking their loyalty. In a decade, the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT), being custom-built just outside Gandhinagar and designed on the lines of Pudong, could threaten Mumbai’s status as a financial services centre.

Similarly, the Hindi film industry could be wooed away. For example, by about 2020, the Delhi metropolitan area would have expanded to Greater Noida-Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh. What if somebody enterprising decides to incubate a film city here, throwing in designer homes for movie stars, and triggers a trend? Remember, the American motion picture industry started out in New York before relocating to California.

In a time of unprecedented mobility, no city is indispensable. Indeed, in terms of structure, though not soul, many cities are fungible. Hyderabad learnt this the hard way when it lost the right to host Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket matches. It was a heavy-handed decision but, frankly, a multi-million dollar business like the IPL, with a host of clients and foreign participants, can’t be blamed if it doesn’t want to take chances. Like the Telangana protestors, Maharashtra’s politicians can’t turn their principal city into a direct-action playground, and yet expect everybody else to just play along.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator

The views expressed by the author are personal