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Mumbai monopoly

The only people to have benefited from the Shiv Sena’s brand of politics are its leaders, with the Congress playing silent witness, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Feb 14, 2010 21:38 IST
Ramachandra Guha

Back in the 1970s, the American political scientist Mary Katzenstein did field research in Mumbai on the practices of a then very young Shiv Sena. Some of her results were presented in her contribution to a book titled Images of Maharashtra. The essay was published in 1980; reading it now, 30 years later, it is striking to see how little has changed in the politics of India’s urbs prima.

Here, first, is Katzenstein’s representation of the methods used by the Shiv Sena to get more jobs reserved for Marathi speakers: ‘The pressure is exerted by individual municipal councillors from Shiv Sena as well as through campaigns of letter-writing, telephone calls, visits to company heads, and the demonstrations for which the Sena leadership is well- known’. She continues: ‘In one instance, now part of Shiv Sena lore, a prominent Sena leader called on an executive of Indian Oil expressing displeasure at the small number of Maharashtrians employed in the firm. The company executive was told, “You are sitting inside the office but your oil tanks are outside”’ (implying that if the company did not comply, the tanks would be set on fire).

The resentment had some basis in fact. Katzenstein quotes a study by a group of Bombay students of 25 major companies in the city, which found that of executives hired before 1950, 56 per cent were Gujarati, and 25 per cent South Indians. There were a handful of North Indians, but not a single Maharashtrian. The situation improved in later years, but slowly. Between 1950 and 1960, of the managers that these companies hired, 12 per cent were Marathi speakers, 34 per cent Gujarati speakers, and 29 per cent from the south of the country. Of those hired after 1960 (the year that the state of Maharashtra formally came into being, with Bombay as its capital), 21 per cent were locals, 34 per cent again from Gujarat, and 12 per cent from the South.

Presently, the Shiv Sena and its offspring, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), are known for targeting North Indians. However, in the 1960s the Indians they tended to hate most came from the south of the country. Bal Thackeray’s followers torched Udupi restaurants and attacked Tamil-speaking workers and managers. The decline in executives from the South in the 1970s that this survey reported may have been, in part, a consequence of the Shiv Sena’s activities.

In response to these protests, the Maharashtra government issued a directive in 1968 to offices and companies in the state. This asked them to employ more Marathi speakers as ‘the interests of the local people are closer to this state and to the industries established here’. If more locals were recruited, the directive continued, then ‘the feeling of responsibility towards that industry will be created in the society and a close feeling for one another will be created’.

How did the Congress party, in power in Bombay since Independence, view the rise of the Shiv Sena? ‘At the state level’, wrote our political scientist in the year 1980, ‘the [Congress] government stands to profit in a number of ways by the existence of a nativist political party. The state government can use the threats of violence posed by the nativist group to gain attention or to extract consideration from the central government in inter-state disputes’. However, ‘of even more potential importance to the Congress is the Sena’s electoral support. In the 1968 municipal elections it was evident that the Shiv Sena had won much of the support that had formally gone to the leftist Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti’.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, the movement for a united state of Marathi-speakers constituted the most effective opposition to the Congress. The Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti was dominated by socialists, among them such stalwarts as S.M. Joshi and N.G. Goray. The Samiti had done extremely well in the general elections of 1957. Ten years later, the king of the Mumbai Congress, S.K. Patil, was defeated in his own city by the then obscure socialist leader George Fernandes.

In the 1970s, the Congress was prepared to tolerate the Shiv Sena, in the belief that it would undercut the popular base of its opponents on the left. Forty years later, the main challenge that the Maharashtra Congress faces is from the right. Thus, before the 2009 elections, the Congress indulged and perhaps even promoted the MNS, to cut into the votes and seats of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.

The intimidation and violence promoted by the Senas are unacceptable in a constitutional democracy. The methods are illegitimate but, apparently, also ineffective. In 2010, as in 1980, the most successful entrepreneurs and entertainers in Mumbai are almost all non-Maharashtrians. An overwhelming proportion of senior managers are from outside the city and state.

The ordinary Marathi manoos may not have benefited very much from the activities of the Shiv Sena and the MNS. The leaders of these parties have been more fortunate. Many years ago, Mary Katzenstein drew attention to the ‘obvious upward mobility of key Sena leaders. In 1970, for instance, Manohar Joshi, who by his own insistent account was raised in poverty, planned a European vacation — his first outside India.’ Thirty five years later, a company controlled by Manohar Joshi’s son put up a bid for five acres of mill land in the heart of Mumbai, valued at Rs 421 crore. As reported in The Telegraph of July 22, 2005, Mr Joshi’s company was one of two successful bidders; the other was a company controlled by a certain Raj Thackeray.