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No mumbaikar is an island

Once he tests electoral waters, Raj Thackeray — unless he changes his political plank — is almost certain to drown. The only regret is that he is giving the Marathis a reputation for being xenophobic that is totally undeserved, writes Debashish Mukerji.

india Updated: Sep 16, 2008 20:31 IST
Debashish Mukerji

The reluctance of Maharashtra’s leading politicians to vigorously oppose Raj Thackeray’s poisonous agenda is not only reprehensible, but also incomprehensible. Conventional political wisdom has it that, with both Lok Sabha and Assembly elections due next year, they dare not be seen supporting ‘outsiders’ in the state, for fear of alienating Marathi-speaking voters. But is such apprehension justified?

Political pundits assume that the Shiv Sena achieved its present key position in Maharashtra’s politics by projecting itself as a champion of the Marathi-speaking, and targeting non-Maharashtrians in the state. They claim that Raj Thackeray’s shenanigans are an effort to wean away a section of that vote-bank — the bigger the better.

But the fact is that the Sena targeted outsiders — particularly, South Indians — for only a few years after its birth in the mid-1960s. And how far did it take the party? Through that entire period — and many years thereafter as well — the party’s influence extended — as the late columnist Busybee used to memorably put it — “all the way from Lalbaug to Parel” (two adjoining working class Mumbai localities). It remained a cipher in state politics, hardly winning any assembly seats.

The startling rise of the Shiv Sena from the mid-1980s was due to two reasons. The first was Sharad Pawar’s decision in 1986 to merge his Janata Dal unit into the Congress, leaving the opposition space empty. The Shiv Sena — and to a lesser extent, the BJP — occupied it. The second was a calculated decision by Sena supremo Bal Thackeray to stop targeting Southerners and demonise the religious minorities — especially Muslims — instead. In the communally charged atmosphere of the late 1980s and early 1990s, brought about by the Ayodhya movement, the Sena’s vituperative anti-Muslim stance proved a poll winner.

Even so, just how much of Maharashtra’s vote does the Sena control? In the 1995 assembly election, the only one so far it has been able — in alliance with the BJP — to win, it captured just 17.33 per cent of the total votes cast, getting 73 of the 288 Assembly seats, its highest tally so far. (In the 2004 Assembly poll, its vote share was a tad higher at 20 per cent, though it got fewer seats.) So why on earth is the Sena regarded as the sole thekedar of Maharashtrian interests, when not more than a fifth of the state’s voters have voted for it even once?

There are a few Indian states where anti-outsider sentiment is palpable. These are usually small, far-off states with limited native populations, which do indeed fear they may be ‘swamped’ — and their culture and identity eroded — by the influx of people from the more populous ones. In certain cases, where the fears were found legitimate, laws have been passed making it difficult for outsiders to buy property and settle. Some northeastern states have the ‘inner line permit’ system in place, which even restricts the entry of outsiders.

But Maharashtra — one of the most-advanced states in the country — is emphatically not one of them. Once he tests electoral waters, Raj Thackeray — unless he changes his political plank — is almost certain to drown. The only regret is that he is giving the hapless Marathi manoos a reputation for being rabidly xenophobic that is totally undeserved.