Shiv Sena fights back with vada pav
Shiv Sena, best known for its anti-immigrant rhetoric, is now all set to glorify the humble vada pao, a favourite snack of Mumbaikars, calling for its aggressive marketing.india Updated: May 23, 2008 16:37 IST
A political party in Mumbai best known for its anti-immigrant rhetoric has decided to launch its own chain of fast food stands, but with an ideological flavour that could stick in some throats.
Shiv Sena already has a powerful, dichotomous influence over India's financial capital: it runs the city through its control of the municipal authority, and its followers habitually paralyse parts of the city with rowdy protests.
Now, just as its supremacy is threatened by the rising prominence of an offshoot party, it wants to extend its influence over arguably the most popular snack in a city that seems to sustain itself on its street food -- namely vada pav.
"We're making a chain like McDonald's," said Sanjay Raut, a Shiv Sena member of parliament, describing a move only a little less unexpected of an Indian political party than if the U.S. Republican Party was to set up a hot dog franchise.
The snack may seem innocuous: a spiced potato ball fried in batter -- the vada -- which arrives served in a bun, or pav.
But, with the right political seasoning, it becomes a symbol of the party's struggle against Mumbai's cosmopolitan essence.
Shiv Sena believes the city belongs to the Hindu Marathi community, less than half of all Mumbaikers, who share a language with the original fisher folk around whom this bewildering metropolis mushroomed. All others are the city's guests.
Many Parsis, Gujarati Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians that have played defining roles in this city since its colonial beginnings disagree. So, too, do tens of thousands of migrant Indians who squeeze into Mumbai each year to seek their fortune.
Sons of the soil
Regardless, Sanjay Gurav, the Shiv Sainik setting the scheme up, says only Marathis will be hired at Shiv vada pav stands, in keeping with the party's founding goal of protecting the interests of the Marathi men it calls "sons of the soil".
And where a McDonald's server might wish a customer to have a nice day, Shiv vada pav vendors are expected to exclaim "Jai Maharashtra!", a Shiv Sena slogan meaning "Hail Maharashtra!", the Marathi-dominated state of which Mumbai is the capital.
"This is not a political movement, this is a social movement," said Raut, the Shiv Sena lawmaker, who hopes the scheme will provide much-needed jobs.
He did not go as far as the scheme's organiser in saying non-Marathis would not be hired. "In Mumbai, maximum sellers are Marathi, but if not Marathi, it's not a problem," Raut said.
"But this is the food of Marathi culture," he added.
Until recently, Shiv Sena had drifted from making pro-Marathi noises as it tried to appeal to voters in other states. It instead focused on espousing Hindutva, the nationalist idea that India is an essentially Hindu society with conservative values.
Its workers shifted from attacking city migrants to disrupting Valentine's Day balls, screenings of an art house movie about lesbians and other perceived threats to Indian culture. It also reached out to various non-Marathi communities.
But, in 2006, Raj Thackeray, the nephew of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, deserted the party to form the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) or Maharashtra Reconstruction Army. Once again, news channels ran pictures of non-Marathis being beaten in Mumbai's streets, this time by MNS workers.
Some see Shiv Sena returning to its roots as it tries to hang on to its Marathi votebank.
"Ever since Bal Thackeray's delinquent nephew set himself up as his uncle's Mini-Me, Marathi chauvinism has returned to Maharashtra politics," Vir Sanghvi, a columnist, wrote in the Hindustan Times on Sunday.
The party plans to launch the Shiv vada pav brand in June, and aims to soon have 5,000 franchisees across the city, heating up hygienic, uniform vada pavs prepared in a central kitchen.
In India, at least, the notion that politics and fast food can mix is already catching on. At the weekend, the Republican Party of India, a small party based mainly in Maharashtra, said it too would launch its own line of vada pavs.