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We’re all Shah Rukh

The RSS, the BJP, Mukesh Ambani and Rahul Gandhi are on the same side — against the Shiv Sena. Can Mumbai finally find its voice? Samar Halarnkar examines...

india Updated: Feb 03, 2010 22:13 IST
Samar Halarnkar

On June 26, 1963, US President John F Kennedy, showing solidarity with beleaguered West Berliners, famously said (in a grammatically incorrect statement): “Ich bin ein Berliner.” I am a Berliner.

After 9/11, the French paper Le Monde declared: “We are all Americans.”

On Monday, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said: “Count me as a Bihari.”

The wise often argue that silence speaks the loudest.

Not always. Not now. Not in India.

There is a reason the world’s best car companies install powerful horns in the automobiles they sell here. Indians need to say it out loud. Injustice triumphs when the powerful are silent, when standing strong only needs a voice.

So, in a city where business tsars and Bollywood stars are infamous for grovelling whenever a politician frowns, it was a relief to first hear Mukesh Ambani and later Shah Rukh Khan stick it to parochial politics and the Shiv Sena, incongruously named after Shivaji the Great.

“You can only say what you believe in and stand by it, and hopefully I will have the strength to do so,” Khan said in New York about the Sena’s threat to ban his latest movie, My Name is Khan, and to prevent his return to Mumbai. “As an Indian I’m not ashamed, guilty or unhappy about what I said, neither am I sorry.”

Used to the sounds of silence, Bal Thackeray’s faltering Sainiks — desperate now for any kind of publicity — manufactured an issue: SRK’s opinion that keeping Pakistanis out of the Indian Premier League was a mistake.

There isn’t a better time to call the Sena’s bluff.

Every party, finally, appears to be finding its voice against the politics of hate and exclusion — except, ironically, the Maharashtra Congress, which has instead dangerously dabbled with the outsiders-out game, as its now-torpedoed January move of giving taxi permits only to Marathi speakers suggests.

Why won’t Congressmen say, ‘We are all Shah Rukh today’? Why won’t Ashok Chavan say, ‘I will make sure no harm comes to him’?

Milind Deora, the Congress’ suave, young MP from South Mumbai, said they do speak up. “Only yesterday I told the TV channels that it’s wrong to keep Pakistani players or people out of India,” he said, when I asked why his party speaks in different voices in Delhi (Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Rahul Gandhi criticised the Sena this week) and Mumbai (where the chief minister said nothing). “But the (saffron) alliance under strain is much more newsworthy than what we say.”

Well, Deora’s right there. It’s unique indeed that the BJP and the RSS, the Sena’s former allies in the Hindu right, are on the verge of abandoning the party for its tired, rabid anti-outsider sentiment. As my colleague Shekhar Iyer, who covers the Sangh parivar, had lucidly explained in this paper on Tuesday, the RSS and BJP are, after years of uncomfortable silence, going public with their displeasure because they believe Marathi chauvinism will damage their goal of pan-Indian nationalism. If you keep dividing Indians by language, origin and culture, how can you possibly promote the Sangh parivar concept — flawed as it is — of one people, indivisible?

Note that Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the RSS, is Maharashtrian. Nitin Gadkari, president of the BJP, is Maharashtrian. (Disclaimer: I am a Maratha.)

Of course, there are internal Sangh-parivar politics at play. The BJP would not have dared forsake Bal Thackeray similarly. His son, Uddhav, simply does not match up in the demagoguery stakes, and the Sena is a shadow of what it was. This is 2010, and Mumbai has ambitions and a new confidence it never did in the 1960s, when Bal’s original, crass slogan against South Indians was such a hit: Lungi uthao! pungi bajao! Lift their lungis and blow the pungi (a snake charmer’s wind instrument).

The other Sena and its leader — the darker and more dangerous Raj — realise this. He’s waiting quietly in the wings, leaving the ranting to his cousin, aware of the rare chorus of voices coalescing around King Khan.

The BJP’s new president is more a friend of Raj than he ever was of Uddhav. So, while Gadkari may be speaking against parochialism from conviction borne of a changing city, he may just as well be clearing the ground for a future alliance with Raj.

If the political consensus is to become a turning point, a Mumbai in thrall of the Senas will have to display a backbone shriveled from years of bowing, as the city’s rich and famous made their uneasy peace with the Sena.

On February 1, this was the post on superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s blog: “Uddhav Thackeray calls, he has just come out of the theatre after ‘Rann’ and is not able to find appropriate words to describe his appreciation... Minutes later Bala Saheb calls. ‘I want to see this film. Come and show it to me! You have not been to see me for a long time!’ I assure him I shall arrange a projection in his house…”

To this, Sanjana Kapoor, theatre director and daughter of Bachchan’s contemporary Shashi Kapoor, told a television reporter: “These are powerful people. Why are they buckling under?”

As I write this, no one from Bollywood has spoken up. The posters of SRK’s movie are coming down. If Mumbai does not speak now, it will be doomed forever to its shameful silence.