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You’ve lost the plot

india Updated: Oct 30, 2008 20:41 IST
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My dear Raj,

My apologies for having to communicate through the editorial pages of a newspaper, but frankly I am left with little choice since you seem to have decided to stay away from the so-called ‘national’ non-Marathi media. At the very outset, let me say that I am impressed with the manner in which you have carved a niche in Maharashtra’s political landscape. I remember meeting you after the Mumbai municipal corporation elections in February last year. It wasn’t the best of times for you: your party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena was marginalised, while your cousin Uddhav Thackeray and the Shiv Sena had captured power in the city. With many of your supporters deserting you, you appeared down, if not quite out. Twenty months later, I see you’ve bounced back: local and national dailies have you on the front page, you are the subject of TV debates and your politics has even united Bihar’s warring netas.

And yet, my friend, there is a thin line between fame and notoriety, more so in the fickle world of politics. Bashing north Indian students may grab the headlines, getting arrested may even get you sympathy and strident rhetoric will always have a constituency, but will they be enough to secure your ultimate dream of succeeding your uncle Bal Thackeray as the flagbearer of Marathi asmita (pride)?

If Balasaheb in the 1960s rose to prominence by targeting the south Indian “lungiwala”, you have made the north Indian “bhaiyya” the new ‘enemy’. In the 1960s, the Maharashtrian middle-class in Mumbai was feeling the pressure of competition for white-collar clerical jobs. Today, it seems that there is a similar sense of frustration at losing out economically and culturally to other social groups in Mumbai’s endless battle for scarce resources. With the Congress and the NCP having become the real estate agents of the state’s rural-urban bourgeoisie and the Shiv Sena a pale shadow of its original avatar, the space has been created for a charismatic leader to emerge as a rabble-rouser espousing the sons of the soil platform.

But Raj, I must remind you that electoral politics is very different from street agitations. Sure, the round-the-clock coverage of taxis being stoned and buses burnt will get you instant recognition. Yes, your name may inspire fear like your uncle’s once did. And perhaps there will always be a core group of lumpen youth who will be ready to do your bidding. But how much of this will translate into votes? Identity politics based on hatred and violence is subject to the law of diminishing returns, especially in a city like Mumbai, the ultimate melting pot of commerce. Your cousin Uddhav tried a ‘Mee Mumbaikar’ campaign a few years ago. It was far more inclusive, but yet was interpreted as being anti-migrant. The result was that the Shiv Sena lost the 2004 elections — Lok Sabha and assembly — in its original citadel of Mumbai. Some statistics suggest that one in every four Mumbaikars is now a migrant from UP or Bihar. Can any political party afford to alienate such a large constituency in highly competitive elections?

Maybe, you are not even looking at winning seats at the moment, but staking claim to the Sena legacy in a post-Bal Thackeray scenario. Perhaps, that’s exactly what the ruling Congress-NCP combine in Maharashtra wants: like a market leader who gets competing brands to crush each other, the Congress-NCP leadership seems to be practising divide and rule politics once again. They did it with Balasaheb and the communists in the 1960s, with Bhindranwale and the Akalis in the 1980s, even with the Kashmir Valley politicians in the 1990s. A larger-than-life Raj Thackeray suits the ruling arrangement in the state because it could erode its principal rival, the Shiv Sena’s support base. It’s a dangerous game, but often when politicians run out of ideas, they prefer to play with fire. It’s a fire that could leave Mumbai scarred for life.

Now, before you see my writings as the outpourings of an anglicised non-resident Maharashtrian, let me just say that like you, I too am proud of my roots. I too, would like to see the cultural identity of Maharashtrians preserved and the economic well-being of the community assured. Where we differ is that I am a citizen of the Republic of India first, a proud Goan-Maharashtrian later. Fourteen years ago, I left Mumbai for Delhi to seek professional growth and was fortunate to be embraced by the Capital. Like millions of Indians, I too am a migrant and a beneficiary of a nation whose borders don’t stop at state checkpoints.

Moreover, I cannot accept that ‘goondaism’ is the way forward for forging a robust Maharashtrian identity. By vandalising a shop or stoning a taxi, what kind of mindless regional chauvinism are we promoting? Taking away the livelihood of a poor taxi driver or beating up some defenceless Bihari students reflects a fake machismo that is no answer to what ails Maharashtrian society today. The Maharashtra we are all proud off was inspired by the progressive ideals of the Bhakti movement, by a Shahu-Phule-Ambedkar legacy of social reform. Are we going to dismantle that legacy under the weight of hate politics?

When you started the MNS a few years ago, it had been pitched as a party committed to a ‘modern’ Maharashtra. If that vision still stands, why don’t you take it forward in real terms? Why don’t you, for example, set up vocational courses and technical institutes for young Maharashtrians to make them competitive in the job market? If cultural identity is such a concern, why not launch a statewide campaign to promote Marathi art, theatre and cinema by financially supporting such ventures?

If Mumbai’s collapsing infrastructure worries you, then target the politician-builder nexus first. And isn’t it also time we realised that Mumbai is not Maharashtra, that the long suffering Vidarbha and Marathwada farmer needs urgent attention? Why not use your political and financial muscle to start projects in rural Maharashtra instead of focusing your energies on Mumbai’s bright lights alone? An employment generation scheme in a Jalna or a Gadchiroli may not make the front pages, but it will have far greater value for securing Maharashtra’s future.

Jai Hind, Jai Maharashtra!

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network