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The Legacy of Goonda Raj

Rajdeep Sardesai sardesairajdeep

Updated: February 8, 2008, 1:19 AM IST
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Long before there was 'monkey' (sorry, 'maa ki'), there was "bhaiya". The 1979 Ranji game between Mumbai and Delhi at the Wankhede stadium witnessed the repeated chants of "bhaiya" every time Madan Lal ran in to bowl. Ironically, a year or two later, as Madan Lal bowled India to a famous win on the same ground against England, the abuse turned to celebration. In a sense, the contrast was typical Mumbai: warm, embracing and cosmopolitan at one level, but unforgiving, narrow-minded, and parochial at another. Mumbai has always been a Jekyll and Hyde city with a fleeting memory span. Madan Lal realized it three decades ago. Now, Amitabh Bachchan is being confronted with the grim reality: a much-loved legendary global superstar one day, targeted as a migrant from Uttar Pradesh the next.

That Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray has chosen to reveal the darker side of Mumbai in the last week should come as no surprise. For more than four decades now, Mumbai's carefree, 'bindaas' spirit (best exemplified in Johnny Walker crooning on Marine Drive "ae dil he mushkil" in the 1950s) has wrestled with the forces of nativism and sectarian politics. In a city which prides itself on its comforting urbanism, violence and intimidation have always lurked in the shadows.

After all, long before Raj Thackeray discovered the north Indian as the "enemy within", his uncle, the redoubtable Bal Thackeray had already uncorked the genie of militant chauvinism onto Mumbai's political landscape. If Raj targets the north Indian taxi driver from UP and Bihar today, 40 years ago his uncle made a mark by first attacking the shops and restaurants owned by South Indian migrants from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. An opportunistic Thackeray senior's hate objects changed over the years: the Shiv Sena started off as an "anti-South Indian" movement, then took on the communists, before settling on the Muslim as the "enemy". If the initial years were designed to nurture the Shiv Sena as a "sons of the soil" movement with a staunch Maharashtrian identity, the last 20 years have seen the Sena "graduate" into the party of Hindutva politics, aimed at widening its political base beyond the local Marathi-speaking population. While evolving through its various avatars, one thing has remained unchanged: the Shiv Sena's search for an enemy and a commitment to the politics of violence as a means to an end. Riots, bandhs and mass killings: the Sena cannot escape the charge of having Mumbai's blood on its hands over four decades.

To that extent, the nephew is only carrying forward the legacy of the uncle. Over four decades, Bal Thackeray has mastered the art of staying in the arclights by his seemingly outrageous rhetoric and open endorsement of violence. He has also, in the process, been built up as a larger than life figure, someone to be feared, reviled or admired, depending on your political preferences. Like his uncle, Raj too is a cartoonist, who has consciously modeled himself on the original Sena supremo. The mannerisms, the sharp language, even the physical appearance, the similarities are uncanny. An ambitious, charismatic Raj, with one eye on next year's elections, desperately, wants to be like his uncle. But while Bal Thackeray remains a unique figure in Indian politics, Raj Thackeray is in danger of being reduced to a caricature of the leader he hero-worships.

Quite simply, Mumbai 2008 is not Bombay 1966 when the Shiv Sena was founded. In 1966, Maharashtra was still a young state, deeply influenced by the linguistic agitation that had led to its formation. The sense of cultural pride in being a Maharashtrian was greater, as indeed was the fear of the "outsider", especially in Mumbai, a city which for centuries has been shaped by its remarkable capacity to attract people from all across the country. To that extent, the emergence of the Shiv Sena was seen by many Maharashtrians as a legitimate platform to express their grievances, especially the economic concerns stemming from increasing middle class competition for jobs. Thackeray senior became almost a "loudspeaker" of popular grievances, someone who was ready to question and challenge the dominance of Mumbai's non-Maharashtrian elites. Membership of a Shiv Sena shakha became a badge of honour, designed to compensate for the insecurity being felt in the hostile job environment outside.

Forty years later, it is questionable whether the Maharashtrian middle class feels the same sense of anger and alienation it once did. Sure, there is a never-ending battle for Mumbai's scarce resources, especially housing, but the "enemy" isnt so well-defined any longer. Comfortably ensconced in the new economy, the aspirations of the new generation of Maharashtrians, like indeed most communities, are going well beyond clerical serfdom. Just do a random survey of Shivaji Park-Dadar - heart of the Maharashtrian middle class identity - and find out how many families have their children working abroad. At the same time, Maharashtrian culture itself has been almost swamped by the march of Bollywood, slowly destroying any sense of pride in tradition and language. As a result, while there is a core group - often unemployed youth -- who will be attracted to the Raj Thackeray style of machismo identity politics, the fact is the numbers aren't large enough to make it a sustainable political movement like the original Shiv Sena.

There is also a critical demographic difference between the 60s and today. The south Indian "lungiwallahs", as Thackeray would derisively refer to them, were barely five to six per cent of then Bombay city's population, and hence were a "minority" in the real sense of the term. By contrast, the 2001 census suggests that north Indian migrants comprise around 12 to 14 per cent of the population. The UP or Bihari migrant is no longer a marginal figure in Mumbai's salad bowl, he is a crucial ingredient in the mix who can no longer be ignored or isolated.

Politically, this has completely transformed Mumbai's map. A Govinda, for example, would not have won a Lok Sabha seat from Mumbai without the staunch support of the north Indian community. The Congress-NCP alliance would not have won as many as 19 of the city's 34 assembly seats in 2004 without the support of the north Indian migrant. Even the heir apparent to the Sena throne, Udhav Thackeray realized the limitations of anti-north Indian politics in Mumbai's changed scenario, one reason why he abandoned the much-hyped "Mee Mumbaikar" campaign before the last municipal elections.

Raj Thackeray, too, must realize sooner or later the limitations of the politics of violent confrontation. As indeed must those discredited elements within the Samajwadi party who have emerged as the self-styled spokespersons of Mumbai's north Indian community and created a sense of "victimhood" within their flock. An overcrowded megapolis of over 20 million people, with a rapidly crumbling infrastructure, the last thing India's financial capital needs is a rupture in its social fabric caused by visionless political interests.

Maybe, if Raj Thackeray is genuinely interested in the future of Mumbai, he needs to shift his gaze from ill-advised, high-profile agitations against chat pujas to more concrete proposals for urban renewal. Blaming Mumbai's problems on the economic migrant is to simply escape responsibility for failing to address the core issue: a serious crisis of governance. The train from Gorakhpur and Patna station to Mumbai central isn't going to stop in its tracks because a lumpen mob insists on it. What can be stopped is the political corruption that has destroyed Mumbai's body, and now threatens its soul. Why cant Mumbai's leaders agree, for example, to stop regularizing illegal slum colonies?

Maybe, Raj Thackeray, who is also a talented film-maker, should consider making a film that exposes the real culprits responsible for Mumbai's decay. He might even want to get Amitabh Bachchan to act in it!
First Published: February 8, 2008, 1:19 AM IST