May 19, 2009
While it was a relief to find that the city did not vote for a chauvinist agenda as a whole, the ability of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena to cut into local votes is certainly disheartening. In many ways the MNS agenda is here to stay and will keep erupting from time to time unless the city responds forcefully.
The fact is that if they take over the Shiv Sena vote-space in the future, Mumbai is back to square one. One Thakeray will be replaced by another (much younger one) and the city will keep bending on its knees every now and then to a mafia-style political culture.
Right now the ball is in the Congress’s court. Unfortunately, the party can work very differently at the center, state and city levels. It is perfectly possible for some short sighted chief minister to keep one Sena at bay by encouraging another, until yet another political calamity is unleashed.
The question to ask is, why is it that large sections of Mumbai’s population still feel that identity politics is the only way ahead for them? What is it that they see Raj Thakeray doing for them? Is it a sense of empowerment that they experience through his ideology, even if it does not concretely change things for them? Do they feel safe and protected under his leadership in a city that does not fully account for the needs of everybody?
His largest patronage comes from the city’s, post-industrial working and middle-class Maharashtrians. Like his uncle, Raj too has moped up the residues of the city’s once rich, unionized, working class history and transformed it into a space of informal state control – mafia style. Since then, the Sainiks have taken over grassroots activities from the left, infused them with cultural agendas and added huge servings of scapegoat politics, and violence. Moreover, cultural activities, festivities and neighbourhood level involvement have been the hallmark of the Sena and Raj is firmly committed to that legacy.
His largest support comes from informal settlements in the city. From the Koliwadas to old villages to modern slums, these rich and textured landscapes have been his biggest support base. And as long as the authorities choose to ignore these spaces, Thackeray style politics will always be a specter haunting the city’s horizon.
Besides, the dominance of Congress in the city’s political horizon is one thing. Its ability of dealing with a numerically smaller but in many ways louder and more violent MNS is something else altogether. And if Mumbai follows the Delhi way – then that will only feed the agenda of such parties more.
In the capital, the Congress has been pretty aggressive against the jhuggis and slums, and in many ways has only postponed the problem. There will certainly come a time, when the exiled urban poor in that city will emerge as another force to reckon. And if one is not careful enough, will be equally aggressive.
The fact of the matter is that to eliminate the Sena style of politics, the city has to get to the root of the problem. And that consists of working at two levels. One is to make sure that the huge economic divisions that mark the city – most visible in its built environments and highly unequal consumption levels – is narrowed and the second is to proactively replace the cultural language of chauvinist politics with something more dynamic, celebratory and imaginative, in a manner that reaches out to every neighbourhood and corner. For a city that has such a strong culture industry and so much talent, it’s a shame that we have not been able to counter-act narrow cultural prejudices and counteract Raj’s language in a stronger way.
It’s not late though. The election results can become a strong foundation of a completely new political culture for Mumbai.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, Wed May 20, 2009