The anti-north Indian violence by a small parochial outfit in Mumbai and elsewhere in Maharashtra shows that while India has grown economically, the politicians remain petty-minded charlatans. Otherwise, it is not possible to explain how a cosmopolitan 300-year-old metropolis, which is known as the country's financial centre and the home of its entertainment industry, can fall prey to the kind of sectarianism associated with a backward village.
As is obvious, the instigation was provided by myopic politicians with their bands of lumpen supporters. And their rise is the result of the decline of India's political culture from the broad-minded outlook of the immediate post-independence period to an insular, mean-minded localism.
This unfortunate transition would not have taken place but for the flawed internal dynamics of the mainstream parties, in this case mainly the Congress. It is probably not entirely coincidental that the rise of the Shiv Sena, one of the first parochial outfits in India, was in the mid-sixties when power in the Congress was passing into the hands of prime minister Indira Gandhi.
It was her policy of centralising all authority in her own hands and marginalizing the provincial leaders of her party which enabled the local chieftains of the rival parties to raise their heads. It was in the mid-sixties that the DMK came to the fore in Tamil Nadu while the communists, the assorted socialists and the Jana Sangh, which is the forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), became forces to reckon with in West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
The Akali Dal, too, began to gain prominence in Punjab after the assassination of the dynamic Congress chief minister Pratap Singh Kairon in 1965.
Significantly, many of these regional parties were boosted through the 1960s and 1970s by the presence of former Congressmen - Charan Singh in Uttar Pradesh, Biju Patnaik in Orissa, Ajoy Mukherji in West Bengal - and, during and after the Emergency (1975-77), by Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram and Chandra Shekhar at the national level.
The names of Patnaik's and Mukherji's parties - Utkal Congress and Bangla Congress - underlined the spread of regionalism.
Since then, the Congress' failure to grow, except in fits and starts in the 1980s under Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, has ensured that regional politics will gradually become a potent force. Arguably, this tendency has been strengthened by two other factors. One is the inability of the communists to spread their influence beyond West Bengal and Kerala (Tripura is too small to be of significance), thereby turning their parties also into state-level organisations.
And, secondly, the BJP's adoption of religion-based politics by the name of Hindutva reflects the same sectarian and divisive trend typical of the regional parties, which, too, champion the cause of castes or communities or regions at the expense of a national outlook.
In Maharashtra, this kind of identity politics, ostensibly based on advancing the interests of sons of the soil but, in effect, arousing antipathy against a targeted group of "outsiders", has taken a dangerous turn because of the conflict between two sectarian outfits which grew from the same root.
It is possible, of course, that the outbreak of virulent Marathi sub-nationalism will make some of the other sectarian parties see sense. The BJP's prime minister-in-waiting, L.K. Advani, for instance, has deplored the violence against northerners as anti-constitutional, asserting that every Indian has the right to settle and work anywhere in India.
That such a basic right of citizens has had to be mentioned at all underlines the deterioration that has taken place in public life. But it is doubtful whether Advani would have been equally solicitous about constitutional privileges if, say, the Muslims were the targets of attacks in Mumbai.
After all, the Shiv Sena thrived for years on anti-Muslim diatribe with the covert and overt approval of the BJP as both the parties belong to the anti-minority saffron brotherhood. As is known, the Sena was indicted by the Srikrishna Commission for its role in the Mumbai riots of 1992-93
It was only when the Sena chief, Bal Thackeray, chose his son, Uddhav, as his successor that his nephew, Raj, broke away to form the rival Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. And only when the new sena fared poorly in the municipal polls that it realised that it had to start a chauvinistic agitation to build up and consolidate its base of support, which, like that of the parent party, comprises the city's underclass in a large measure.
This is another aspect of politics which tends to erode the democratic structure, for virtually all the parties have come to depend on anti-social elements to do the work of cadres. The recent "recapture" of Nandigram in West Bengal by the cadres of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) from their political opponents is an example.
As is the preference expressed by the Supreme Court in favour of moving a case of murder against Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's eldest son, M.K. Azhagiri, to another state since a fair trial was said to be not possible in Madurai because of the "influence" of Azhagiri's cadres in this town.
The mixture of narrow-minded politics with the use of lumpen elements by the parties is evidently a highly combustible one. The riots in Gujarat in 2002, the violence in Nandigram and the still continuing troubles in Maharashtra are examples of the dangerous terrain of Indian politics.
As an inevitable corollary to the absorption of anti-socials by the parties in their ranks, the police have been emasculated so that the crooks can have a free run. In addition, there are political compulsions for reining in the police.
For instance, in Mumbai, the alliance between the ruling Congress and the Navnirman Sena in a number of municipalities has apparently ensured that Raj Thackeray will not be discomfited in any major way by the guardians of law and order in the pursuit of his divisive politics.
In such a dismal atmosphere, what the silent majority will regret is that there is no single leader at present who can rise above such cynical parochialism to articulate views from a national perspective and, more important, be charismatic enough to carry his audience with him.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)