Rabble rousing has been the centerpiece of the Mumbai-based Shiv Sena's political philosophy since its inception. For decades it has substituted genuine vision with nuisance value. That approach has paid handsome dividends, particularly in terms of giving its founder Bal Thackeray and his family members a sway over the affairs of the city way out of proportion to its actual contribution.
Now his rebellious nephew Raj Thackeray is taking a page out of his uncle's book as he goes about building his splinter group Maharashtra Navnirman Sena into a force of some influence. Since he has been reared on a culture of unvarnished political thuggery, the best option he could think of was to allegedly launch a completely disingenuous attack on the movie icon Amitabh Bachchan. Whether Bachchan has used Mumbai strictly for utilitarian purposes, as Thackeray junior has strenuously argued, is secondary to the more serious question of the kind of polity India's financial hub wants to tolerate.
The animus that the Sena and its ideological offspring like Raj Thackeray has nurtured against those they perceive to be outsiders has frequently led to serious conflagrations over the past three decades. These chauvinist groups' targets of hate have changed over the years depending on the political expediency of the time. It has shifted from being anti-south Indian to anti-Gujarati to anti-Muslim to anti-north Indian based on purely cynical political calculations. For instance, the relations between the city's Maharashtrian and Gujarati populations, which were once seriously strained, are now being described by Raj Thackeray's group as between "milk and sugar".
Those who have been trained in the brand of politics crafted by the Sena have come to see themselves as the arbiters of the city's destiny and every time they sense a danger to that role, they resort to tactics which would have no place in any civil discourse. From all available accounts, Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has not been able to fashion any role of influence for itself since its founding two years ago. The best way to draw attention to itself and in the process gain some political traction is to indulge in precisely the kind of rhetoric that Raj Thackeray did.
In many ways the Marathi versus non-Marathi debate is reminiscent of the Americans versus illegal Latino/Mexican immigrants in the US. The influx of non-Maharashtrians into Mumbai and that of Latinos/Mexicans into the US are both fuelled and sustained by the vast opportunities that exist in the menial sectors of the economy. For instance, it is being increasingly argued that "bhaiyyas", as migrant labour from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are pejoratively called, are willing to do the kind of work that the more literate Maharashtrians are not. This is exactly the argument one hears about why illegal Latino/Mexican aliens are able to find work in sectors such as agriculture, construction, housekeeping and so on. The constant refrain of the Sena and its ideological offspring like Raj Thackeray's group has been that non-Maharashtrians take away jobs that would have otherwise gone to "Marathi Manus" or local Maharashtrians. One hears precisely the same argument in the US about how Mexicans and other Latino migrants ea into the job market at the cost of legal American residents.
The question that does not get seriously addressed when such frenzy is whipped up is whether Mumbai can tolerate such parochialism and still hope to emerge as a major global financial centre. The simple fact is that most of the economic vibrancy of the city is a result of its demographic mix. It is debatable whether the city would have acquired its primacy had it remained insular and dominated by just one ethnic group.
Having said that though, it is necessary to recognize that migrants from other parts of the country do bring with them some of the less than edifying cultural predilections, which are often the cause of friction with the city's native population. Mumbai has by and large distinguished itself as a metropolis that respects merit above everything else. However, as the influx into the city creates a more diverse ethnographic mosaic, it also creates cultural strains in terms of attitudes towards gender equality, language, religion and class. At some level, the tensions between the Samajwadi Party and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena are emblematic of two political groupings that have practiced a certain brand of politics that is often bereft of finesse and subtlety. A large presence of people from Uttar Pradesh in the city offers a natural constituency to the Samajwadi Party, which also sees in them their chance to upstage the Shiv Sena and its progeny.
In any event, both these parties will have to fundamentally alter their political philosophy if they seriously want Mumbai to rise to the level of global influence it is so capable of.
(Mayank Chhaya, a former resident of Mumbai, is a Chicago-based writer and commentator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)