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Not just the issue of Marathi asmita, say experts

Manisha Rege in Mumbai | October 27, 2008 10:42 IST

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The issue of 'Marathi pride' raised by Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has polarised the state politics and the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party coalition can ill afford to ignore its emotive appeal in an election year.

Prominent leaders of the ruling establishment have been forced to contend that the issues raised by Raj are genuine but they do not agree with his methods.

Even Shiv Sainik-turned-Congressman Narayan Rane, the state's Revenue Minister observed in a front page column in his Marathi newspaper Prahar that north Indian leaders have united on the Marathi versus Hindi issue and said that their unity was not for projecting a nationalist sentiment but isolating Maharashtra and its people.

'When the north Indian leaders have got together, leaders from Maharashtra have developed cold feet,' he had said.

The thrashing of innocent north Indian youths during the Railway recruitment board examinations on October 19 as part of the MNS agitation for rights of 'sons of soil' seems to have divided even the Marathi-speaking people.

Political observers note that only about five to ten per cent of the Marathi youth from families, which are traditionally Shiv Sena voters, have been attracted to Raj's style of politics.

But, it remains to be seen whether the support will translate into votes, observers feel.

They point out that it was the similar case of beating up of north Indian youths who have come to Mumbai to appear for the railway exams just before the Lok Sabha elections in 2004, which had cost Shiv Sena-BJP victory in the Lok Sabha and subsequent assembly elections.

However, the polarisation is not restricted around Marathi asmita (pride), feel political analysts.

The current issue has pitted the Hindi-speaking population versus the rest. There is growing resentment about the encroachment of Hindi-speaking people in all spheres of life in the state among the non-Hindi population in Mumbai and other cities of Maharashtra, observers say.

Mumbai, Thane, Navi Mumbai, Pune, Nashik account for over one third of total assembly seats and Shiv Sena wields considerable influence here. The Congress-NCP felt that they could use Raj who also has good number of supporters in this region, to cut Shiv Sena to size.

The north Indians in this belt comprises nearly 20 per cent of the total voters. The numbers are quite substantial to swing votes either for Shiv Sena-BJP or Congress-NCP.

BJP sources said it is unlikely that Congress-NCP will benefit. "The north Indian voters have realised that Raj was propped up by the Congress-NCP to target the Shiv Sena," sources added.

Besides, Raj's arrest and subsequent bail and also filing of about 54 cases against him in different cities of the state are meant to shield him from the Non-Bailable Warrant issued by the Jamshedpur court.

BJP sources are of the view that the NBW received by the Mumbai police a day before he was arrested in the October 19 attacks on north Indians, will never be executed by the state government.

Also, BJP sources feel that since their party's campaign against Bangladeshi immigrants, who have found place in the voters' list in Maharashtra, has succeeded and it may highlight this issue during elections asking voters to decide whether these Bangladeshis or the North Indians are a real threat to the state.

With the state accounting for 42 per cent urban areas most of which have achieved a cosmopolitan nature, Marathi-speaking activists of Congress feel that the leadership should give prominence to Maharashtrians during ticket distribution, especially in Mumbai, Thane, Navi Mumbai, Pune and Nashik belt, the most developed and industrialised area.

Congress being a national party cannot take a definite stand on the 'Marathi issue'. But, the party will have to do a balancing act and turn the tables on its opponents by labelling the issue as a fight for political survival between MNS and Shiv Sena, sources in the state Congress feel.

Congress sources said that instead of beating up youths from other states, Raj can do great justice to young Marathi boys and girls by doing something constructive.

Political analysts are of the opinion that the echo of Raj Thackeray's [Images] anti-North Indian tirade has been felt nationwide, thanks to the hyped coverage on 24-hour news channels.

People of north Indian states feel Maharashtra government has not tackled the Raj issue efficiently and this is bound to affect the Congress in the election-bound states of north India.

Congress sources admit that the Marathi issue have takers in unemployed local youth who feel that they have been overtaken by people from other states especially North India.

The Congress appears to have been caught on the backfoot.
 
"In states like Bihar and UP, the party has virtually negligible presence. Rahul Gandhi [Images] is trying his best to revive the party at the grassroots by meeting students at colleges and schools. The party will be answerable to voters in those states," sources said.

"Besides, major states in the Hindi belt like MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi [Images] go to polls next month and the issue is bound to figure during campaigns," they added.

Under pressure, the Maharashtra government had to act against Raj, observers said. Since last week, it has moved swiftly and picked him up from Ratnagiri while he was on tour.

"The government is now trying to bind him legally by filing 54 cases against him in three days. However, all offences registered against him are bailable. So, there is possibility that he will get bail and emerge as a hero," observers said.

However, they are quick to note that only time will tell whether Raj will be able to translate his popularity among a section of the Marathi people into electoral success.

According to political analysts, the government first tried to handle Raj politically rather than treating his anti-north Indian tirade as a potential law and order problem.

"The government first thought that it will be able to weaken Shiv Sena by ignoring Raj. Sena working president Uddhav Thackeray has been touring the state extensively in recent times highlighting the government's failures in power sector, farmers suicides among others," sources said.

A senior cabinet minister, when contacted, said, "As far as government is concerned, we have to be least bothered about the political fallout. Our primary concern is maintaining law and order and steps are being taken in that direction. In this case, either way -- whether we take action or not, the government will have to face the music."




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