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Why Mumbai needs a Bal Thackeray

Last updated on: November 19, 2012 18:27 IST

'Bal Thackeray may have loved Hitler, but I don't think he was one.'

'The fact is, if you put a city like Mumbai, and its numerically dominant single largest group, in chains, intended or not, democracy itself is called into question,' says Sonali Ranade.


Neither Bal Thackeray, nor the Shiv Sena, happened in a vacuum. Both were a product of their times even as they attempted to define it. To understand what empowered Bal Thackeray, and will continue to sustain the Shiv Sena, one needs to understand something of the unique political configuration that has trapped Mumbai.

Mumbai and its suburbs have a population of 20.50 million. Maharashtra's total population is 112 million. Nearly every fifth Maharashtrian lives in Mumbai. That is a huge proportion.

Maharashtra provides roughly 15 per cent of India's GDP, of which about 40 per cent originates in Mumbai. The city alone provides almost 30 per cent of India's total direct taxes. By either standard, population numbers or wealth generation, Mumbai simply dwarfs all else in Maharashtra.

Yet, despite its huge population size, and wealth, how is Mumbai represented in Maharashtra's politics? You can examine this question over time at two levels. The first level is the city's representation in formal government structures. The second level is in terms of real influence the city can win given the configuration of political power in Maharashtra and India.

Maharashtra has 288 members in its legislative assembly of which Mumbai city contributes 9. Add to that number the seats from the greater metropolitan area, the number grows to 36 or roughly 12 per cent of the total strength of the legislative assembly. In contrast, 18 per cent of all Maharashtrians live in Mumbai.

Clearly, Mumbaikars as a whole are grossly under-represented in Maharashtra's politics when, as the single largest voter bloc, they should actually dominate Maharashtra politics. Remember, the seat of Maharashtra's government is in Mumbai. This factor alone accounts for the huge proportion of the sense of disempowerment that Mumbaikars nurse.

However, it is the highly skewed political configuration of Maharashtra's political dynamic that truly marginalises a large portion of Mumbai's middle class. To understand this, consider Maharashtra's politics as dominated by Congress and anti-Congress factions where both attract support in more or less equal measure.

Of the two, the Congress has been the dominant faction. When the Congress is in power, it generally favours rural over urban voters, which cuts out Mumbai. Further, the Congress generally favours the poor over middle class, that alienates the better-off Mumbaikar who is far richer than her rural counterpart, never mind Mumbai's pathetic slums et al.

Within the Congress, the Marathas from the agricultural rich Western Maharashtra have dominated the Congress party, and over the decades, have transferred whatever surplus was at hand to their constituencies for development. Mumbai was nothing more than a milch cow for Congress politicians.

The anti-Congress faction has been in power only once, representing an alliance of the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party, and this formation almost bankrupted the state by diverting all the money they could find or borrow into rebuilding Mumbai's dilapidated infrastructure in 1995-2000. They were promptly booted out of power for their trouble, but Mumbaikars still nurse sympathy for them.

But in the large Maharashtra constituency the Congress holds sway. Nevertheless, this five-year spell by the Shiv Sena-BJP highlighted Mumbai's marginalisation by showing what was possible but for the Congress's domination of Maharashtra's politics.

If one steps back in time, and examines Mumbai's politics in the 1970s and 1980s when the Congress was the only party in power, two more factors emerge. First, Mumbai was the smuggling capital of India with the Konkan coast (that includes Mumbai) landing 90 per cent of contraband that included gold, electronics, textiles and much else.

The fishermen of Konkan, traditionally Muslim, dominated the smuggling trade. To that mix were added the Malabari Muslims in Dubai who sourced the contraband and the Pathans of Mumbai who provided protection and marketing.

This grouping, highly organised, was an excellent vote-gathering machine at election time, and the need to buy political protection made it the ideal partners of unscrupulous Congress politicians. Needless to say, Muslim gangsters, big and small, dominated ward-level politics, adding to the resentment of the lower-middle class Maharashtrian, who saw the phenomenon at first hand.

Secondly, the Congress's general wooing of Muslim votes, perceived or real, set the Mumbaikars searching for an alternative in Mumbai. It was into this vacuum that Bal Thackeray stepped in. He let this natural, alienated, marginalised lower-middle class constituency shape his worldview and politics. Their preferred opinion became Balasaheb's ideology. That partly explains why he had no political philosophy or ideology of his own to speak of.

Bal Thackeray's 'communalism' wasn't ideological. It was more a question of competition for influence with the Congress than an ingrained hostility to Muslims as such. His alliance with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-BJP was a political alliance that did little to shape his worldview. The Shiv Sena did target Mumbai's underworld. But it did this through the police whose lower ranks came to be fiercely loyal to the party given that the recruitment catchment for lower ranks is largely local.

Similarly, the Shiv Sena's antipathy to outsiders, be they Tamils, Uttar Pradesh-wallahs, Biharis or whatever, was driven by a desire to win as many jobs for the marginalised lower middle class Maharashtrian, rather than a xenophobic fear or loathing of outsiders.

It should be seen more in the light of Balasaheb's need to show results for his constituency when out of power rather than parochialism per se.

In any case, that sense of marginalisation of the Marathi Manoos in Mumbai explains the fierce loyalty that the Sena commands, something that outsiders find hard to comprehend given Mumbai's wealth, fame and cosmopolitan character.

Bal Thackeray took politics to the local level for Mumbai and Maharashtra. Since all good politics is local, that cannot be a bad thing by itself. Delhi has become too remote, especially within the Congress party that can't see local politics in all its murky detail, and is too tied up in preserving the party apparatus as vote-gathering machine for its princelings.

The Congress's predilection for one-size-fits-all closely mirrors the model used by India's wooden-headed civil service that misses the woods for the trees. It is not just in Maharashtra that people see the Congress and its centralisation of power in Delhi as demeaning.

Regional leaders like Bal Thackeray, Narendra Modi, Jayalalitha, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik et al were/are having a field day shredding the Congress machine to pieces and the trend can only accentuate with time as the locus of power and resources shifts from the Centre to the states.

Mumbai's marginalisation within India, and the Maharashtrian Mumbaikar's marginalisation within Mumbai, are not going to be easily reversed as both are built into the system. Electoral constituencies are not going to be re-delineated in a hurry. Mumbai's representation is frozen.

Mumbai's intellectual space and population of critical thinkers continue to shrink. We have hardly produced a writer or thinker of note outside of Bollywood in the last two decades. Such intellectuals as those that exist are confined to corporate boardrooms.

Land sharks, gangsters and unscrupulous politicians are crowding out entrepreneurs. An artificial boom in real estate makes expansion of schooling, colleges and universities unviable. New businesses and new industry are simply migrating to other lower cost centres.

Mumbai is at the threshold of a death spiral that will not be easy to reverse.

Delegation of more power to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, with power over Mumbai's infrastructure, and introduction of a full-fledged civic government under an executive mayor remains a distant dream. The legislators -- both from the Congress and the Shiv Sena-BJP -- are simply loath to delegate real power to civic governments just as the central government fights shy of devolving more power to the states.

To the extent the Marathi Manoos is numerically dominant, but systematically marginalised, there will always be political space for leaders like Bal Thackeray who are willing to use methods outside democracy's normal rules to gain and exercise power.

Bal Thackeray may have loved Hitler, but I don't think he was one. The fact is, if you put a city like Mumbai, and its numerically dominant single largest group, in chains, intended or not, democracy itself is called into question.

And that was and is Mumbai's and Bal Thackeray's tragedy.

Sonali Ranade