A game of fear

Feb 05 : "Sena thesis pernicious... all Indians are free to live and work in Mumbai", says Union home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram. This was the headline in most newspapers on Tuesday. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that Mr

Chidambaram’s denunciation of the Shiv Sena-Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) campaign against non-Marathis in Mumbai comes only after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat, came forward to denounce the "Mumbai for Maharashtrians" theory of the two Senas. Mr Bhagwat’s denouncement is significant because Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party for the elections in Maharashtra; despite that, Mr Bhagwat refused to compromise and stands firmly by his nationalist sentiments.

But Mr Chidambaram’s and the Congress leaders’ denouncements lack credibility. Recently, the Congress chief minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, stirred the political witch’s brew by first announcing that only Marathi-knowing, long-term residents of Maharashtra would be eligible for taxi-driver licences in the state capital. The Congress Party headquarters did not express its displeasure immediately; it waited for angry reactions to come in and then issued a statement distancing itself from the move.

Next day, the Maharashtra chief minister retracted his statement and amended the controversial license provision to include "any local language, including Hindi and Gujarati". He, however, failed to add what others have said, including cricket’s top star Sachin Tendulkar’s statement that the nation welcomed with a rousing applause — that India comes first, Maharashtra later.

Mr Chavan and the Congress leaders’ hypocrisy is all too evident — for the TV cameras they say that Mumbai is open to all citizens of India but what has their government, which has been ruling Maharashtra for the last 10 years, done to secure that position? It is complete lack of political will on the part of those in power that the lives and limbs of Indian citizens working in Mumbai are not safe from thugs who threaten to impose parochialism. It’s probably this weakness that forced the RSS chief to declare that he would ask "swayam sevaks" to protect Indian citizens from parochialism.

The insincerity of Mr Chavan and his party bosses in New Delhi is also evident from their studied tepid response whenever their protégé Raj Thackeray indulges in histrionics or mob tactics. Mr Raj Thackeray has openly defied the law and threatened physical harm to migrant people in the commercial capital of the country. His goons have damaged taxis belonging to drivers from other states, beaten up migrants arriving in Mumbai, and destroyed public property.

If you follow the way Mr Chavan and his Nationalist Congress Party "Sancho Panza" tilt at the windmill of parochialism you would very clearly see that the two have no interest in fighting this gathering storm. Their immediate priority, probably, is to contain the Shiv Sena by using the MNS against it.

What happens if this leads to competitive militancy as it did in Punjab? Perhaps the Congress is not bothered about the long-term impact as long as it can retain short-term gains. This alone can explain its states falling over each other to define their regional agenda and creating a scenario where the concept of India implodes and dies. It is the same myopia that created a Frankenstein out of Sant Bhindranwale in Punjab that is now drawing Maharashtra into the vortex of a regional conflict.

The jinns are already out of the bottle in Mumbai. The competitive militancy between the two Senas has now targeted Shah Rukh Khan, the topmost star in Bollywood. Mr Khan has been open in condemning the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) exclusion of Pakistani players. Several others, including Mr Chidambaram, have not spared the IPL bosses for their attitude towards the Pakistani players. But Mr Chidambaram should be more concerned about how Mumbai law and order is being held hostage by the two Senas and their diktat.

Can India survive if in its prime city what should or should not be done is decided by

some political elements outside the government? The quiet submission of Mumbai’s theatre owners to the threat from the Shiv Sena on playing Mr Khan’s film has demonstrated that it is not the Mantralaya’s writ that is running in the city. But this is, perhaps, the chicken coming home to roost for the Congress which promoted Mr Raj Thackeray to counter Mr Bal Thackeray.

This issue would provide yet another launching pad for the Shiv Sena to extend its writ and erode public confidence in the state’s law and order machinery. Also, for Mr Bal Thackeray it is politically necessary to counter his rival Mr Raj Thackeray’s goons who are clandestinely backed by the ruling Congress.

With hindsight we can now believe what was stated much earlier — that Mr Chavan was deliberately stirring the pot when he suddenly announced a month ago that the eligibility for taxi licenses would be changed to favour Maharashtrians. This could put Mr Bal Thackeray’s Sena on the defensive against Mr Raj Thackeray’s Sena. After all, the Congress is bound to have the last laugh as the two Senas fight it out.

However, Mr Chavan’s calculations seem to have gone awry and Mumbai is in the grip of a fear psychosis with the two Senas alternatively calling the shots. Mr Chavan needs this sort of divisive politics as his own throne is shaky. Former Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has not forgiven Mr Chavan for marginalising him, not through a trial of strength but through the blessings of the party high command.

The Deshmukh-Chavan rivalry forces the incumbent chief minister to constantly stoke the fire to save his own skin by demonstrating to the high command that he is in command and that he can play the "Maharashtra for Maharashtrians" game through Mr Raj Thackeray’s MSN. So while all this is in the "family", the victims are the people of India — the environment in Mumbai cannot be allowed to be vitiated without it affecting the economic growth of the entire country.

Balbir K. Punj can be contacted at punjbk@gmail.com

By Balbir K. Punj

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