Vada Pav politics
At the launch of the Shiv Sena's ethnic fast food chain, the Shiv Vada Pav, party spokesperson, Sanjay Raut said matter-of-factly, "I think this is the first of its kind sammelan where hundreds of us have gathered to celebrate a popular food item, that is the pride of Maharashtra." Agreed sir, I cannot even imagine a Jayalalitha or a Karunanidhi holding an Idli/Masala Dosa conference to bring together hundreds of their state's people and make a political statement based on identity. Maybe because in the South, language is the deciding factor for identity, whereas Mumbai has many symbols other than Marathi to prove your identity as a true blue Mumbaikar - the local train, the Gheun Taak attitude, the bun maska and irani chai. The humble vada pav however is one of the most common symbols.
Vada pav stalls and Sena politics have probably the same relationship that coffee houses in Kolkata and revolutionary intellectuals of yore shared. Veteran Shiv Sena leaders always have a 'conversation over Vada pav and chai with Balasaheb' story to tell young reporters who meet them. Many of the earliest vada pav stall owners were regular suppliers to the Shiv Sena Shakhas close by. Then came the era of the corporatisation of the vada pav. Many small and large vada pav chains opened up in Mumbai. And slowly from a roadside stall owned by any Jayant, Sachin and Prasad, Vada pav became a successful business formula being undertaken by even successful MBA graduates both Maharashtrian and non-Maharashtrian. Therefore, it was no surprise that the Sena thought of exploiting this business idea and get political brownie points by providing employment opportunities to any willing Maharashtrian youth.
The Sena has definitely managed to touch an emotional chord by choosing the vada pav as its mascot. For anyone who has lived in Mumbai, vada pav is an instant reminder of the times when they were short on cash but high on hope. It's the food many of us eat as staple diet during those initial days of the first job or struggle period. There would hardly be a Mumbaikar who has never tasted one, which is why the Sena cleverly included a lot of so called 'outsiders' also in the launch party. Bhojpuri star Manoj Tiwari sang songs praising the vada pav. Sunil Pal, Dhanraj Pillai and famed restaurateur Mr. Kamath were also present. The Sena was suddenly showing that it was an 'inclusive' party. A fellow journalist referring to the party's anti-South Indians stand some years ago said, "Jab party choti hoti hai to voh kuch logon se panga le sakti hai, par jab party badi ho jaati hai to sab ko saath leke chalna padata hai." Is Raj Thackeray listening?
Whether the Sena's business-politico formula will be successful or will it meet the fate of the Jhunka Bhakhar stalls is yet to be seen. But if eating a vada pav will convince some people of my love for this unique city, bring them on!