An Open Letter to Raj Thackeray
My Dear Raj,
My apologies for having to communicate through the editorial pages of a newspaper, but frankly am left with little choice since you seem to have decided to stay away from the so-called 'national' non-Marathi media. Let me at the very outset say that I am impressed with the manner you have carved a niche on the political landscape of Maharashtra. I distinctly remember meeting you in February last year soon after the Mumbai municipal corporation elections. It wasn't the best of times: your party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena had been marginalized while your cousin Udhav Thackeray and the Shiv Sena had captured power in the city. With many of your supporters deserting you, you appeared down, if not quite out. Twenty months later, I see you've bounced back: every local and national daily has you on the front page, you are the subject of television debates and your politics has even united Bihar's warring netas.
And yet, my friend, there is a thin line between fame and notoriety, more so in the fickle world of politics. Bashing north Indian students may grab the headlines, getting arrested may even get you sympathy and strident rhetoric will always have a constituency, but will it be enough to secure your ultimate dream of succeeding your uncle Bal Thackeray as the flagbearer of Marathi asmita (pride)?
If Balasaheb in the 1960s rose to prominence by targeting the south Indian "lungiwala", you have made the north Indian "bhaiyaa" the new 'enemy'. In the 1960s, the Maharashtrian middle class in Mumbai was feeling the pressure of job competition for white collar clerical jobs. Today, it seems that there is a similar sense of frustration at losing out economically and culturally to other social groups in Mumbai's endless battle for scarce resources. With the Congress and the NCP having become the real estate agents of the state's rural-urban bourgeoise and the Shiv Sena a pale shadow of its original avatar, the space has been created for a charismatic leader to emerge as a rabble-rouser espousing the sons of the soil platform.
But Raj, I must remind you that electoral politics is very different from street agitations. Sure, round the clock coverage of taxis being stoned and buses being burnt will get you instant recognition. Yes, your name may inspire fear like your uncle's once did. And perhaps there will always be a core group of lumpen youth who will be ready to do your bidding. But how much of this will translate into votes? Identity politics based on hatred and violence is subject to the law of diminishing returns, especially in a city like Mumbai, the ultimate melting pot of commerce. Your cousin Udhav tried a "Mee Mumbaikar" campaign a few years ago that was far more inclusive, but yet was interpreted as being anti-migrant. The result was that the Shiv Sena lost the 2004 elections - Lok Sabha and assembly - in its original citadel of Mumbai. Some statistics suggest that nearly one in every four Mumbaikars is now a migrant from UP or Bihar. Can any political party afford to alienate such a large constituency in highly competitive elections?
Maybe, your not even looking at winning seats at the moment, but simply staking claim to the Sena legacy in a post Bal Thackeray scenario. Perhaps, thats exactly what the ruling Congress-NCP combine in Maharashtra wants: like a market leader who gets competing brands to crush each other, the Congress-NCP leadership seems to be practicing divide and rule politics once again. They did it with Balasaheb and the communists in the 1960s, with Bhindranwale and the Akalis in the 1980s, even with the Kashmir valley politicians in the 1990s. A larger-than-life Raj Thackeray suits the ruling arrangement in Maharashtra because it could erode its principal rival, the Shiv Sena's voter support. It's a dangerous game, but often when politicians run out of ideas, they prefer to play with fire. It's a fire that could leave Mumbai's cosmopolitanism scarred for life.
Now, before you see my writings as the outpourings of an anglicized non-resident Maharashtrian, let me just say that, like you, I too am proud of my roots. I too, would like to see the cultural identity of Maharashtrians preserved and the economic well-being of our community assured. Where we differ is that I am a citizen of the Republic of India first, a proud Goan Maharashtrian only later. Fourteen years ago, I left Mumbai for Delhi to seek professional growth and was distinctly fortunate to be readily embraced by the national capital. Like millions of Indians, I too am a migrant and a beneficiary of a nation whose borders don't stop at state checkpoints.
Moreover, I cannot accept that 'goondaism' is the way forward to forging a robust Maharashtrian identity. By vandalizing a shop or stoning a taxi, what kind of mindless regional chauvinism are we promoting? Taking away the livelihood of a poor taxi driver or beating up some defenceless students from Bihar reflects a fake machismo that is no answer to what ails Maharashtrian society today. The Maharashtra I once knew was inspired by the progressive ideals of the bhakti movement, by a Shahu-Phule-Ambedkar legacy of social reform. Are we going to dismantle that legacy under the weight of hate politics?
When you started your party a few years ago, it had been pitched as a party committed to a "modern" Maharashtra. If that vision still stands, why don't you take it forward in real terms? Why don't you, for example, set up vocational courses and technical institutes for young Maharashtrians to make them competitive in the job market? Why not, for that matter, start English-speaking classes for Maharashtrian students to equip them for the demands of the new economy? If cultural identity is such a concern, why not launch a statewide campaign to promote Marathi art, theatre and cinema by financially supporting such ventures? If Mumbai's collapsing infrastructure worries you, then target the politician-builder nexus first. And isn't it also time we realized that Mumbai is not Maharashtra, that the long suffering Vidarbha and Marathwada farmer needs urgent attention? Why not use your political and financial muscle to start projects in rural Maharashtra instead of focusing your energies on Mumbai's bright lights alone? An employment generation scheme in a Jalna or a Gadchiroli may not make the front pages, but it will have far greater value for securing Maharashtra's future.
Jai Hind, Jai Maharashtra!
More about Rajdeep SardesaiRajdeep Sardesai was the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He has 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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