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Rajdeep Sardesai
Friday , October 16, 2009 at 01 : 39

Wake up, Mumbai


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As the megapolis one grew up in, there is an obvious emotional attachment to Mumbai. Which is why, at a studio discussion this week, when a panelist referred to the maximum city registering minimum voting as a sign of Mumbai's "resident non-Indian" mentality, I felt a little aggrieved.

Surely, a city with the energy and enterprise of Mumbai, a city which literally never sleeps, cannot be seen through such a cynical worldview.

And yet, as voting day for the Maharashtra assembly elections wore on, it became increasingly apparent that Mumbai was struggling to pass Pappu's electoral test.

The overall voting percentage was just around 45 per cent, only a shade better than the disgraceful 43 per cent in the Lok Sabha elections, and still well below the state average of 60 per cent. If Naxal-affected Gadchiroli could see a voter turnout of 63 per cent, what stopped half of Mumbai's enlightened citizenry from coming out and voting?

Perhaps, it's the same reason that stopped them from speaking out when film-maker Karan Johar had to apologise to Raj Thackeray because of an innocuous reference to Mumbai as Bombay in his film. Its also possibly the reason why within weeks of angrily claiming that "enough is enough" in the aftermath of 26/11, Mumbaikars seemed to have allowed the government to whitewash its role in the utter mishandling of the terror attack.

Maybe, it's the same mindset which has chosen to watch the city being reduced to a giant slum by a political class which sees slum-dwellers as one large vote bank and little else.

Perhaps, that is also why year after depressing year, the city routinely goes under water in the monsoons.

It might also explain why no one has been able to challenge the builder-babu-neta nexus which has allowed the mangroves and green areas to be concretized.

You commute for eons in a creaking railway system, flyovers don't get built on time, a sealink takes years to come up, no additional power is generated for a decade, old, dilapidated buildings remain hostage to antiquated laws: nothing seems to change, and worse, no one seems to care enough to force change.

Take a look at the morning papers in Mumbai and you get a sense of just how much the city lives in a bubble of its own.

In no other city has page three merged as effortlessly into page one as in Mumbai. Shah Rukh's trousseau, Salman's antics, Priyanka's twittering, the city seems to have magnified all things trivial and made Bollywood its ultimate temple of worship.

It wasn't always like this.

This is the city which had a ringside view to the freedom movement, it was here that Gandhi gave his clarion 'Quit India' call, where Jinnah cut his political teeth, where Ambedkar shaped his ideological fervour.

It was a city whose professional middle class was deeply engaged in public life, where fierce debates took place on issues of national importance.

The 1960s, for example, were a period of intense political churning, with the likes of the Congress's SK Patil, the communist leader SA Dange, the firebrand George Fernandes and the demagogue Bal Thackeray all fiercely competing for political space.

The 1967 election of South Mumbai is seen as a defining moment: the socialist Fernandes defeating the city's then uncrowned king, Patil.

Could anyone imagine in today's Mumbai, a trade unionist with meager resources being able to take on the mighty political machine backed by the all-powerful real estate empire?

When did it all change? Most analysts suggest that it was the failed Datta Samant-led textile strike of the 1980s that broke the soul of a city that was once a manufacturing hub and deprived it of a large industrial workforce that almost acted as a buffer between the elite and the wretchedly poor.

The strike led to increasing mill closures, massive unemployment and left the labour movement discredited and leaderless.

The 1992-93 riots and bomb blasts ended up communally dividing and ripping apart a city's ersatz cosmopolitanism.

A Mumbai of mixed neighbourhoods was now a city of hostile communities as violence in the name of religion was sought to be rationalised. The underworld was now overground as gangs were used to bypass the legal machinery for dispute resolution.The political class was building its own self-protective mechanism by engaging in rapid capital accumulation. Unemployment, crime, communalism, corruption: Mumbai was nestling uneasily on a tinderbox.

Rather than confront a difficult situation, a large number of elite and middle class, Mumbaikars have chosen the soft option: secede mentally, if not physically from the world around them.

Who cares what happens to Naxalism in Gadchiroli so long as the violence is confined to a distant border of Maharashtra? Farmers can commit suicide in Vidarbha, but so long as the malls and supermarkets are well-stocked, why should anyone get too concerned?

North Indian students may get beaten up at a station when appearing for an exam, but so long as our son can give his SAT and GMAT and apply to an American university, how does an attack on migrants change our lives?

Ok, so the potholed roads trouble us, we don't like being stuck in a traffic jam, and yes, we hate being caught in a flooded street, but at the end of the day, that's the price one pays for living in India. In any case, there is always the escapist fantasy world of Bollywood or Big Boss to turn to for succour.

Whats true of the Mumbai could be equally true of all our mega-cities, each dominated by a mindset which is self-centred, depoliticised and perhaps resembling that of a 'resident non-Indian'.

Maybe, I was wrong to have believed that Mumbai was different. Maybe, its time to snap out of the sepia-tinted nostalgia that is still Mumbai for me.


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More about Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep 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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