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Rajdeep Sardesai
Friday , September 07, 2012 at 00 : 06

An open letter to Raj Thackeray


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Dear Raj,

This is the second open letter I am writing to you since, as was the case four years ago, you refuse to do interviews in any language other than Marathi. We have a popular Marathi channel whose ratings soar every time you speak to us. You are a box office hit in Marathi. But Mumbai is no longer a Maharashtrian city. It hasn't been one for well over a century. By contrast, the percentage of non-Maharashtrians, and especially Hindi speakers, has gone up steadily even though the rate of increase has declined in the last decade. A substantial number of the migrants are from UP and Bihar. They are, it seems, the 'new enemy'.

Four years ago, I had pitched for a course correction after north Indian taxi-drivers in Mumbai were assaulted. MNS workers even hurled bottles at the house of the ultimate national icon, Amitabh Bachchan, suggesting that he was partial to his home state of Uttar Pradesh. At the time, it seemed an act of temporary madness, part of a larger battle you were waging with your cousin Udhav for control of the Shiv Sena.

Four years later, I thought you had outgrown the politics of hate and violence. Two weeks ago when you delivered a passionate speech in support of the policemen who were attacked during the Azad Maidan violence in the backdrop of the Assam riots, I could see a political rationale for the demagoguery and your 'rose diplomacy' with the constabulary. There was genuine sympathy in Mumbai for the beat constables who had been targeted by a mob of criminals from the minority community. While the state government pussyfooted over the issue of arresting the ringleaders, you took up a cause that seemed to resonate with a number of people who were tired of the politics of "appeasement".

But within days of striking a popular chord over the Azad Maidan violence, you have returned to a familiar refrain by calling Biharis ínflitrators and threatening to drive them out of the city. You may well claim that your outburst is a fallout of the controversy over the arrest of a teenage Muslim from Bihar's Sitamarhi district for the desecration of the Amar Jawan Jyothi. But if there is any issue over the mode of his arrest, then it should be sorted between the Mumbai and Bihar police, but to deliberately politicise the arrest is to do exactly what you are accusing the Cong-NCP government in Maharashtra of: make the police hostage to vote bank politics.

There must be zero tolerance for those responsible for the Azad maidan violence. No community has the right to use a sense of 'victimhood' to take the law into their hands. Nor should the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar protect any criminal by asserting federal powers. But to stereotype every Bihari as a consequence as an infiltrator is to do irreparable damage to the idea of Mumbai, and, indeed India.

Mumbai, like many great cities across the world, was built by waves of migrations. What would Mumbai have been in the 19th century without Parsee and Gujarati entrepreneurship and in the 20th century without Sindhi and Punjabi business acumen? In the last 30 years, migrants from UP and Bihar have provided a large pool of labour, skilled and unskilled, to service Mumbai's commercial engine. How many Maharashtrians will readily work as security guards on double shifts, often without minimum wages? Economic needs often drive demographic shifts: assimilation, not aggression is the way to deal with it.

The irony is that there is a political vacuum in Mumbai waiting to be captured by a far-sighted leadership. The ruling Congress-NCP alliance has proved to be dysfunctional: its local leadership has been exposed for its links with real estate sharks and for doing little to stop the criminalisation of Mumbai's political ethos. The Shiv Sena which won the city municipal elections in February is barely held together by a tiger in the winter of his life. Your cousin Udhav appears to lack the charisma or the political instincts of Balasaheb.

There is space today then for a political grouping that can promote cultural pride while respecting Mumbai's inherent cosmopolitanism. When you set up the MNS a few years ago, I thought you were aiming to break with the past: to represent a new, self-confident Maharashtrian identity that would co-exist with growing economic competition. Unfortunately, you have chosen to revive an ugly parochialism which is premised on insecurity and anger towards the "other".

I guess you believe that only competitive regional chauvinism with the Shiv Sena will get you votes and strengthen your claims to being the true successor to Balasaheb. But the politics of 'sons of the soil' is now subject to the law of diminishing returns. Identity politics may get you support from the committed, political machismo may draw applause from the youth, hate speech will attract controversy and eyeballs but if you wish to be a true leader of Mumbai, you must build a cross-class, cross-community appeal that goes beyond shrill and divisive rhetoric.

Maybe you are a prisoner of your legacy: having consciously tried to model yourself on Balasaheb, it is perhaps too late to break away from the past. Maybe you don't wish to offer a real alternative. Maybe, Mumbai is destined to be caught in the cross-fire of the militant Senas. Which is a pity for a city in desperate need of urban renewal and, above all else, good governance.

Post-script: I have many Bihari friends today, including my driver, an honest God-fearing man from Darbhanga who is driven by a singular desire to ensure his children get the best possible education. He asked me the other day why Raj Thackeray disliked Biharis so much. As a proud Maharashtrian and Indian, frankly, I had no answer.

- Rajdeep Sardesai


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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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