Two Senas, Congress, and BJP – It’s All Politics

Shiv Sena’s stereotypical brouhaha over ‘Mumbai for all’ and ‘migrant labour’ issues over this past week may seem too poor in political taste, even threatening to the great idea that India is; however, it’s not the whole problem. Both biggest pan-India parties, the Congress and the BJP, which should have rather stood up unitedly to deal head-on the challengingly growing menace of regionalism, cut a sorry figure seeking their own political goals. In fact, I think that the ongoing race for demonstration of parochialism in Maharashtra is one of Congress party’s own making.

The whole thing, to my mind, can be best understood in the backdrop of Congress-NCP government’s new taxi permit rules, partly backtracked, and its draft culture policy.  If a secular, pan-Indian party that all along opposed both Senas’ parochial politics starts taking steps like this – making Marathi and fifteen years residency mandatory for taxi permits and asking ministers to interact in Marathi with foreign guests – eying on forthcoming civic polls, how can Senas and Thackerays be expected not to respond to this by enhancing and expanding their narrow agenda to reclaim their intruded territory?

This rat-race for Marathi votes is traceable not only to surprising gains of MNS in Mumbai and Thane regions in the last assembly elections but to some metamorphosis which Raj manifested, leaving a certain space in his favourite sectarian constituency that both Shiv Sena and even Congress-NCP combine tried to occupy. Bala Saheb and Uddhav’s current tirade is an outcome of this.

Raj showed a certain level of mitigation of his typical violent mannerism last year. He, for instance, admired Hindi cine actor Amitabh Bachhan for bailing out country’s Oscar entry and Marathi flick ‘Harishchandrachi factory’ despite his long standing opposition to the actor over Hindi and north Indian issues; after party MLA Ram Kadam slapped SP MLA Abu Azmi in Assembly, Raj instantly said his party would apologise to the House (though not to Azmi) for the act (apologizing is not characteristic of either Raj or MNS); and on the eve of Railway Recruitment Exams, MNS asked the department to treat locals with priority but shunned violence on the day of exams, in the past their goons would violently drive north Indians away.

Bal Thackeray, who had lost his appeal to young, more relevant Raj, suddenly saw an opportunity in this bizarre phenomenon of MNS gains and strategic mitigation of hardness, and immediately tried to occupy the space that Raj seems to be withdrawing from to resurrect his virtually dead Sena. The sudden return of angry, newsworthy editorials in party mouthpiece Saamna, old-fashioned snubbing of Sachin Tendulkar for ‘Mumbai for all’ remarks and attack on IBN-Lokmat office allegedly by Shiv Sainiks for running a negative story about Bala Saheb go on to show how aggressively, passionately old Bal Thackeray wanted to revive Sena for Uddhav.

Congress-NCP government’s intrusion into Senas’ bastion would have been something to alert Raj but it would have completely shocked Bala Saheb, making him to relentless for more opportunities for his trade-brand politics, and, incidentally, he was fortunate enough to get them soon, and successively. Chief Miniser Ashok Chavan (by backtracking), Mukesh Ambani, Shah Rukh Khan and Rahul Gandhi, if seen in this perspective, have only served to serve Thackeray’s purpose.

Given the fact that Congress party itself nearly lost its pan-Indian credibility on taxi permit issue and that assembly elections are approaching in Bihar, the way Congress and Rahul Gandhi sought to stand up against Shiv Sena’s exclusivist agenda can hardly be taken seriously. We still have fifteen years residency norm of taxi permit issue under the garb of Motor Vehicles Act and party High Command perhaps has no stand on Maharashtra government’s draft culture policy.

Congress, it seems, wants to have it both ways, still continuing to be guilty of not taking a crystal-clear stand on the issue. It would stand by North Indians when Sainiks are out on the streets to bash them up, but would never act against them lest locals should get polarized against it. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I say Congress comes out as guilty as the two Senas in the whole episode.

The BJP, demoralized but slowly recuperating, has used the opportunity most smart-ingly, achieving two quite distinct purposes – distancing itself from Shiv Sena and raking up Article 370 issue. Something leaves me convinced that a good deal of deliberation went into how and why the BJP acted the way it acted this week. It is not simply that Shiv Sena (which supported Congress party’s Marathi candidate Pratibh Patil in presidential elections, not BJP’s Bhainro Singh Shekhawat) has ceaselessly kept BJP leadership in a fix on many occasions when it aggressively pursued its Marathi Manoos agenda and now BJP, having run out of patience and fearing a threat to its own political ideology, is eventually saying – enough is enough. This is hardly true. No, not at all.

BJP is considerately, carefully measuring its options in Maharashtra. Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray, doing everything for party’s resurrection out of nervousness, seems to have convinced it that they might not regain old base, Uddhav is not comparable to Raj. On the contrary, Raj and MNS, which seem more likely to survive in future, have already hinted at the practicability of their politics by gradually mitigating hard, violent mannerism. BJP used the chance to break itself from Shiv Sena and start moving to MNS. Thackeray’s Editorial in Saamna, just after BJP parted ways, that Mumbai can belong to all Indians but how to Rahul’s Italian mummy, was in fact meant for BJP, not Congress. It’s Sena’s latest official comment on Mumbai, to score a point over MNS in the eyes of BJP.

Raking up article 370 issue amid ‘Mumbai for all’ debate at a time when India is engaging itself in ‘quiet diplomacy’ over Kashmir bears its own political significance, and if things continue to be as it is (which is most likely), it would help BJP re-politicise the issue.

I hear many voices advocating permanent handling of the two Senas before virus of regionalism infects other states, too. Looking at what Congress and BJP, most people’s hopes, have been doing, it’s a far cry. Some people also argue that people should demand action against them to save Mumbai’s cosmopolitan culture. It’s the real problem. Senas are rooting regionalism, Congress and BJP are using it as means of their own political ends, and people, apart from Senas’ goons, have stayed inactive and inert. Surprising gains of MNS in Mumbai and Thane showed that most people there at least have faith in Thackerays’ ideology, if not their mannerism.

The two pan-Indian parties should wake up to the challenge before it’s too late. No matter whether it means cracking down Sainiks and coming out with more practical employment programmes with more region-specific remedies, for a huge mass migration of labour is an undeniable problem.

Saurabh Dharmesh

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