ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Raj Thackeray and the Danger of Competing Regionalisms

Thanks to the government of Maharashtra's soft approach, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena led by Raj Thackeray has been able to develop an aura of an anti-establishment party that espouses the legitimate demands of the Marathi-speaking population in the state. Pressure from the centre belatedly forced the state government to arrest Thackeray but the local parties are unable or unwilling to fight the MNS politically. A more dangerous and larger implication of the MNS "success" in capturing attention is that regional parties everywhere - which are yet to grow out of their region-specific outlook - may feel emboldened to bully the centre and make it a site for competing regionalisms to settle their scores.

The arrest of Raj Thackeray, the leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which has gained notoriety as a rabid outfit clamouring to defend Marathi pride against “outsiders”, and the violent response by his supporters signal that Maharashtra is once again in the throes of linguistic chauvinism. Desperate to latch on to any cause that will catapult his fledgling splinter group from the Shiv Sena into the limelight, Thackeray has proved through the repeated acts of violence that his followers have indulged in over the past couple of years that his heart pulsates with the same vitriolic antiimmigrant rhetoric that his uncle Bal Thackeray churned out four decades ago. Raj Thackeray has revived with alacrity the issue of alleged increasing marginalisation of the Marathi Manoos in Mumbai (and over time in some other cities in the state), an issue which the Shiv Sena, ever since its shift to Hindutva and nurturing of ambitions to play a role at the national level, has tended to downplay in recent years. That Raj Thackeray has been successful in reviving an old issue was clearly evident when Mumbai and the urban areas in adjoining Thane district came to a halt on October 21, a scene normally witnessed in the past only on the diktats of the Shiv Sena supremo. To conclude that the recent protests following his arrest were spontaneous would be far off the mark. In fact, amidst the growing inefficacy of the state apparatus at the centre as well as in the states, inciting party cadres to take the law into one’s own hands for alleged grievances has become an alluring ploy for any upcoming/opposition leader. The Shiv Sena has been known for these outrages, and if one casts a glance over the recent deeds of the MNS, such vigilantism has been its hallmark since inception. Some may justify it as a way to attract attention to their grievances. The Dal Khalsa from Punjab came out in support of Thackeray, arguing that the present political set-up does not allow space to ventilate such grievances other than by resorting to violent means. So it comes as no surprise that having been allowed to go scot free for the violent, disruptive acts of his party activists Raj Thackeray now feels he can command respect. Take his recent statement after the dismissed crew of Jet Airways knocked on his door seeking his intervention in the labour dispute. Though the Jet Airways management may have salvaged the situation hastily by withdrawing its ham-handed decision, Thackeray, clearly buoyed by the unexpected plea of the employees, gloated that this was just a trailer and that the film would unfold shortly. Not only do these statements convey that Thackeray treats life as a film with himself as hero, but they also show that he perceives himself, on the basis of some sundry adventurous deeds applauded by large sections of the regional media, as invincible. On the flip side, the Jet Airways case clearly shows that Thackeray’s roughtough tactics have captured the popular imagination with all the self-contradictions that are entailed in such a perception: a man capable of delivering the goods on the sheer basis of his clout and at the same time being unaccountable to the law of the land for his acts or for those of his followers. This was the way in which his uncle enthroned himself as the un-anointed leader of the Marathi-speaking public of the city in the early part of his political career. 

A Parallel Government

Take the case of the MNS campaign in September demanding that signboards on shops and commercial establishments in Mumbai should be in Marathi. This was to score points over the rival Sena-BJP combine which runs the municipal corporation in Mumbai, and whose rules dating back to the 1970s clearly mention that the nameplates be in local language. Incidentally it was the state government, not to be left behind in the race to reach out to the sons-of-the soil, that took the lead in this case by issuing circulars to that effect, with a deadline and threat of a hefty fine in case of defiance. But, given the ad hoc nature of the state initiative and the almost ineffective writ of the bureaucracy in such matters, Thackeray’s simultaneous diktat of a deadline along with the threat for non-compliance became the talking point. In fact, by adopting more aggressive postures than those of his competitors on issues centred on Marathi and the Marathi Manoos, he not only outsmarted them, but in the process amplified his presence in mass perception. He is not saddled with the burden of unkept promises and governmental non-action that hampers his competitors. Rather by keeping his agenda of targeting the shop-owners who do not put up Marathi signboards in focus and with an army of dedicated musclemen to execute his orders, he exposed the shortcomings of his rivals’ claims. At the same time he augmented his image as the genuine saviour of a “decrepit” Marathi language in a multilingual megapolis. Not surprisingly, K L Prasad, the joint commissioner (law and order), Mumbai police, had to admit in the court case filed by the traders targeted during the MNS agitation that the said agitation was not beyond the bounds of law. With the state government laws clearly stating so, he had hardly any other defence to put up. With the pretensions of the state enforcement machinery exposed, the state government when interrogated for its pusillanimity towards the strong-arm tactics of the MNS sheepishly replied that Thackeray was running a “parallel government”. In short, the government had conceded that Thackeray had become an anti-establishment figure with a legitimate cause. Thus, in the aftermath of the recent rampaging at the railway examination centres carried out by his cohorts in Kalyan in Mumbai, Thackeray’s open challenge to the state machinery underlined that he had come to consider himself almost immune to any kind of state action. Moreover, his threat that the whole of Maharashtra would go up in flames if he was arrested not only reflected his characteristic violencewhetting temper but also his self-delusion that he had become the untrammelled voice of the Marathi people. The present dispensation in the state has done the right thing by garnering political will to arrest a person who seemed to be determined to ruin inter-community harmony by his inflammatory speeches and has put him on notice by slapping numerous cases in various courts across the state. 

Indulging the Spoilt Child

But the game is certainly not over. Those holding the reins of power in the state at present do not seem to be fully aware of the more onerous tasks they face after having initiated action against the MNS chief. The dispensers of justice should be convinced that the agenda Thackeray and his MNS are foisting is detrimental to the state’s interests and this should be effectively conveyed to the masses. But already the wind seems to be blowing in another direction. Plans are afoot to bail out the beleaguered MNS leader (sections of the regional media are busy projecting him as a hero) by displaying a grand show of Marathi solidarity across party lines at the centre as well as the state. Citing the Bihari unity that ultimately forced the centre to act decisively in this case, moves are being made in tandem to retract from being punitive to becoming protective towards the spoilt child. Arguments are being forwarded to cast the MNS leader in a sympathetic mould and to avoid the negative fallout of his arrest on their electoral prospects, as the state goes to parliamentary and assembly polls in six months and a year or so from now, respectively. One such argument seeks to highlight that the root cause behind the brutal attack meted out to the north Indian candidates during the recent railway board examinations was the lopsided policy of the railway authorities of not publishing advertisements in the local press (though they were released in the Mumbai Loksatta and the Nagpur Lokmat). As a result, it is argued, large sections of Marathi youth remained oblivious of the posts open for recruitment in their own region. This argument, though persuasive, begs certain questions. First, the recent attack on railway examination centres was not the first of its kind. Equally vicious attacks took place in Kalyan in 2003 and in Pune in 2006, and on none of these occasions did those involved cite the above factor as the cause of their fury. In fact, in 2003 Lalu Prasad Yadav was not even in charge of the railway ministry. Given the fact that the same policy of recruitment procedure was being followed then, why did the discrimination in allocating advertisements not crop up earlier? Second, Lalu Prasad is not the first railway minister to implement this policy. Third, these examinations by now have been held a number of times; how come none of the Maharashtra ministers at the centre or in the state and the ever-vigilant media got even a scent of this flaw? And finally, if this genuinely was the cause, was the whole ruckus, which resulted in the death of one candidate and innumerable others being severely injured, worth it? This is not to absolve the railways, but surely in the present case the issue appears to be more of an afterthought to provide a more plausible justification for the MNS action, more so after the leader was handcuffed, a prospect which his followers and the regional media rooting for him perhaps never envisaged.  

Lalu Is Not Alone

The charge of favouritism/nepotism levelled against Lalu Prasad is serious, but it is not new. The railway ministry in the larger interest of diverse sections of Indian populace needs to make its recruitment policy more nuanced. Moreover, the decision of the railway minister to conduct the same examinations for the posts in Maharashtra outside the state seems to be born out of pique. But, on the other hand, leaders those belonging to major political parties in Maharashtra are also to be blamed for the turn of events. Some of them, especially those belonging to the ruling coalition, have thought it more important to go into a huddle to take stock of what impact Thackeray’s arrest would have on their political fortunes, rather than promptly send a word of condolence to the parents who lost their son in the insane assault. But such decency was not shown even when two labourers lost their lives in the arson and looting that broke out in Nashik in the wake of Thackeray’s anti-immigrant campaign in Mumbai in February this year. Political leaders and the media need to rise above their protectionist mentality if any rapprochement between estranged communities is uppermost in their minds. Moreover, Lalu Prasad is not the only minister flaunting the vast reserves of patronage. Any number of ministers from other states can be cited, who after seeking lucrative ministries, have milked it for their myopic benefits. Any number of charges have been traded between regional and national parties, each accusing the other in the disbursal of largesse. As recently as the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, Ram Naik, a Maharashtrian to the core, was exposed for showering petrol pump licences on his kith and kin when he headed the petroleum ministry. The latest instance is the allegation of Mayawati, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, against the Congress head Sonia Gandhi for favouring her constituency to launch new projects. Similarly, the regional satraps, who having come to share political power at the centre post-1990 under various political formations, have exhibited an unalloyed penchant for bullying the centre to get their one-point agendas implemented. In fact, as elections approach, this appears to be the sole intention of being in power at the centre. 

Regional vs Regional

As we celebrate the flowering of federalism and the widening, if not deepening, of democracy with more and more regional parties or national parties with regional bases participating in the power-sharing at the centre, past experience does not generate much confidence about these regional outfits having outgrown their region-specific outlook. This prevents them from understanding the diverse forces that come into play in the present-day development process. For their political game plan they seek investments from all around the globe but intend to keep, with an eye on the vote bank, an excessive quota for local labour. 

For menial work, cheap and impoverished migrant labour is all right, but when it comes to secure jobs, whipping up antiimmigrant ire is not far from their mind. Impervious to any logic other than his own, the younger Thackeray in his brazenness has erased even this distinction. The danger is that many a fanatical group espousing a similar agenda in other states may get emboldened. With lopsided development on all fronts, an emotive solution, such as the one advocated by the MNS, will find many takers. The Maharashtra government appears to have finally sent out a message to those bent upon creating trouble, but the issue will not disappear unless underlying tensions are clearly addressed. The MNS obviously is unconcerned about such complexities since its pressing need is to carve out a distinct base for itself by fuelling antagonisms and launching itself as a major player in the electoral sweepstakes. But, it is not just the centre-versus-the state tussle, where the centre is equated with the north of the country, the Hindi language and backward states that is incendiary. Think of disputes amongst the states or groups of states: the water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu or between Haryana and Punjab, just to name a few. In fact, as more and more regional parties participate at the centre, the prospect of the centre becoming a mere site through which competing regionalisms seek to settle scores cannot be ruled out. 

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