Monday, February 01, 2010

Mumbai for Maharastrians?

It seems that Shiv Sena and RSS are inching towards a full scale ideological battle, as the former is bent on stealing the MNS agenda of 'Mumbai for Maharastrians' and RSS is scrambling to protect their Hindu nationalist identity. The statement from RSS looks very non-RSS, 'Mumbai is for people from all communities'. BJP is caught in the crossfire - its chief Nitin Gadkari definitely looked lost and short of words and ideas - and does not know how to keep its alliances in Mahastra and Bihar intact at the same time.

Despite the chaos, one has to admit that such conflicts are likely to become increasingly common in India. The biggest casualty of such disagreements are going to be the national parties, BJP in this case. However. Maharastra Congress has done itself no favours by stoking up the sentiments in the first place, with a rather naive posturing on taxi drivers requiring to know Marathi, a position from which they had to do a humiliating about-turn. Hence, I would argue, such issues need careful consideration, and should not be dismissed as sheer nonsense whipped up by a bunch of losers.

At the outset, Shiv Senas claim that Mumbai was built on the toil of Marathi Manoos is complete nonsense. Mumbai was never in its history a Marathi city. The city was built on the toil and enterprise of a very diverse population, which included Parsis, Muslims, Gujratis, Marwaris, and the British, side by side with Marathis. Mumbai's homegrown industry, the bollywood, attracted talent from all across India, and many of its greatest icons, including Mr Bachchan, A R Rehman, Shahrukh Khan, Kishor Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, came to Mumbai from other parts of the country. From my personal experience, I would say Mumbai is a great city is because it is built on an immigrant work ethic, and this is what makes it so successful. So, this whole thing about Marathi identity is counter-productive for Mumbai's future.

However, the fact remains that leaders somehow think that this makes good politics. MNS last year created a furore by their race-hate campaign. This year, Shiv Sena has committed their agenda on this. Congress briefly flirted with the idea, only to dilute it later on almost as a second thought. BJP is, as I said, at a loss, for words and ideas. Except for Civil Society leaders, who have shown exceptional courage in the face of Shiv Sena's fascist rowdyism [Sachin Tendulkar, the usually apolitical cricket maestro, deserve a special mention], there were very little condemnation from inside the political community. This is worrying, because this indicates both a level of dangerous opportunism and a lack of alternative strategic thinking, and all this can very quickly snowball and put the whole Indian union to threat.

Recently, I observed that regionalism [along with revolutionary Marxism] is the biggest threat to Congress strategy. It is actually the biggest challenge that India will face in the coming years. While the optimism for India's future is well grounded, there is a lot of work to be done. And, much of this work need to happen in two areas: in promoting inclusive growth and in creating an unified nation. I am not doubting the strength of the idea of India, but I think the union will be politically tested in the coming years. This is because of the lopsided development, the rigid and over-centralized structure of the union which was devised at a different time, and the shallowness of the unity that we have so far managed to develop.

For example, the idea of India is built on the idea of a modern democracy, a bold inclusive idea but one without foundation. While Nehru and his colleagues sought to build a modern country, they failed to grasp that this is not going to happen without a grassroots level reform of social and economic systems. To illustrate how shallow the modern Indian idea was, one has to point to the recent schism in Bihar where the government wishes to introduce a bill guaranteeing the rights of serfs, but facing still political resistance. In very few states, the feudal landowning systems have been dismantled, even after 60 years of the republic. In that context, the idea of India as a modern democratic republic looks shallow and disconnected, as the landless tiller, destined to spend his life in poverty and slavery, can not believe that his vote will change his fate. This is the schism that is creating the Maoist movement, which is plaguing the Indian heartland. But, this, in a way, is also pushing people out of the villages and in the cities, where new conflicts, particularly the kind of conflict forming in Mumbai, are taking its shape.

One would hope India will avoid a civil war [like United States] or disintegration [like Soviet Union]. But those experiences are still instructive, and some visionary leadership will be needed to keep the union going. The flip-flops like those of BJP and Congress in Maharastra will not help. Besides, both the parties, and others who wish to claim the national mantle, must redefine the idea of India in context of the current realities and should not take the republic for granted. This is easier said than done, because this may require some deeper constitutional reform. Questions need to be asked whether we shall need a greater level of devolution of power, both to the states and from states to local authorities, which will, if combined with strong anti-corruption measures and fostering of national consensus for rooting out corruption, result in more inclusive growth. We have to start asking whether we should be moving towards a Presidential system of government, because our first-past-the-post system along with close linkages of legislature and administration create undue domination of bigger states and communities over smaller states and communities. This is going to be the questions that the national political parties must rather seek to answer, and thwart the temptation of dabbling into regionalism which will undermine the republic one day.

I think it is urgent to recognize the risks of regionalism. The immediate policy impact of such recognition will be to realign politics in new terms. The risks of religious fascism, as espoused by Mr Advani and his 'rath', is receding, though it is not dead and over yet. I shall argue that India's changing demographics, the young aspirational population, spread of sattlelite TV, modern retail, deep penetration of modern telecom, will undermine the Hindu brigade. However, the fear of Pakistan may soon turn into the fear of Bihar and Bengal, and regionalism may take the place of Hindu fascism. The political realignment will mean an isolation of people like Mamta Banerjee, who is destined to run on a regional agenda, and may soon start talking about Bengal for Bengalees, because her funding comes from Bengali businessmen who are feeling squeezed by Marwaris in Kolkata.

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