A parochial project

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

The Shiv Sena launches the `Mee Mumbaikar' campaign in what seems to be a resurrection of the xenophobia that is inherent in it.

in Mumbai

IT is difficult to assess the real nature and intention of the Shiv Sena's latest gambit - a campaign which is interchangeably called `Bombay First' or Mee Mumbaikar (I am a Mumbaikar). Projected as a plan to instil pride in every Mumbaikar for belonging to the city, it is possibly just another attempt to resurrect the Sena's old slogan of Maharashtra for the Maharashtrians. Realising that a revival of its old campaign would alienate many voters in cosmopolitan Mumbai, it has perhaps chosen to modify its approach while maintaining its basic conviction.

The Sena's origins are well known. Parochial to the point of being paranoid, the party was best known for its attacks on Gujarati and South Indian business establishments, considering them threats to Maharashtrians' interests. However, there was a change in the popular perception of the Sena after it began sharing power with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Its early history, though still remembered, is no longer at the forefront of public memory. In a subtle shift, the Sena is now seen as an upholder of Hindutva. The Hindutva-minded voter is ready to forget the party's original beliefs and rally behind the "Hindu Hriday Samrat", as Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray calls himself. The Sena is prepared to compromise its beliefs for the greater `cause' of political control. Its new strategy is to re-position itself as the party that has the best interests of Mumbai at heart.

According to Pritish Nandy, the Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha member, "anyone who lives here [in Mumbai] qualifies" to be a Mumbaikar. Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray is more specific; he defines a Mumbaikar as someone who contributes to the city and does not "milk it". People who "milk" the city include those who live in slums, use the city's civic amenities, and do not pay their taxes. Migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are seen as the main targets. A contradiction that is typical of the Sena exists here - on the one hand the Sena relies on this segment of the population for political support and on the other identifies it as the cause of the city's ills.

Says Uddhav Thackeray: "A Marathi-speaking person cannot even dream of going to Uttar Pradesh and becoming a Minister, but this is happening here. I don't think anyone can deny that we have a cosmopolitan outlook." Apparently, a reasonable argument, but the Sena's parochial history belies it.

The latest move is not surprising in view of the fact that Maharashtra will go to the polls next year. The Sena's electoral options range from a tie-up with the BJP to an alliance with the Republican Party of India (RPI). The loss of a `safe' seat in the recent Kanakvali byelection has injected a sense of urgency into the party's efforts. Besides, the Sena and the BJP have never been natural allies; as coalition partners there were rifts between the two. Against this background, the `Mee Mumbaikar' campaign could be a show of muscles by the Sena.

Secondly, Uddhav Thackeray is new to the job and has to make an impact on the Sena cadre. He has to prove that his father did not make a mistake by anointing him, instead of his more popular cousin Raj Thackeray, as successor. He has to find an effective counter to Raj Thackeray's aggressive style, while maintaining his own image as a clean, sensitive individual. The `Mee Mumbaikar' campaign could be an effective way for Uddhav Thackeray to rally Sainiks around him.

But the main objective of the `Mee Mumbaikar' campaign is to maintain the Sena's political hold over Mumbai. The city's deteriorating condition has been a matter of concern for long. The Sena's plans to improve the situation has been received with surprising openness by citizens who represent varied interest groups. However, while extending their support the groups maintain that the Sena will not receive any support if it tries to shut the door on immigrants. According to the Shiv Sena, about 1,500 people enter the city every day. The party says they burden the civic amenities but offer nothing to the city's coffers. "Uncontrolled migration is the issue," says Pritish Nandy. "Tough decisions and actual implementation of the decision to stop the influx - these are the answers. We cannot keep raising humane issues. It is also humane to prevent this. We know there will be a price to pay," he adds.

The popular notion in the city is that there has been a spurt in migration from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Although there are no official statistics to prove this, the Sena chooses to believe that there has been a disproportionate influx of people from these States. The Sena further alleges that the culture of the people from these States is altering the ethos of Mumbai.

Adhik Shirodkar, an advocate and long-time Shiv Sainik, is a firm supporter of the `Mee Mumbaikar' campaign. He reviles the "pseudo lovers of slums", who, he says, have done nothing to preserve the city. "Why are you leaving Uttar Pradesh and Bihar? Why are you coming here to live in slums?" he rhetorically asks an audience comprising businessmen and journalists.

When the Sena speaks of an influx, it assumes that the majority of the immigrants are jobless. It ignores the fact that a large number of the new migrants are professionals and do not fall into the Sena's category of people who "milk" the city. And despite all the tough talk, the Sena has not come up with any practical suggestions to prevent people from entering the city.

According to a 1994-95 socio-economic report authored by D.D. Sathe, a former Indian Civil Services (ICS) officer, "migration's relative contribution [to the growth of Mumbai] had been declining in successive decades since 1951, the absolute volume of net migration declined only in the 1980s."

The report states that the satellite city of New Mumbai was considered attractive by Mumbaikars and new migrants. But the report cautions: "The sharp fall in the population growth and migration's contribution to it raise some doubts regarding the reliability of the Census count for Greater Bombay... The projected population of 10.5 million implies a growth rate of 2.5 per cent per annum and migration's contribution of 39 per cent, both of which appear more plausible in the context of the post-Independence experience... "

If the population influx has decreased, then the population increase can be explained only by the increasing birth rates in the city. Neither the Sena nor any other organisation has dared to make an issue of this.

Significantly, in its five years in government the party did not address these issues. It is best remembered for commissioning over 50 flyovers in an attempt to speed up long-distance traffic.

In another instance of Sena doublespeak, Adhik Shirodkar attacked the provision of "free water, free electricity, and free accommodation" while the Sena's 1994 poll promises included the implementation of the slum re-housing scheme which, considering the real estate prices in the city, was as good as giving free housing.

Mumbai's problems are overwhelming. The city's services are under pressure because of the expanding population. But Mumbai also offers a livelihood option, and migrants will continue to come as long as they have no option in their villages and towns.

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