There’s a funny little game being played out in Mumbai over identity politics. And it is not between political rivals so much as political allies. In a way, it was inevitable once the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi came to Maharashtra and extolled the virtues of Gujarat during his election campaign.
Maharashtra and Gujarat were once one state and the division of the erstwhile Bombay Presidency in 1960 was neither easy nor comfortable. Since then, these two neighbouring states have been in competition, at least as far as industrial growth is concerned. And, as it happens, both states are very proud of their separate regional identities.
Hurting the Gujarati 'Asmita': Sanjay Raut, who is supposed to have written the editorial in Shiv Sena’s Saamna, pointed out that Gujaratis need to prove their loyalty to Maharashtra in a number of ways — a test which most right-wing conservative governments and political parties impose on ‘others’ every now and then. Pic/Bipin Kokate
The territorial battle of hearts and minds in this case is Mumbai. It was an issue in the division and there was bad blood when it went to Maharashtra. It has been called India’s most cosmopolitan city and certainly, it has a mix of mainly Maharashtrians and Gujaratis and then all the others who have settled here over centuries, ousting, for the most part, the fisherfolk who first populated the original islands.
Mumbai would not be what it is though without the fishing communities, the Kolis, the East Indians, the Goans, the Mangaloreans, the Parsis and everyone else who lives here. When I lived in Gujarat for a few years in the 2000s, the loss of Mumbai as a capital, as a place to be proud of, was still felt.
For the first few months in Ahmedabad, I met several people who popped into Mumbai to shop, to eat, to even get their haircut when it came to some society ladies. Ahmedabad, I must add, did have shops and beauty salons but it was not Mumbai. It’s an odd, prickly relationship.
So when Narendra Modi came to Maharashtra and said Gujarat was greater and then many of his Gujarati fans said he was the greatest, the gauntlet was down. The problem was, who would pick it up? The custodians of Marathi pride are the Shiv Sena and its breakaway group, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. And the Shiv Sena has long been a political ally of the BJP, one of the few that stayed when everyone else ran away.
Modi’s first reference saw some rumblings. Nilesh Rane, son of former Shiv Sena Chief Minister Narayan Rane, now with the Congress, said his NGO would take up the issue of Gujaratis who do not respect Marathi culture even though they live in Mumbai.
Then the Saamna, mouthpiece of the Shiv Sena, carried an extraordinary editorial saying that Gujaratis need to prove their loyalty to Maharashtra in a number of ways a test which most right-wing conservative governments and political parties impose on ‘others’ every now and then.
Uddhav Thackeray objected to the Saamna editorial he is the head of the Shiv Sena and the Saamna. Sanjay Raut who is supposed to have written the editorial was going back to the old Bal Thackeray legacy. Uddhav Thackeray was playing pragmatic alliance politics. Aditya Thackeray, Uddhav’s son, suddenly jumped in and seemed to agree with Sanjay Raut, then he changed his mind.
The confusion is not surprising and it is even to be expected. Mumbai wears its own pride and sense of self as high as Gujarat’s ‘asmita’, as does Maharashtra, and Modi’s advisers should have told him that. It is not quite the same as fighting over your development model in Tamil Nadu and Bengal.
But with a state with contiguous borders which you were once part of and in a capital city you once shared? Now that’s carelessness, if not abject ignorance. The fight for best city status in India in any case is between Mumbai and New Delhi. And then there are many contenders before Ahmedabad, with due respect, can even step up to the line.
Mumbai and Maharashtra had, of course, voted before this little squabble, so there are no electoral gains to be made. But it is a reminder of how easily we can be exploited when it comes to regional, ethnic or community pride.
And politicians, even when they talk only about their own ‘development’ models, can easily forget that other people have their own little versions of pride and development. Or rather, large versions when it comes to Maharashtra and Mumbai, right?
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona