Monday, February 1, 2010

BHAGWAT'S GAME-CHANGER IN MAHARASHTRA

There is something puzzling but defining about what is happening in Maharashtra.

In the run-up to the last elections, Raj Thackeray had lit and stoked anti-North Indian fires with the "Marathi Manoos" mantra. Every one knows what he did to the Bachchans. Every one also saw the fake tears of Naresh Goyal after he threatened that he would not allow Jet Airways to fly from Mumbai unless its sacked employees were taken back. The disturbing visuals of Raj's boys beating up non-Maharashtrians who wanted to take the Railways exam were also not missed by anyone who watches TV.

During those days, uncle Bal Thackeray and cousin Uddhav Thackeray were on the back foot, not sure perhaps whether Raj's aggressive "Maharashtra for Maharashtrians" strategy would yield electoral dividends, again. In the event, even though he fared much worse than he had anticipated, Raj Thackeray took sufficient number of voters away from the Shiv Sena, the resultant split handing over unexpected 'victory' to the discredited Congress-NCP government that was heading for sure defeat. More significantly, macho Raj Thackeray also ensured that the gentle Uddhav, who led Shiv Sena's campaign, was so humiliated by the worst ever performance of his party, that he was left with little choice but to re-invent himself and his party in a manner that would neutralise the stridency of Raj and bring angry Shiv Sainiks back into the fold.

There were voices even then who were shouting that Raj Thackeray was being made to look bigger than the slight man he is because of the support of the Congress and the NCP. The old 'Bhindranwale Trick', some said, was being employed to divide the opposition, that being the only way in which the ruling combine could hope to get back to power. But, during those days, no one was listening, including the Marathi manoos who were being conned in broad day light into ensuring their own defeat.

Mission accomplished, with both its prime opponents defeated, one was expecting that India's premier national and secular party would take some steps to reclaim Mumbai for India and Indians irrespective of their region and religion. But no, the Congress had a more practical and pressing problem to deal with: it had to ensure that Raj Thackeray remains no more than an irritating but vital 'spoiler'; another Bhindranwale could not be allowed to upset its plans again.

One way of doing it was to place the nation firmly in its sights while ensuring that sentiments of locals were taken care of. The second way was to claim the agenda of Raj Thackeray as its own. Which politician will not choose the easier option these days? So, when the question of granting new licenses to taxis plying in Mumbai came up, the government did a Raj, issuing a diktat that they would be issued only to those who were resident in the state for at least 15 years and could "read and write Marathi".

This stance of the Congress enraged every right-thinking Indian. So, it was no surprise that when Mukesh Ambani was asked a question on the issue during a panel discussion at the London School of Economics, he responded by saying "We are all Indians first. Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi belong to all Indians".

One would have thought that Raj Thackeray would erupt in anger at these welcome-all-Indians remarks of Mukesh Ambani and his goons would vandalise offices of Reliance Industries in Mumbai. But, surprisingly, he did not utter a word. The same thing had happened earlier when Sachin Tendulkar had said that he was an Indian first and that Mumbai belonged to all Indians. Even more surprisingly, Raj did not react at all when Shahrukh Khan spoke in favour of having Pakistani cricketers in the IPL. The same Raj, it may be recalled, had earlier so wanted to take Pakistan out of Mumbai that he had forced a shop owner to change the name of his shop from 'Karachi Sweets' to 'Mumbai Sweets'! One can only wonder what it would have taken a grateful Congress to turn him into such a pigeon.

The Shiv Sena, on the other hand, has now become the new 'Raj'. Bal Thackeray has asked "Pandit Mukesh Ambani" to not "meddle in the path of Mumbai and Marathi manoos". Earlier, he had slammed Sachin Tendulkar and warned him to "keep off the political pitch". A few days back, Shiv Sainiks also demonstrated in front of Shahrukh Khan's home and asked him too to not interfere in politics.

But there is a real twist in the tale this time, one that should shame the Congress. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat - a Maharashtrian himself - has been quoted as saying that "Mumbai is for all Indians. People of all languages, communities, tribes are children of India. Nobody can prevent Indians from moving to any part of the country in search of employment." Bhagwat also believes that "This is a misconception that employment has decreased at our place because of migrants. Solution of this grievance should be found but the solution is not that you refuse people of your country to migrate to your area. The solution can be found if administration and government are dedicated. All political parties should rising above the vote-bank politics and consider this issue. National integration is above all," Signalling that the RSS is ready and willing to take on both the Shiv Sena and the Congress-supported MNS of Raj Thackeray, he has gone to the extent of asking RSS volunteers to protect North Indians in Maharashtra and prevent spread of anti-Hindi feelings.

This unexpected stance, which has surprised the BJP and come as the proverbial bolt from the blue for the Shiv Sena, has angered Uddhav Thackeray who has again stated in his party mouthpiece 'Saamna' that Mumbai belongs to Marathi manoos. The BJP is in a spot. It is in alliance with the Shiv Sena but cannot go against such a nationalistic view publicly aired by the RSS chief. Even the Congress, semantics apart, cannot now afford to keep towing the Raj-Uddhav line quietly and claiming with any credibility that it is still the same visionary national party that led India to freedom.

A potential game-changer has been introduced into Maharashtra politics by Mohan Bhagwat. If he is serious about pursuing the thrust line that he has so unambiguously articulated, politics in the state is in for a transformation. The alliance between the BJP and the Shiv Sena can then survive only if the latter backs off and effectively gives up its anti-outsider stance. That might well be impossible for it because of the danger that the MNS will become the real Shiv Sena. Be that as it may, as far as the BJP is concerned, it must take the risk and bite the bullet. With both the RSS chief and the BJP President being from Maharashtra, it is in the best possible position to do so. The shining example of neighbouring Gujarat which is speeding away at blistering pace by, among other things, keeping all its doors and windows open to all Indians, is also there for it to show to all.

The ramifications of what the BJP does in Maharashtra are bound to be felt nationally. A window of opportunity is opening up for it in the state, and it must be taken at the tide. Raj and Uddhav are relics of a bygone era. They may incite passions but can only take Maharashtra back as they can do little better than help a non-performing and hopelessly corrupt Congress-NCP government do what it pleases and yet return to power once again. If they are not put out of business quickly, Maharashtra will most likely become the next West Bengal - a wasteland where entitlement by identity will remain but opportunity will go elsewhere. The sooner the Marathi manoos understand this, the better for them - more than anyone else.