Monday, Nov 24, 2003
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THE RANSACKING OF the Railway Recruitment Board's office in Mumbai and the blockade of suburban trains at the city's nodal Churchgate station last Wednesday, by activists affiliated to the Shiv Sena deserve the most emphatic condemnation. The pretext for this twin outrage was the possibility of applicants from other regions (described, somewhat sweepingly, as `Biharis') qualifying for `D'-category railway posts that the Sena insists must be reserved for local candidates. The incidents have demonstrated, yet again, the crudely anti-democratic nature of a party notorious for its inflammatory demagoguery and propensity for knee-jerk violence. It is probable that the Sena judged this an opportune moment to revive itself in the popular imagination, with Sushilkumar Shinde's Congress-Nationalist Congress Party Government seriously embarrassed by the degree of corruption uncovered by the investigation into the Telgi scandal. If so, the calculation may well go awry, for the twin outrage has exposed the Sena's ideological bankruptcy. Lacking a constructive programme, the party has resorted to the oldest trick in its bag: the bogey of the `outsider' who snatches the rightful entitlements of the Marathi manus, the son of the soil. This is the latest episode in a long-running drama of resentment; the cast has changed through the decades, but the script remains the same. The Sena's original targets, through the 1960s and 1970s, were the `South Indians', a category that embraced diverse communities active in the learned professions, banking and private enterprise. During the 1980s, while aligning itself with the emerging Hindu-majoritarian forces, the Sena demonised the Muslims, a tendency that peaked in the 1992-1993 riots following the destruction of the Babri Masjid. More recently, its baleful glare has been directed at the bhaiyyas, as workers from northern India are collectively derogated in Sena demonology.
Disturbances such as last week's would once have been regarded as a show of strength; today, they are perceived as symptoms of desperation. The Sena thoroughly discredited itself in the eyes of the electorate as the maverick partner in a coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party, ruling Maharashtra from 1995 to 1999. The `Yuti Sarkar', as this coalition was known, became rapidly embroiled in controversy. Having promised to "push Enron into the Arabian Sea", it succumbed instead to Rebecca Mark's `educational' overtures, committing Maharashtra to the disastrous Dabhol power project. It mishandled Mumbai's real-estate crisis, neglecting the problem of the stagnant mill lands while permitting developers and gangsters to profit from illegal deals; rampant extortionism prompted a flight of capital and business opportunities to other States. Eventually, the Sena's blatant attempts to muzzle the Srikrishna Commission's report on the 1992-1993 riots shocked public opinion; as for the Marathi manus, he was bitterly alienated from the glamour-struck Thackerays, the Sena's `first family', which insinuated itself into the realms of cinema and the media.
As enterprising Maharashtrians seek their fortunes elsewhere in a rapidly globalising and interconnected world, the Sena's obsolescent brand of populism is unlikely to attract new subscribers. The truth is that the party is on the wrong track, caught up in the contradiction between its quest for a national profile and the basic parochialism of a street-fighting outfit. This is nowhere more ironically manifest than in its choice of star campaigners for the forthcoming Rajasthan Assembly polls: its Rajya Sabha MP, Sanjay Nirupam, and the actor, Suniel Shetty. While Nirupam, editor of the Sena's Hindi mouthpiece, is one of the bhaiyyas sought to be banished, Shetty personifies the `South Indians' against whom the Sena launched its first campaign of virulent xenophobia. A party may wear two hats with some dexterity, but it must cultivate a certain aplomb to wear two faces.
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