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Mumbai: Shades Of Hindutva And The Colour Of Money

It is no coincidence, that the colour of Mumbai, the financial capital of the country, is the colour of money: Black.

Supporters of Eknath Shinde rallying in Mumbai
Supporters of Eknath Shinde rallying in Mumbai Dinesh Parab/Outlook Photos

What is the colour of Mumbai?

Blue for the sea and the skies above it? But the sea has long ceased to be blue. It’s more of a grey-green now and the sky is too far away for the city to lay claim to it. With its mills gone, Mumbai is no longer a blue-collared city. Does the city reflect a shade of the Dalit blue then?

Red? But the communists have come and gone. Red has had its moment in Mumbai’s working-class history. The city has also had its tryst with blood red, with its riots, gang-wars and encounter killings. But things have been quiet for a while.

Green? Trees no longer are a source of shade in Mumbai. Concrete towers are. But green, one could argue, is still the colour of the ‘other’ in the city cohabiting with saffron.

White? You’ve got to be really lucky to pull off white in Mumbai. You would need to hop in and out of air-conditioned cars, into cool lounges or clubs or bars or restaurants. White is terrible if you expose your collar or sleeves to the grimy elements. With just less than half the population housed in slums, white is not the predominant stroke one could paint the city with.

Saffron then? Close, but which shade? Bal Thackeray brought it in vogue in Mumbai. But now Devendra Fadnavis and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have a patent on the primary shade. Shiv Sena’s saffron seemed faded and Eknath Shinde now represents its third shade.
It is a coincidence that green, white and saffron are the defining shades of the Indian tricolour.

But it is no coincidence, that the colour of Mumbai, the financial capital of the country, is the colour of money: Black.

It is a colour which subsumes every other colour within, including the currently warring shades of Hindutva, which have installed and deposed a few governments in the state capital.

While the two factions —with the BJP aiding one— fight ostensibly over the quality of the Hindutva distillate brewed in either camp, the real battle behind the obvious political bickering is invariably money. In this case, specifically over Mumbai’s purse-strings. The one who holds the key to this economic behemoth of a city controls the country’s financial axis.

Mumbai’s 22 million-plus population is home to double the number of billionaires compared to Delhi, the nation’s capital. In its 2021-22 budget, the richest civic body in the country, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) presented a budget of Rs. 39,038 crores, bigger than the size of the budget presented by each of the seven north eastern states (barring Assam) and Goa.

The BMC’s budget for the 2022-23 is Rs. 45,949 crores.

Eknath Shinde’s revolt against Uddhav Thackeray, with the support of BJP, comes ahead of the crucial BMC polls, which are scheduled to be held sometime this year.

At stake are 236 seats, laid out in small parcels across the costliest real estate in the country. In a city where land is already scarce, micro and macro control over land regulation is critical for the success of any political party. Apart from this control, the BMC elections also offers its expansive budget, gigantic revenue earnings, multi-crore infrastructure projects and control over the city’s millions on a platter.

Since 1971, the Shiv Sena has installed 21 of the party’s mayors. The saffron party has been in control of the civic body from 1996-2022 without pause.

Given the present political predicament and rebellion in the Shiv Sena, the Uddhav Thackeray faction will have its toughest battle on hand yet. The Thackeray faction is lined up to be pitched against the rebel Sena faction led by chief minister Eknath Shinde, now a BJP ally.

In the 2017 civic polls, the BMC was made up of 227 electoral wards, which have grown to 236 after delimitation. Since 1997, the Shiv Sena has slipped in its BMC seat tally winning 103 seats, 97 in 2002, 84 in 2007, 75 in 2012 and 84 in 2017. Its friend-now-foe, BJP’s tally on the other hand has risen from 26 seats in 1997 to 82 seats in 2022.

Currently, the Congress has 31 seats, NCP nine, MNS seven, Samajwadi Party six, and AIMIM two. Since the gap between the Shiv Sena (84) and BJP (82) is already very narrow, an alliance between Shinde’s Sena faction and the BJP could endanger Sena’s stamp on the very city where it was born: Bombay, a once fragmented landmass salvaged from the Arabian sea.

Facilitated by a royal colonial dowry and then welded together with mud, Mumbai’s rise to its current status as a metropolis was fuelled by the textile industry in the 19th century.

The early wave of migration brought in hordes of villagers from the Konkan and Marathwada regions of present-day Maharashtra. Subsequent waves of immigration from other parts of the mainland lent the city its cosmopolitan appearance. The revenues generated from the textile industry gave the city its first banks, a modernised port, the stock market. Its increasing population gave rise to railways, tram networks, hospitals and a civic authority to deal with urbanisation challenges.

The swelling workforce also gave the city its first trade unions, which facilitated the growth of Left politics in the city. As its skies turned grey with smoke from textile mill chimneys, the city’s working class turned to the Left’s shade of red for unionised succour.

Not much changed after Independence, as the city’s wheels of commerce kept churning out wealth. Hordes continued to migrate to the great city from across India now, in hope of making it big or just to eke out a steady living. Many made do, some succeeded, while unsung thousands were ground and spat aside into the city’s margins as Bombay grew exponentially.

They call Mumbai the city of dreams and a city which does not sleep. Just try not sleeping for nights on end and see what that does to you. It drives you to the edge where nightmares get real. Perhaps that is what happened to Mumbai too.

While communal riots did flare up in the increasingly cramped parts of the city, the late 1950s threw up a challenge to the city’s claim of being a cosmopolitan hub.

In 1956, the States’ Reorganisation Act proposed that Bombay should be the capital of a bilingual state comprising of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Keshav Thackeray, a social reformer also called Prabodhankar Thackeray, emerged as one of the key leaders of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti which demanded a separate state of Maharashtra on linguistic lines with Bombay as its capital. Its campaign drew in a cross section of Marathi intelligentsia.

Thackeray’s son, an aspiring cartoonist named Bal was deeply influenced by the campaign, that eventually led to the creation of Maharashtra as demanded, on linguistic lines, with Bombay as the new state’s capital in 1960.

In the same year, Thackeray, who started his professional career as a cartoonist at the Free Press Journal, launched his own magazine ‘Marmik’. His stint as editor of Marmik, was his first attempt at popular outreach and scratched the surface of Marathi pride. His published cartoons and content were critical of ruling Congress policies and lampooned then the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and other leaders from her party.

After massaging the Marathi heart for a few years with Marmik, the Shiv Sena was born in 1966. It’s election symbol, a bow and arrow, would later pierce the soul of the Marathi manoos.

Thackeray toured the city and his speeches inspired thousands of Marathi youth to join forces with him as Sena’s maules (as Shivaji’s band of followers were referred to). Right from the outset, the Shiv Sena was associated as a movement for Maharashtra’s native sons.

Former deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, now a Nationalist Congress Party leader, was one such youngster selling vegetables at Byculla, who was swayed by Thackeray’s oratory.  

“Balasaheb Thackeray came forward for the jobs of Marathi people. In the very first speech (at) Shivaji Park, I became a Shiv Sainik. I was one of the 15 branch heads in Mumbai. I don't have parents. I used to consider Balasaheb and Maa saheb (Meenatai, Thackeray’s wife) as my parents. Shiv Sena is a family. The head of this family was Balasaheb,” Bhujbal said in an interview in 2021. Bhujbal incidentally was one of Thackeray’s first lieutenants to ‘betray’ the Sena when he joined the Congress party at Sharad Pawar’s goading in 1991, around three decades before Eknath Shinde.

Thackeray’s personality cult had also spilled over in the adjoining district of Thane, where Anand Dighe replicated the Shiv Sena’s Bombay success. Dighe had literally modelled himself after Thackeray. Dighe ruled over Thane and had the last word over decisions made in that district, even as Thackeray bossed Bombay.

The rich and the powerful in Thane, from builders, developers, businessmen, people from the Marathi film industry to the common folk like vada pav sellers, vegetable vendors etc, queued outside Dighe’s residence at Tembhi naka, where he held his famous janata durbar. Dighe’s home, Anand Ashram, was the Matoshree-equivalent of Thane.

Dighe’s rising popularity amongst Shiv Sainiks in Thane had made the Shiv Sena founder uncomfortable over time, much before Eknath Shinde —who was mentored by Dighe himself—eventually toppled Thackeray’s son Uddhav.

Over time, Thackeray controlled the affairs of Mumbai from this throne at his Bandra home ‘Matoshree’, as he stroked the silvery manes of sculpted lions, which served as hand-rests. Above the seat at the apex of the backrest, an image of tiger bared its fangs. Thick silver strands stood out in relief in the backrest, with a soft, saffron cushion patch at the centre depicting the sun.

Sena leaders claim that after Thackeray’s death in 2012, no one dared sit on the throne. Uddhav Thackeray certainly did not in public. Even after he took over the reins of the party founded by his father and was sworn-in as Chief Minister of Maharashtra in 2019. He was Thackeray’s handpicked successor and the reigns of the Sena and its symbolism were an official heirloom.

The throne and Balasaheb Thackeray morphed into one powerful entity when the saffron-clad slim figure of a man clad in a kurta and lungi sat on it and spoke his mind as scribes hurriedly articulated his stinging, bullet-like comments on notepads.

Shoes are taboo in most temples, but socks are often given the go by. But journalists, however, weren’t allowed to wear socks to Matoshree’s throne room. Someone at the Thackeray home, who made and enforced this curious etiquette of making media persons peel off their socks over ankles mildly moist with sweat, might have considered that the act was similar to peeling off the last vestige of their journalistic ego, before stepping into the sanctum sanctorum of the Shiv Sena’s prime deity.

Thackeray and his eccentricities found a place in the city and in the hearts of Mumbaikars, the ones who loved to see him have a go, gesticulating wildly with one hand at the ills of Mumbai and Maharashtra —with the other hand on his hip— during the annual and awaited Dussehra speech at Dadar’s Shivaji Park.

Faced with thousands of Shiv Sainiks eager to hear his trademark speech littered with Marathi pride, smart turn of words, witty catch phrases, abuse, slander and the warm nectar of Hindu resurgence, Thackeray came into his own.

On several occasions, he openly admitted to his fascination with another robust orator, Adolf Hitler. The praise for the German dictator came with a rider though.

“I am a great admirer of Hitler, and I am not ashamed to say so! I do not say that I agree with all the methods he employed, but he was a wonderful organizer and orator, and I feel that he and I have several things in common. Look at the amount of good we have done in just six months in Maharashtra. Actually, we have too much sham-democracy in this country. What India really needs is a dictator who will rule benevolently, but with an iron hand,” he said in an interview to Asiaweek magazine in the 1990s.

Thackeray’s rise from a cartoonist to the most caricatured man of Mumbai was meteoric, much like Hitler’s rise from a mere German soldier in the first World War to the man who led the country to bloodbath in World War II.

But both men rose from the ground, buoyed by their power to dream and then sold that dream to an audience. Both catered to an audience whose pride had been hurt. Marathi pride, according to Thackeray, had been battered by migration into Mumbai and the decreasing relevance of the Marathi manoos in the city’s politics, employment sector and in social standing.

His infamous and oft-repeated ire against Muslims wasn’t the first instance that Thackeray had targeted a specific community.

Soon after the Sena’s birth on June 19, 1966, Bombay’s South Indian community were on Thackeray’s radar. That campaign was marked by violence and vitriol.

Rolled into the hate campaign against South Indians was the specific targeting of Communist party cadre in the city, who led labour unions.

The CPI-led Girni Kamgar Union and the Shiv Sena-led Bharatiya Kamgar Sena regularly clashed in a bid to dominate the union universe and the politics of Mumbai’s working class. The murder of sitting MLA and CPI leader Krishna Desai on 5 June 1970 in the heart of the mill land at Lalbaug and the burning of the CPI’s union office was considered by many as the handiwork of the Shiv Sena.

Sena’s frontal assault on Left union leaders led to the gradual irrelevance of Left politics in the city and rise of its saffron variant.

The Shiv Sena strapped itself into Hindutva mode in 1984, with Thackeray’s speech at a huge rally in Shivaji Park on January 22 that year. It was at this rally, party insiders said, that he first proposed the idea of the confederation of Hindu organisations. In the process, he also earned the prefix ‘Hindu Hriday Samraat’ (Emperor of the Hindu Heart).

“He had three-point programme of this Hindutva plan he had talked about at the rally,” said a former Shiv Sena leader who had worked with Thackeray in close proximity for many years. 

This leader added, “He wanted Muslims to be like Hindus; marry only one woman and adopt family planning to have smaller families. He wanted Muslims to extend support to the ban on cow slaughter. Balasaheb wanted the Muslims to accept this as a Hindu Rashtra.”

Sometime later, aided by manoeuvres by BJP leader late Pramod Mahajan, the Shiv Sena and the BJP entered into an alliance.

“It is Balasaheb who first said that he will make Hindus vote as Hindus and not as Dalits, Marwaris, Brahmins or others. Hindutva was the Balasaheb’s brainchild, which the BJP has adopted as their own,” said the leader.

Over the years the party’s Hindutva agenda took the Shiv Sena out of Mumbai and into its suburbs. It also helped the party spread its wings to other parts of the country, though it is strongest in Maharashtra.

Shiv Sean’s rise in the ideological orbit was also reflected on ground.

Its party offices, called shakhas, came to resemble forts with the saffron flag flying high. The slogan ‘Jai Bhavani Jai Shivaji’ became their signature tune and was liberally chanted everywhere. Hindu festivals came to be celebrated with pomp and splendour, with both Shiv Sainiks and their shakhas dressed up during such festivities.

This aggressive rollout of the saffron agenda also pulled youngsters towards the party. “I was attracted to the party by the saffron flag. Balasaheb had also told us ‘garv se kaho hum Hindu hai’ (say with pride that you are a Hindu). This is why I joined the Shiv Sena,” said Ganesh Phadke, a shakha pramukh, to Outlook. 

The Shiv Sainiks adopted their chief’s dressing style too. A kurta, cigarette pants (slim-fitting trousers) and white footwear. Though their ‘supreme leader’ preferred to dress in silk kurta-pyjamas or silk kuta-lungis colour irrespective, his dress code was white during public rallies.

While it was Hindutva which helped the party get a foothold in other parts of Maharashtra, it is the Marathi manoos agenda which helped them create a strong foundation in Bombay. It could not have been any other way in the city, where the Sena claimed, the Marathi manoos was being swamped out of contention by migrants.

“The sons-of-the-soil was a subject which was very close to Balasaheb’s heart,” said Arvind Sawant, party’s south Mumbai MP to Outlook. “He would tell us that if we did not look after them no one would.” 

In the later years after the party installed its first chief minister in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena started a slow march away from the Hindutva plank as it tried to broaden its base. The core reason behind this shift, according to those in the know, was foreign investment; in other words, money.  

“The party was concentrated in Mumbai and realised that foreign investments would not come into the state if there was political negativity and sectarian violence,” said a businessman who had been heckled by the Shiv Sena Kamgar Union for employing north Indian labourers.

“The survival of any political party depends on its ability to reinvent itself. This is what Uddhav is trying to do with the party. In a global cosmopolitan city like Mumbai, Hindutva cannot be an issue,” said the same businessman.

After Uddhav took over the reins of the party, the Shiv Sena was slowly converted into a brand with a modern and inclusive narrative. A departure from Shiv Sena’s initial success, which was built on the twin pillars of Hindutva and the Marathi manoos.

Take for example, the two most populist decisions of the Shiv Sena-led government in alliance with the BJP in 1995. The decision to rename Bombay to Mumbai and the Victoria Terminus railway station to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus was rooted in the core party’s nativist ethos. So was the government’s decision to set up stalls to sell the traditional, rustic Maratha meal zhunka bhakar for Re 1 during the same regime.

For those who weren’t his followers, Thackeray’s Hindutva pill was as bitter as bile, but his fans and voters loved the rhetoric.

Thackeray’s Hindutva was several notches more potent from the Hindutva spelled out by his grandson Aaditya Thackeray a month before his father Uddhav lost power this year.

“We are the followers of Hindutva, which does not spread hatred but instead employs a large number of people,” the Thackeray scion said at a party meeting in May 2022.

Aaditya schooled in Mahim’s prestigious Bombay Scottish and in city’s other illustrious educational institutions. His first taste of agitation was his campaign against Rohinton Mistry’ book ‘Such a Long Journey’, which he argued insulted Marathis.

But vis a vis issues like celebration of Valentine’s Day, which provided his grandfather with an annual bread and butter staple to rage against youth drawn towards ‘Western culture’, Aaditya sang another tune.

“The government has banned cigarettes and tobacco. In the same way I feel they must ban Valentine's Day. Our country does not have any relation with this outside culture. This is a ploy by multinational companies to spoil the minds of our youth,” Bal Thackeray said on February 11, 2001.

But after persons claiming to be Shiv Sainiks announced in Uttar Pradesh that they would step out on the streets to stop Valentine’s Day celebrations in 2018, Aaditya tweeted: “Absolutely not Party line. Will check who has done this and why”.

Bal Thackeray had founded the Shiv Sena and nurtured it through adversity. His maules were bred on the culture of street-fighting and muscling their way for every inch of the city’s territory.

This watering down of the party’s traditional hardline stance by the Thackeray dynasts suggested a more mellowed core. But party officials claim off record that the change in the party position on some core issues could also be construed as a sign that the party is in the process of evolving with time.

Uddhav’s idea of building an inclusive Shiv Sena brand clashes ideologically with the brand Shiv Sena that Balasaheb had built. The recent Shinde rebellion could well be a result of the new brand positioning that Uddhav had carved out for the Sena.

In the 56-year-old history of the party, Bal Thackeray’s word was final. The Marathi manoos watched in awe as biggest names in India, including film and sports stars, businessmen, musicians, artists, queued up for an audience with Balasaheb.

During the peak of the Shiv Sena’s agitational politics, it was said that if Balasaheb sneezed in Matoshree, Mumbai caught a cold. This was the power he had exercised over Mumbai. When he finally anointed Uddhav as the party chief, Balasaheb had ensured that there was no competition to challenge his son. He was 86-years-old when he died in 2012.

The Sena is also confronted by a bigger Hindutva player in town —the BJP— whose Hindutva appeal is broader, more organised, better articulated, well-funded and not parochial, limited to a state of a region.

Even when he was alive, Thackeray was uneasy about sharing space with the BJP, then an ally. An undated video grab of Balasaheb Thackeray delivering a speech, tweeted recently by the Sena’s youth wing, has the leader saying: "We have tolerated you (the BJP) because of Hindutva, but we will not tolerate every time.” Thackeray, earlier in the speech said that he sometimes felt pushed to the corner in the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance dynamics.

Whether Eknath Shinde’s political histrionics pay off in the long run or not, the Shiv Sena needs the Thackerays as much as the Thackeray dynasts need the Sena. It is a matter of mutual survival.

The Sena’s power lies in the surname of their founder. Without the Thackeray surname, the Shiv Sena has no identity. Because, otherwise the Sena is just another political party peddling a saffron sun. Something the BJP is way better at.

More often than not, Mumbai's street posters convey the city's biggest stories before the media does, if one can read through them. Uddhav Thackeray's time was up. His posters are off. But recently, stark black and white posters flooded Mumbai's streets featuring a smiling Devendra Fadnavis. The posters referred to him as 'Devmanus' (person with God-like virtue). The posters hint at his 'sacrifice' of the Chief Minister's post in favour of Eknath Shinde. Shinde too is named after a saint, Sant Eknath. But he isn’t Mumbai’s God yet.

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