Raj Thackeray sees Mumbai’s legendary Shivaji Park every day from his balcony, he has held sway over lakhs of loyal Shiv Sena workers when he used to accompany uncle Bal Thackeray at the latter's rallies here, when he split from the family and party he must have dreamt of having his own massive rally right here. That dream, he thought, would come true on February 13, last day of campaign for the civic election in the city.
The Supreme Court today denied him the requisite permission, upholding provisions of the Noise Rules— which means no loudspeakers here—and the order of the Bombay high court. Just how significant Shivaji Park is to enhancing the cult of Raj Thackeray, and his fledgling Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, is evident in this legal battle; Thackeray took the issue of permission for a political rally to the highest court in the land.
For the non-political non-Mumbaikar, Shivaji Park has been associated with Indian cricket and, more specifically, with icon Sachin Tendulkar whose guru Ramakant Achrekar runs a cricket academy here, one of the many nurseries for cricket. This 28 acre park, laced with Art Deco bungalows and buildings, was a British gift to the city in 1925; it’s a walkers and joggers’ paradise, it sports a katta (hangout place) around its circumference, it houses the Bengal club and the Bharat Scouts & Guides pavilion among other institutions of sport and culture.
Shivaji Park, by design or default, has one of the rare statues of Chhatrapati Shivaji without his sword drawn; it has him raising an arm in an upward direction. The Park has since seen many a political rally, initially for independence, then the Samyukta Maharashtra movement that led to the creation of the state in 1960, the historical post-China war rally, Acharya P.K. Atre’s rallies that attracted so many lakhs that he came to be called the “Lion of Shivaji Park”, and of course Bal Thackeray’s annual Dussehra rally for 45 years. Any wonder then that Raj wanted to leave his stamp on the ground too?
The SC refusal may give him just the polemical point he was searching for in this election, something on the lines of “Marathi manoos cannot get Shiavji Park in Mumbai”. Ironically, it was the sustained campaign and fight of a handful of Marathi manus that restored silence, space and sport to Shivaji Park, all threatened by regular political rallies and demonstrations. “Why then is Shiv Sena allowed its Dussehra rally there?” asks an angry Raj. He will have to read the earlier Bombay high court judgment to figure that out.
This battle over the battleground reflects, in a sense, the state of the local body elections in Maharashtra. Political slug-fests, polemics, rhetoric, mud-slinging and blame-game— that’s what it has been so far. On February 7, 27 zilla parishads and 305 panchayat samitis voted in new representatives. On February 16, citizens of ten largest cities in the state will vote representatives to their municipal corporations, including Mumbai’s Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Raj wants to rule as many of the corporations as possible— another dream— but it’s the BMC he’s really after. If he can get about 40 MNS corporators elected, he can play king-maker in the House of 227 because it may just upset the electoral arithmetic of both the major alliances, Congress-NCP and Shiv Sena-BJP and their respective bids to control Mumbai’s civic body.
The Sena-BJP has been in power in the BMC for three successive terms— a time in Mumbai’s history that saw its decline as a livable city. Neither the BMC nor the state government bothered to honour the city’s Development Plan, both fought to gain control of more financial outlays and larger projects, both allowed the real estate lobby’s writ to run over all other concerns, both had visions of turning Mumbai into first Singapore (whose population is half of Mumbai’s) and then Shanghai (where citizen/participatory development is unheard of), both made tall promises on eve of all earlier elections to the BMC and state assembly which they forgot promptly after. Governance has always been forced to the backseat; politics— competitive parochial politics— has largely driven India’s financial capital.
If Mumbai is unlivable, if half of its 12 million population still lives in slums, if nearly three-fourths of citizens do not have access to potable tap water through day and night, if its public hospitals are struggling to accommodate patients, if its civic schools are shutting down, if its roads sport pot-holes beyond belief, if its pavements are either non-existent or filled with un-cleared garbage, if building proposals are approved without a thought to civic infrastructure in the area, if daily commute in a commuter city stretches into a couple of hours, clearly the issue is of governance— or the lack of it.
The Sena-BJP has given itself budgets of a whopping Rs. 91,102 crore in the last five years; so the traditional excuse of lack of finances cannot be forwarded for lack of governance. The shortfall has been, almost always, in the political will to place governance above all other considerations. The lacuna was in the reluctance of Mumbai’s political class to draw up a vision for Mumbai that went beyond Shanghai-ing it, sketch a road-map and commit to fulfilling it.
Altogether, Mumbai has had too much politics; too little governance. The fight to have a political rally at Shivaji Park is another chapter in the continuing story.