In the shadow of the Pathankot attack and the troubled India-Pakistan talks process, comes some cheering news from West Bengal. Spurned by Mumbai’s Shiv Sena, renowned ghazal singer Ghulam Ali has played to a jam-packed stadium in Kolkata, at the invitation of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. In the course of a deeply sentimental performance, he said the hurt of being prevented from performing in Mumbai as a tribute to Jagjit Singh, had been erased. Now, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode wait to welcome him for more concerts. The affection being showered on the singer, who had refused to perform in India until the climate became more conducive, constitutes a sharp rebuke to the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra, which had failed to assure Ghulam Ali of security from the violence promised by the Shiv Sena. In this round — of competitive liberalism — it’s Mumbai 0, Kolkata 1.
Ever since economic liberalisation, Indian states have competed most noticeably for investment, using special economic zones and offering factors of production on easy terms as inducements. The state of law and order and governance schemes have also invited comparison. However, states may find it profitable to compete in the cultural space, using the currency of grace. The public culture of some states appears to have become chronically illiberal. Maharashtra currently leads the field, thanks to excesses like, recently, the attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni at the launch of Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book. Superstar Aamir Khan has drawn attention to Mumbai as a city so prone to intolerance that it is hard to belong. And the rest of India was perplexed when a family was forced to leave a city cinema hall for “disrespecting” the national anthem. This malaise, tragic as it is for Mumbai, could be read as an opportunity by other states. From the mid-20th century onwards, Mumbai became the pre-eminent commercial and cultural centre by opening its arms to the rest of India. Now, other states which have not countenanced illiberal politics should be in a position to turn the tables on Maharashtra, using the same strategy.
West Bengal’s welcome to Ghulam Ali followed on from the state’s global business summit, from which nothing spectacular was expected or secured. But the demonstration of openness at the concert could cast a positive light over future attempts to secure investments. Apart from resources and breaks, investors prefer destinations with an open culture. They are risk-averse and diffident about states whose governments cannot offer credible deterrence to the mob and its politics of hurt sentiments. Mamata Banerjee’s government is facing vituperation from many quarters, including — incredibly — from the Raj Bhavan in Agartala, for hosting a Pakistani singer in the wake of Pathankot.
On the contrary, in this instance, it deserves admiration for re-establishing faith in the idea of liberal India.