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Mrinal Pande writes: Maharashtra rebels in Guwahati — Horsetrading amid floods

Mrinal Pande writes: Did no one pause to think of how the images of the homeless rushing to safe spaces with their minimal possessions would play against the backdrop of MLAs thumping each other on the back and smiling for the cameras in plush hotels?

Written by Mrinal Pande |
Updated: June 24, 2022 8:43:56 am
As things began stirring in Mumbai and Surat, three chartered planes flew dissidents from Surat to the flood-ravaged north-eastern state of Assam. (Source: PTI)

The battle for the heart of Maharashtra unfolds before us like a scene out of the Greco Roman wars. On one side, we have the somewhat battle-weary combined forces of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi; on the other, Eknath Shinde, the mighty dissident from the Shiv Sena with his swelling band of brothers, claiming that the coalition that the Sena had made with Sharad Pawar’s NCP and Sonia Gandhi’s Congress was unholy. Though it is being publicly denied, strong support is coming from the BJP headed by Devendra Fadnavis, still smarting from being dethroned by the MVA, and consumed by the desire for regaining his lost throne. The great strength of the camp supporting Shinde, as we all know, is the north’s demographic strength — numbers, the immeasurable human mass that BJP-ruled states hold, ready to pulverise the enemy who snatched away India’s financial capital successfully.

Operation Grab Back began a few days ago when a few air-conditioned buses were said to have carried dissidents from the MVA into Gujarat’s Surat and kept them in a five-star hotel awaiting orders. This is, by now, a familiar scenario, repeated in many states before toppling an elected government and replacing it with one that is more Centre-friendly.

As things began stirring in Mumbai and Surat this time, suddenly and inexplicably, three chartered planes flew dissidents, whose ranks had swelled, from the arid climes of Surat to the flood-ravaged north-eastern state of Assam. In Guwahati, as in Surat, they are reportedly staying in a five-star luxury hotel. As we all know, Assam is facing floods and landslides that have killed almost 100, rendered almost 3 lakh homeless and nearly submerged 30 of the state’s 35 districts.

Questions arise, like who has been funding these expensive disaster tourism ventures for dissidents opposing the MVA, of which they are still a part? Who funded the trips in air conditioned buses to Surat and picked up the tab for stays in five-star hotels in both Surat and Guwahati? The Maharashtra BJP state chief Chandrakant Patil says his party has nothing to do with what has been happening in the Sena’s ranks and will not stake a claim for government formation. However, Shinde and his friends were received by a BJP MP and a BJP MLA at Guwahati airport.

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While the political drama is still unfolding in Mumbai and Delhi, with Uddhav Thackeray moving out of his official residence and the swelling numbers of rebel Shiv Sena MLAs being feted at Radisson Blu in Guwahati, it seems more likely than not that the MVA government may fall. It may be cause for glee in the ranks of those who engineered this coup, but it still leaves another question unanswered: What possessed the powers that be to undertake this unseemly horse trading in a state reeling under unprecedented floods? Media savvy as they are, did they not pause to think of how the images of the homeless rushing to safe spaces with their minimal possessions would play against the backdrop of MLAs thumping each other on the back and smiling for the cameras in plush hotels?

It is unlikely that the Assam Chief Minister, during his much publicised train journey through the affected areas, had failed to notice how inadequate the air dropping of food and relief materials was proving to be in the face of the deluge. Didn’t he point out to the organisers of this teddy bears’ picnic at the Radisson Blu how hunger and disease are stalking the beleaguered land, and that his first duty was to the citizens of Assam? Such indifference to public opinion brings to mind Herodotus, witness to the endless bloodied procession of armies during the multicultural wars and the end of Xerxes, the powerful Persian King of Kings: “The end is not apparent from the very outset.”

Herodotus, a passionate advocate of freedom and democracy and a foe of despotic behaviour, would make good reading in these times for our elected representatives. Herodotus never blames human beings, he blames the system. It is the system that creates the soldiers and the kings and the learned men eventually. And their quality determines the end result. At the end of the Greco Persian wars, a handful of free speaking, ever squabbling Greeks won because they were defending what is most defensible: The right of all citizens to be treated well, to be heard, to live with dignity befitting a human being. The Persians, with their great disciplined ranks, lost, because they worshipped at the feet of one supreme leader unquestioningly, with no arguments.

The Maharashtra dissidents enjoying themselves at someone else’s expense, in five-star luxury surrounded by misery, devastation, land erosion and death, are a metaphor, a symbol and sign of our times. They point to the borders that have been drawn between the common citizens and the political class they vote for. The millions that are being squandered on people’s representatives who are defying their given mandate, could have been at the service of the state’s disaster management department to help the people of Assam who have lost their homes, their crops and their self respect.

This is not the first instance, nor will it be the last. Year after year, crisis brews in a state and crores are wasted in supporting completely irrational dissidence through undemocratic means. To think that, decades ago, Mumbai was India’s first multi language metropolitan city where VK Krishna Menon, a rank “outsider”, could win an election and rise to be a Union minister.

What went wrong? Things changed with the rise of linguistic chauvinism. Once it began to tug at the political imagination, Maharashtra hit out at Gujaratis, and then, at South Indians and other “Others”. Sadly, politicians from various ideological camps discarded their core ideology of liberal multiculturalism and joined the xenophobic supporters of “Maharashtra for Maharashtrians” and Marathi chauvinists. In 1966, a cartoonist, Bal Thackeray created the Shiv Sena, and soon established a mindset that was anything but amusing. The wall built around the state is today simultaneously its shield and a trap. Such walls do not make good neighbours. They will always make state politics a target for the entry of Trojan horses from UP to Guwahati.

The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharati

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