Murli Deora’s passing away is a sad event. He was a political operator par excellence but also a very kind person as I can attest. He was one of those Congress leaders who knew his territory thanks to his deep roots and his ability to get along with every community in Bombay. But coming so soon after the defeat of the Congress in the general elections and then in Maharashtra, it also marks a watershed in the party’s fortunes nationally and in Bombay.
Bombay has become Mumbai over the last 25 years. This is not just a change of name but a change of politics and culture. There was a time when it was Bombay, the southern half of the islands which commanded the state and its capital. The Congress regarded Bombay as one of its strongholds. It had a Provincial Congress Committee of its own. Bombay was the place where the Quit India call was given and where the Gandhi-Jinnah talks took place in 1944.
The Congress drew strength from its connections with the money and the intellectuals of Bombay. K F Nariman is no longer known as anything more than a tourist point but he led the Congress before World War II. As a Parsi, he represented the best of Bombay’s cosmopolitan culture. Bhulabhai Desai, a distinguished barrister, was another pillar of Bombay Congress. The combination of Parsis, lawyers, businessmen and intellectuals (some belonging to more than one category) was at the heart of Congress power in Bombay.
It was mainly Gujarati and Parsi, but with S K Patil, Bombay had a shrewd operator who could extend the influence of the Congress into the Marathi-speaking community while keeping his business contacts flourishing. Patil also extended his friendship to the film industry (not yet called Bollywood) which lay to the north of the Mahim creek in Juhu/Bandra with studios in Chembur and Andheri. When Nehru wanted to induct V K Krishna Menon into the Lok Sabha, it was the film stars who campaigned for him in his North Bombay constituency.
Even so, the Congress began to lose Bombay when Panditji could not see the force of the demand for Samyukta Maharashtra. The Congress lost heavily in the 1957 Assembly elections and from then on had to abandon the cosmopolitan face of its leadership and put forward Marathi-speaking leaders. Morarji Desai was kicked upstairs to Central Cabinet. The Congress was lucky in having Y B Chavan who was an intellectual in politics and then many more leaders, with Sharad Pawar the latest in a long line. But the Congress had no mass leader in Bombay itself. The strength of its chief ministers lay in the rural hinterlands of Maharashtra, with Bombay being just a cash cow. With Bal Thackeray mobilising Marathi support from mid Bombay and further north, South Bombay lost its influence. The centre of gravity of politics moved from the Fort to Parel and Lalbaug and then further north.
Murli Deora was the last link with the Congress past of powerful middlemen in South Bombay. They kept the money flowing smoothly.
Deora did not crave for the top position. He had clout and did not need high status to prove it. He was a quintessential Bombaywallah as his linguistic identity did not impede his popularity. He spoke Bombay’s language which is many languages put together in a mixie to bring out a heady blend called Bambaiya.
The Shiv Sena established its control over Mumbai by ignoring, if not neglecting, South Bombay. Indeed it behaved as an anti-Bombay party even when it ruled Maharashtra. When 26/11 happened, it was in South Bombay, which was alien territory to the then home minister of Maharashtra. ATS chief Hemant Karkare died the day Saamna, the Sena newspaper, had denounced him. Bombay felt abandoned by the Congress both locally and nationally.
Bombay’s dream of being Shanghai did not get any attention from the UPA or the Maharashtra Congress-NCP coalition. It is too much to hope that the new government in Maharashtra will care about reviving the business and financial centre that South Bombay used to be.
The contrasting fortunes of Delhi and Bombay show how much Bombay is a step child of the Congress. Will the BJP do any better?
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