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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Tear down the walls

To see Mumbai the Bal Thackeray way,just hang around his house.

Written by Vinay Sitapati |
May 18, 2009 1:54:08 am

To see Mumbai the Bal Thackeray way,just hang around his house. The small middle-class colony he lives in is buffeted on one side by Dharavi,Asia’s largest slum,and on the other by Garib Nagar,an urban cesspool where Azharuddin,Slumdog Millionaire’s child star,lives. During the 1993 riots,Dharavi and Garib Nagar saw pitched battles between Hindu colony residents and Muslim slum-dwellers,each accusing the other of hurling lit,gasoline-filled bottles across the compound walls. This is the paranoia of Bal Thackeray,the paranoia that these “outsiders” will squat outside his house,erect tents,lob missiles and take over his city. The outsiders keep varying — from south Indians to Muslims,and now,to north Indians — but the solution is always the same: taller walls to keep them away,stronger arms to chuck them out.  

This is the terrifying vision of Mumbai,variants of which the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance offers voters time and again. In the 2004 general elections,the Congress won all but one seat in Mumbai; in the 2004 assembly elections,the Congress-NCP combine was rewarded for pathetic governance with a second term; and in the recent general elections,the Shiv Sena-BJP once again failed to win a single seat (Mumbai North-Central,where Thackeray lives,was won by Congress’s incumbent,Priya Dutt). Mumbai’s electorate,around 60 per cent of whom are slum dwellers and 47 per cent “outsiders”,have spoken clearly. So have many “colony” dwellers,who,though appalled by the quality of the city’s governance,held their noses and voted for the hand.  

There is some nuance to this big picture story of why the Congress keeps winning Mumbai. For starts,the Shiv Sena-BJP does well in local elections. Raj Thackeray’s surge (his MNS polled more than a lakh votes in every Mumbai constituency) means that Bal Thackeray’s vision of Mumbai (and variations of it) does have some takers; without the MNS,the Shiv Sena would have won many more seats. Congressmen in Mumbai are also cynical masters of slum politics,empowering local mafia dons and pandering to them. There are also ideological differences between the BJP,Shiv Sena and the MNS. But these are only of degree; the BJP’s reluctance to cut itself off from the loony fringe means that it is tarred with the same brush.  

It is a bit harder to decode the Congress’s consistent success in Delhi. But consistent it is. Apart from yesterday’s seven-love result,the Congress won a decisive victory in the assembly elections in end-2008,and won all but one seat in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Deciphering Delhi is difficult because,unlike Mumbai,Delhi does not have the polarising equivalent of Bal Thackeray. Also,Delhi is far better governed than Mumbai; for many,the “Sheila factor” is the sole reason why the Congress has trumped the BJP for this long.  

But the colony vs slum metaphor does have some traction in Delhi too. For one,the once-agglomeration-of-refugee-colonies is undergoing a demographic shift. South Delhi is a prime example: post-delimitation,the South Delhi constituency contains Chhattarpur’s two lakh Gurjjars. Their concerns are as far as can be from those living in its posher middle-class colonies. At another,paradoxical level,the BJP’s understanding of the “colony” itself is outdated. JNU political scientist Dipankar Gupta says that the “shopkeeper” class,once the BJP’s core,has now become the “showroom” class. “The father went to Arya Samaj schools,the children are studying in St Colombus,” he says,“naturally,they identify more with Manmohan Singh than Rajnath Singh,Dixit than Malhotra.”  

Though pundits never tire of typecasting the BJP as urban-centric,data shows the BJP’s vote share across urban India in near-terminal decline. In the aftermath of 2004’s election victory for the UPA,political scientist Yogendra Yadav’s study in The Economic and Political Weekly showed that the BJP’s vote share declined in urban India,while the Congress’s increased. 2009 points to similar trends: Bangalore apart,

Mumbai,Delhi and much of urban India seems to have ditched the lotus for the hand.  

As the BJP begins to introspect on its loss,urban India’s thumbs-down must surely worry it. But as long as the party is obsessed with building colony walls,it keeps out not just many voters,but colony dwellers themselves. At a deeper level,the BJP must re-evaluate its own core constituency,the urban middle-class voter,who prefers — even if she may not identify with — the aspirations of the slum to the paranoia of the colony.  

vinay.sitapati@expressindia.com

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