Time to Snap the old ties

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The BJP should call the Shiv Sena’s bluff to woo back the middle class

Ashok Malik

Illustration: Uzma Mohsin

IT WOULD be churlish to see the RSS-BJP criticism of the Shiv Sena’s “Mumbai for Maharashtrians” sloganeering as motivated only by concern for the Bihar Assembly election due this October. The anxiety is much wider. Bihar, like Uttar Pradesh, sends thousands of economic migrants to Mumbai each year. In recent months, the Thackeray family — divided between the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) — has been competing in attacks on north Indians. This has left both national parties, the BJP and the Congress, decidedly uncomfortable.

The Congress is completely confused as to where it stands. In Maharashtra, it is an open secret that it bankrolled the MNS and treated Raj Thackeray with kid gloves in the run up to the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in 2009. The latest round of “Marathi manoos” chauvinism began when the Congress-led state government said it would issue taxi-driver permits only to those who were natives of Mumbai and spoke Marathi.

That ridiculous policy was later amended. Even so, the Congress is riding two horses (or perhaps taxis). In Mumbai, it resorts to indelicate pandering of regional scare-mongering. In Bihar, on the other hand, Rahul Gandhi criticises Raj Thackeray and defends north Indian contribution to Maharashtra. In Delhi Union Home Minister P Chidambaram takes on the two Senas and their “pernicious theses”. Both conveniently ignore their own party’s recent record in Mumbai.

At some stage, the Congress will have to make its choice. For the moment, if it is getting away with plain two-facedness, it is because the opposition is confronting its own dilemmas.

In the BJP and the Sangh, the Sena’s thuggish parochialism has been a source of deep embarrassment for some time now. Politically, the Sena has had an overstated sense of its importance. In the seat negotiations before the Lok Sabha elections, the Thackerays played hardball. They were in denial about the Sena’s decade of institutional atrophy, and that the terms of exchange had tilted towards the BJP.

Cussed as the Sena leadership was, the BJP gave in. LK Advani made the point that the BJP couldn’t break ties with the Sena as long as the Thackeray patriarch was around. As such, notwithstanding the Sena’s brazen flirtation with the Congress-NCP, the BJP settled for peace. Not everybody was happy. Key people in the BJP’s Maharashtra unit were keen to call the Sena’s bluff. One of them was Nitin Gadkari, now the BJP’s national president.

For the BJP, distancing itself from the Sena is an important first step in making itself acceptable to the middle class vote it has lost. This enterprise is a long and difficult one. However, it will not even begin without the BJP taking a tough position against an ally that makes a 24/7 spectacle of itself, attacks India’s top movie star, cricketer and industrialist, all in the same week, and tries to rewrite Mumbai’s (or more accurately Bombay’s) history as an exclusively nativist achievement.

The Shiv Sena makes a 24/7 spectacle of itself attacking movie stars, cricketers and industrialists

Yet, the issue is not just political. At its best, the RSS can be remarkably high-minded and expansive in its notion of nation. In the 1970s, a senior BJP leader points out, the Arya Samaj began a movement asking Hindu Punjabis to declare Hindi, and not Punjabi, as their mother tongue. The RSS opposed this, arguing it amounted to insulting Punjabi as a language. However, encouraged by a section of the Congress, the Arya Samaj persisted. This prompted a Sikh counter- mobilisation — and Punjab experienced 15 years of trauma.

The Shiv Sena-MNS family war is not quite the Akali Dal- Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale battle of the 1980s. Even so, there is a noteworthy sameness to the Congress’ recklessness and to the RSS’ caution. May tragedy not repeat itself.

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