Debating India


Vilasrao ’Thackeray’

Monday 2 May 2005, by KOPPIKAR*Smruti

Why is chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh mouthing Sena chief Thackeray’s lines?

JPEG - 7.5 kb

Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s alter ego these days has an unlikely name: Vilasrao Deshmukh. Much to the embarrassment of many in his party, Maharashtra’s Congress chief minister’s thoughts and words through the last two weeks have had an uncanny echo of the Sena patriarch. Sample this:

- "Mumbai has no room for guests. Harsh decisions are needed."

- "Not many meritorious students from the state appear for competitive exams, which is why you find many top officers in Mantralaya too from other states. Even many ministers are non-Maharashtrian."

- "We have to take action against illegal Bangladeshi migrants...their heavy influx poses an internal security threat in Mumbai and other cities."

- "Dance bars must go...Bangladeshi girls find their way in."

The Congress naturally is in a state of confusion, even dismay, to hear its CM. Veteran leaders are calling it an ideological blurring like never before. Coalition partner Nationalist Congress Party is laughing at the piquancy of it all. The Opposition Sena-BJP are rubbing their hands in glee. They cannot suppress their delight at hearing a Congress CM speak their language and seeing "their" issues right up on the government agenda. Even the Sena CMs in their time were more circumspect. In select circles, the joke is that the Maharashtra CM is "Vilasrao Thackeray".

The Sena believes that Deshmukh ought to do more on the issues of slum demolition, crack down harder on Bangladeshi migrants-but at the moment every step that Deshmukh has taken, they say, is a vindication of their stand on these issues. The BJP fully endorses this. "We are very happy," says Vinod Tawde, state general secretary. "When we raised these issues, we were condemned as parochial and narrow-minded. But the fact is they are popular issues. A Congress CM has no alternative but to address them."

Stung by the criticism, Deshmukh sought refuge in the classic line that politicians always resort to-’My remarks were taken out of context’. "I’m very much a Congress chief minister," he said in an interview (see box). His predicament is, in part, a crisis of identity. In the political churning now under way in Maharashtra, ideological realignments are the order of the day. Political rearrangements will perhaps follow.

The more significant part is that there’s unanimity on the issues of import for Mumbai and rest of the state. Which is why Deshmukh has adopted a shade of the parochial politics perfected by the Sena-BJP. Clearly, the six-month-old Congress-NCP government, in its second term, has realised the rich dividends that come from addressing regional or local issues. Politics here is no longer national versus local, it’s very much local versus local. Deshmukh sees no dissonance in appealing to Maharashtrian sentiment, wearing the ubiquitous Marathi asmita (identity) on his sleeve. His party bosses may have a thing or two to say about it but Deshmukh is unfazed. And when R.R. Patil, deputy CM and home minister now infamous for his ban on dance bars, happily lifts a stone with ’Shri Ram’ painted on it to mark a public programme of Geet Ramayan at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park, the circle is complete.

No wonder then that the CM and his deputy received compliments galore from the Sena-BJP for the ban on dance bars and the rhetoric on "guests" and Bangladeshis. Taking a leaf out of the saffron book, they seem to be practising the art of using a legitimate issue as a cover for political, even personal, agenda. Mumbai’s space crunch, for example, is a real issue but it has been intelligently employed by the Sena to campaign against Bihar and UP migrants. Likewise, this government’s moves on dance bars and Bangladeshis.

Illegal Bangladeshi migration is a genuine problem and different governments have addressed it in the past in their own way.

The Sena-BJP government’s deportation drive in the monsoon of 1998 had to be called off after it became apparent that it was a mere cover to drive out Bengali Muslims. Police sources say, irrespective of the political posturing on the issue, the task of identifying and investigating the identity of suspect Bangladeshis is a continuing effort; it’s only the deportation that attracts attention. Is there cause to particularly worry now? Honestly, no one knows for sure. "I don’t have the numbers, I only raised the issue at a national conference," defends Deshmukh of his sudden interest in the subject.

"Illegal migration, especially from Bangladesh, has always been a problem," says Javed Ahmed, joint commissioner (law and order), "but the magnitude keeps changing from time to time. It’s not a one-track issue and it’s easy to make it sensational." The number-crunching has just begun but if past records are an indication, when the Sena-BJP government declared that lakhs of Bangladeshi migrants are illegally living in the city, the actual deportation figures after intense search and identification operations resulted in just around 700 such migrants in a year.

Most Bangladeshis-legal or illegal-are in low-skilled jobs, usually settled in close-knit slum pockets along Wadala, Reay Road and in Navi Mumbai. "There’s no denying that illegal Bangladeshis are around but realise that they are good justification for slum demolition, also many of them can be easily confused with Bengali Muslims who have all the right to be in the city," points out activist Medha Patkar, now campaigning on the issue.

This high-voltage issue has now been tangled with dance bars. Patil justified the ban on the grounds that "they were corrupting the Marathi youth". He earned applause. The CM muddied it further saying a number of Bangladeshi girls find their way into the flesh trade and dance bars of Mumbai, which in turn criminalise the society. The bar ban is part of the moral policing in Mumbai which finds all political parties on the same side. Asks Tawde, "Why should we worry about thousands of outsiders losing jobs when our own youth is getting corrupted?" Industry estimates are that the ban on 1,350 bars across the state will put almost 1.5 lakh people out of jobs, of which 75,000 are bar-girls-mostly from UP and Bihar.

The government is hard-pressed to issue the all-important Government Resolution on the ban-there are too many legal issues to be settled, including the definition of dance or ladies’ bars. "If we go by current definitions, bar owners can switch from recorded to live music and still get away. If we target the dance with liquor, then other venues like five-stars with belly-dancing and pubs will fall into the same category too. It’s a legal minefield," says a vexed bureaucrat. But Patil is unfazed. "I will not allow Mumbai to become a whorehouse, I will come down hard on nightlife that encourages crime," he declared. "Are only dance bars guilty," asked former top cop Julio Ribeiro in a signed article. "Social laws don’t succeed in curbing vice, they only encourage corruption."

And, what of Bangladeshi girls in dance bars? Again, no one knows for sure. Patil says there are some reports but he does not know the extent of the problem. Nor does Deshmukh. They are, however, happy using it as a smokescreen to shut down the bars. At this rate, they will have to put locks on all the rooms in the red-light district of Kamatipura and Falkland Road. There are more Bangladeshi girls there. Congressmen like Union sports minister Sunil Dutt and actor-MP Govinda have expressed their displeasure. Deshmukh himself was personally not too pleased with the ban but he went along with it, unwilling to allow Patil all the encomiums from the Maharashtrian morality brigade.Now he tries hard to justify it.

They say, when your opponents applaud you, it’s time to look hard at yourself. Deshmukh, today, earns fulsome praise from the Sena-BJP. It’s time to read the signs on the wall.

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0