Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nationality is the only Identity: Part II

by Chetan Bhagat: Reproduced from Times of India
Raj Thackeray and the MNS have hogged headlines for some months now. Many of the enlightened articles that have appeared in newsprint paint him
as an evil villain who runs a party of goons. Quite frankly, this reductionist approach is not too different from that of his supporters who view him as a crusader for the ignored Marathi cause. The trading of such direct personality attacks makes it difficult to understand the real issues at hand. We should remember that the MNS is not alone. Millions of people now vote for it. In a mere three years of existence, it has attained a significant vote share as seen in the results of the recent assembly polls in Maharashtra. Compared to the Congress's vote share, the MNS still lags behind. However, for every four people who voted Congress in the state, one person voted MNS. This is significant.

To understand how the MNS gained so many supporters so fast, we must examine the issues taken up by the MNS that seem to resonate with the people of the state. One, while most of India's billionaires have Maharashtra addresses, the state also houses large numbers of poor people in the country. A majority of the state's population is dependent on agriculture, and this sector has suffered with falling crop yields and a poor irrigation infrastructure. The result is a dependence on rainfall, and high fluctuations in output. The state has the highest numbers of farmer suicides in the country. Why? If we want India to progress, shouldn't our farmers progress too?

Two, the so-called secular or nationalist parties don't seem to be doing much presently. There are little signs of visible progress. While agriculture is suffering, the situation in urban areas is no better with crumbling basic infrastructure. Compared to someone inept and invisible, at least the MNS comes across as action-oriented.

Third, the media's elitist obsession plays a role. Most publications and channels are only interested in covering high-class issues rather than the stories of the people of Mumbai, thus relegating a perfectly fine Marathi culture to a lower-class status. Ours is probably the only country where local cultures are looked down upon. Anything too Indian, or liked by too many Indians, is considered down-market. This, despite Marathi culture being one of the richest, original cultures in India, followed by a majority of Maharashtrians. In such a scenario, any party offering visibility to an ignored but loved culture is bound to get support. For the record, the MNS has organised Marathi poetry recitations and literature exhibitions.

However, despite the above valid causes and potentially good intentions, MNS may not be the best bet for Marathis. MNS has gained maximum publicity when it does something dramatic and violent. While such acts attract attention, it is a slippery slope. To get noticed next time, you have to keep increasing the intensity and do something with higher shock value. Members of the MNS have reached the point of slapping an elected representative in the state assembly. But even that story died soon. Soon they'll increase the heat further, hurt innocent people, and cross the limits of civilised behaviour. Is that Marathi culture?

MNS may have brought forward the Marathi cause but by going against almost everyone non-Marathi, it has demonstrated how little it understands the state's dependence on the central government. Maharashtra needs central support to complete critical irrigation projects, which will cost thousands of crores of rupees. Our best shot at progress as a nation is if all states work together with a common agenda, instead of pulling in different directions. Also, by indulging in violent fights with other political parties, the MNS displays an unwillingness to get along with other interest groups. Such an attitude is impractical in a country like India. If MNS members can't listen to people, who will listen to them?

By claiming Mumbai for Marathis and calling everyone else an outsider, MNS is only harming Marathis in the long term. In today's world, progress depends on inter-dependence. If global agricultural companies are incentivised and welcomed to base themselves in Maharashtra, it can dramatically alter the standard of living for Marathi farmers. Kicking everyone else out won't. A lack of understanding of the modern world also casts doubt over MNS's ability to actually deliver on the issues it has raised.

Most Marathis still do not vote MNS. It is these people who can help most by talking more about the choices available to their community and the pros and cons of each option. Increasing the decibel levels of the moderate Marathi voice is needed now. In that respect, the recent comments by Sachin Tendulkar are commendable. Non-Marathis have to stop painting individual personalities as villains and spend more time thinking about what is truly driving the support base of a divisive person. If you dig deep, you will find that just like you, all that the MNS supporters are looking for is a better life. And that common desire alone is enough reason for us to be one.

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