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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 46

Mumbai Cowboy

Tuesday 4 November 2008, by Kumar Ketkar


It is a win-win situation for Raj Thackeray. He must have desired to get arrested. That keeps him in the headlines and also steals the media limelight from his main rival, the Shiv Sena. To his followers, indeed to a large number of Marathi youth in Mumbai and Maharashtra, the arrest confers on him the status of a saviour. The more he is seen on the non-Marathi channels and among the Hindi-speaking political classes as a monster, the more he is perceived as a spokesperson by the angry and volatile urban/semi-urban Marathi youth. The law and order establishment in Maharashtra is totally confused as to how to deal with this not-so-sudden rise of an outlaw. Raj likes and adores the Hollywood westerns in which the horse-riding sheriff challenges whole towns of American Indians with his cool, daring and sharp-shooting skills. What is a calculated riot for Raj is a “spontaneous rebellion” for his widespread following of lumpen youths. The more they are condemned, the more reckless they become. They are the new cowboys, mainly from the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai.

The rise of Raj can be directly attributed to the total non-performance of the Congress-NCP Government as well as to the slow fading of Balasaheb Thackeray. The criminal neglect of Mumbai and other emerging urban centres like Pune, Thane, Nasik, Aurangabad for the past decade or more has raised the level of frustration and anger across the cities. More so among the so-called “local” Marathi populace that has been feeling overwhelmed and marginalised. But the fault is not of those “bhayyas” who are seen as “invaders”. The main culprits are the State Government and the Shiv Sena-BJP-led Corpo-ration which have shown complete disregard for the basic necessities of the city. So it is not as if only the Marathi-speaking people of the city have lost hope. Even the migrants from all over the country, who come to Mumbai and then spread out to other cities, are gripped by a sense of despair.

Life is extremely difficult for them and in no way do they compete with the local Marathi youth, who may be unemployed but are not ready to work for 16 hours a day in restaurants, laundries, shops or run taxis and sell bhelpuri and work as unlicensed coolies. They sleep on footpaths, railway stations, under the staircase, in cement pipes brought for massive construction work going on all over the cities. They have very few demands from life except seeing Bollywood films and catching the occasional glimpse of actors. Back home, in some village in UP or Bihar, they are believed to be part of the glamorous Mumbai.

Their joys and pleasures are truly melodramatic and are perfectly understood by Bollywood’s dream merchants. Once upon a time, the Raj Kapoors and Dilip Kumars cashed in on their dreams, but in those days of Shehar aur Sapna, there used to be sympathy for the migrant poor. But in the new economy, as the demand for unskilled, low-wage jobs increased, the so-called sons of the soil could not join their ranks, as they felt it was below their status to work on construction sites or in poor locality restaurants. Hence, in the process, there is a vast new army of the Marathi unemployed urban youth who see in Raj Thackeray a kind of angry hero from the Hindi blockbuster, Arjun.

THE migration from the BIMARU States to Mumbai and other cities in the State is primarily because there was access to jobs and, with it, liberation from the drudgery and exploitation of village life. This urban poor needed social and even economic protection. Vote-bank politics ensured that the migrants would have their leadership. And so a whole new political class emerged with new networks. The self-styled rural leadership of Maharashtra, actually the moffusil Maratha elite, had no comprehension or concern for the rapidly changing profile of cities like Mumbai. For them the city was a vast real estate whose prices were escalating all the time. The deindustrialisation of cities like Mumbai fashionably became known as the rise of the “service industry”. The new IT business and the mushrooming of the BPOs as well as the blooming media and entertainment industry were the glamorous ends of the service sector. But the other side of the story was the generation of new jobs at the lower end. The glamorous service sector emerged as cosmopolitan and global islands and the unskilled jobs began to be seen as unofficially reserved for the backward castes and migrants of the backward regions.

The Congress and the NCP have totally lost contact with the city dwellers, be they the middle class or the poor. Their disconnect from the traditional base of the marginalised and the poor has grave consequences. The Dalit Marathi youth does not know which part of his identity gives him more benefits—being Dalit or being Marathi. The same is true of the Maratha caste whose elite is in power and the rest have become neo-lumpens. The upper castes and the entrenched middle classes have entered the so-called “knowledge industry” or have been migrating away. The ruling political parties neither understand the changed social dynamic nor do they appear to care. Since the mid-nineties, when the Shiv Sena-BJP combine came to power, there has been a consolidation of a nexus between the mafia, politicians, police and the builders.

The politically orphaned urban mass was looking for a rallying leader. They have found one in Raj Thackeray. By breaking away from the Shiv Sena, he has been able to distance himself from the Sena-BJP rule in the Corporation. He is seen as a real-life Arjun who is ready to take on even his cousin, Uddhav, and his old party organisation, the Shiv Sena. If the Congress had concern, compassion and at least comprehension of the malaise, Raj would not have grown. He is occupying a political space virtually donated to him by the ruling alliance. Raj is now a Midnight Cowboy who will acquire more charisma by going to jail and, if not arrested, he will say that the state dare not arrest him. The Congress and the NCP thought they would benefit from the split in the Shiv Sena. Now they have realised that Raj is in fact a challenge to them.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

The author is the editor of Loksatta. He can contacted at

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