– by SANJAY JHA
At a small gathering of well-heeled sort in a South Mumbai club, Milind Deora, sitting Congress MP South Mumbai stood answering questions from the supposedly well-aware if not necessarily sufficiently-enlightened audience from his high profile constituency. At one point, Deora posed a query back, “ Do you know who is your local MLA? Or your corporator?” Out of a gathering of a hundred odd people casually carrying Blackberry’s, 3 half-bent hands went up feebly as if affected by a tennis elbow. Of those valiant limbs, two were just indulging in idle speculation and as for the other, he was the lone swallow of the summer party. In a great number of ways that minor interface manifested Mumbai’s chronic political ignorance. Or indifference. Or both.
On April 30th, as Mumbai voted, and camera crews whizzed around expecting a bone crushing multitude thronging polling booths, a certain reality dawned. Mumbai was happily sleeping, comfortably ensconced in it’s chosen irrelevance. In TV studios, botox –injected countenances seemed highly disturbed. Very angry. They were not carrying any designer candles this time. The big myth of Mumbai’s inner resilience had been decisively busted, and the candle-light whiffed out without even a careless mild blow of an innocuous breeze. The much-fancied South Mumbai constituency , which has India’s highest real estate prices for commercial complexes and residential property, the much coveted address of Malbar Hill, the haven of the new-rich Cuffe Parade, the breezy Worli Sea face , amongst others saw a dismal turn-out. Even worse than in 2004. At less than 43% voting percentage , it showed not just apathy, but sheer contemptuous disinterestedness. As someone told me, it was “ De-light disaster”.
The social butterflies , flitting in colorful avatars from one studio to the other, expected the tragic 26/11 terrorist attacks to galvanize the city ; but frankly, Mumbai has had other compelling challenges as well. Serial train bombings, the horrific July floods, bitter regional divides with North Indians, crumbling infrastructure, rising crime against women——- has all resulted in rampant loss of its once thriving cosmopolitan character. People expected a spirited participation, led by some major sloganeering —“Enough is enough” kind. But they should have known better. But again, not everyone is clairvoyant.
There were early signs; when Raj Thackeray attacked innocent North Indian laborers, the city’s social conscience went in a deep slumber. There were no silent processions, and the conscience keepers, chose to look the other way. Suddenly 26/11 happened, and even those with Visa gold cards and Sunday brunch invitations realized their personal vulnerability. It was an act of brazen selfishness; there was nothing remotely altruistic about it. The candle-light at Gateway was over-hyped as India’s great public awakening; it was anything but, just an act based on an emotional impulse covered extensively by a myopic media on it’s own crusading trip. Honestly, it never really had any sustaining substance. Move over 26/11, 30/04 is the new date-line that defines Mumbai. Guys, take note.
For South Mumbai socialites , including soft-porn celebrity authors and pseudo-intellectual columnists who know more about the family history of Louis Vuitton than Mahatma Gandhi , this is shock , awe and distress combined. The upper-class in Mumbai is the ultimate in synthetic standards. So if you talk English with an exaggerated Oxford-affectation , you are not just deemed smart but even thought to be honest. But country-cousins such as Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mamata Bannerjee, Ram Vilas Paswan ,Mayawati etc are butt of jokes and considered as archetypal caricature politicians. Mumbai embraces the Amar Singh-type profile of politicians , well-networked, Bollywood affiliated, nattily dressed. Prafool Patel of the NCP is their perfect role-model ; suave, smart, Napean Sea Road resident, who speaks “good English” and appears on magazines like Hi-Blitz. Independent candidate and CEO ABN AMRO Meera Sanyal saw this clear space, hence South Mumbai for her, not Thane or even Mumbai North West. But what really explains the mystifying dip in voting numbers, despite Jaago-Re etc? It was much more than just mercury rising, actually.
The answer lies not so much in voter impassivity, confusing choices, long week- end break , lack of adequate candidate pull, or the summer heat or missing electoral rolls. It lies in Mumbai’s core DNA; Mumbai does not have a political complexion or character. It is a city with a commercial outlook, pregnant with career dreams, bare survival and the lure of endless monies and good fortunes. You will argue that every city has similar obsessions, but Mumbai is a terribly skewed exaggeration. Period! It understands only the language of Sensex, broker Jhunjhunwala , and floating interest rates. Jobs, income, growth, savings, success, value, and investments predominate Maximum city’s mind. While even in Delhi’s chatterati farm-houses and college canteens they will discuss Godhra and Gowda , in Mumbai’s local trains they talk about the Satyam scam , cement off-take, the fight between the Reliance brothers, and whether SRK is King . The middle class takes itself very seriously. It plays the middling role, neither here nor there; as long as the EMI can be paid, no sweat on what happens to the next door neighbor.
Mumbai is a city always on the borderline of survival, of hopes and jobs and dreams. Fiscal and credit policy and forex rates worry the city more than Ayodhya, Nandigram or Kandhamal. These are considered superfluous political issues as they do not impact local train timings. Or job openings. Or the week-end sale in the mall. And therein lies the problem.
The other day Veer Sanghvi quoted MJ Akbar’s well-known dig on Mumbai; “that it needs to establish diplomatic relations with the rest of India”. It was a dicey suggestion. Because if Mumbai has its way, it would never issue anyone a visa . Because the city foolishly believes that economic and political realities are not so-directly intertwined. It is a city that loves to live in its own terms— consumed by it’s own hubris. Leading the list of cheerleaders are some designer sarees.
Society women and over-zealous new-age activists have ruled the roost post-26/11 because they have exploited the city’s naïve political outlook, its gross ignorance of the Indian body politic, its atrocious neglect of its own self-preservation. And since these globe trotters are usually well connected they spin hear- say into reader-friendly columns bereft of any intellectual quality or academic intelligence, but impregnate it with rabid personal takes. It makes for “ masala-reading” on Sunday afternoons. So you will find them constantly rubbishing well-known personalities as it gives them cheap TRP points. In their self-created bubble they become icons; “She takes on the establishment, you know?” Worse, respectable TV channels then promote their pathetic bunkum. With 30/04 , it’s comeuppance time. Anyway.
Mumbai needs an inspired leadership to help it discover it’s dormant soul. One Lead India campaign cannot undo years of Page 3 hard-sell. Sadly, even a 26/11 did not shake it rudely enough to comprehend the relevance of a state. Or government. Or that India’s politics is as relevant at Olive as it is in Patna Coffee House. Frankly, if Mumbai continues to live in a cocooned existence it does so at it’s own peril. Check out Delhi; a traditional BJP bastion, the good governance of CM Sheila Dixit has made the Congress invulnerable in the capital, and the voters in Delhi have preferred their stronger infrastructure and improved environment to unnecessary political provocation. The people of Delhi have participated actively, and the widening difference between Delhi and Mumbai ( once far ahead) is for everyone to see from the moment you start driving out of the airport.
The other day a certain Ms De was in full blast in a TV program. I only hope the studio lights didn’t give her a heat stroke.