Is the Marathi vs Gujarati narrative relevant to the bullet train project?

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Mumbai: In opposing the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, Maharashtra’s nativist parties Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) have sought to play on the age-old Mumbai-Gujarat fault line. But does the fault line still exist? And does the issue of Marathi identity have the political resonance it did more than five decades back?

One of Shiv Sena’s emotional rallying points since its founding in 1966 has been the invocation of the Marathi identity for political mobilization. Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray’s father Keshav Thackeray, popularly known as Prabodhankar Thackeray, was a leader of the movement to claim Mumbai (then Bombay) as the capital of Maharashtra in the late 50s after a violent agitation in which 105 people died. The Sena and its offshoot MNS have politically kept alive the memory of these “martyrs”. The rival Thackeray cousins—Uddhav and Raj— have been questioning the bullet train project ever since it was announced in February 2016 by then railway minister Suresh Prabhu. After the 29 September stampede at Elphinstone station which killed 23 commuters, they have sharpened their attack and linked it to the Marathi vs Gujarati narrative. An important fact both seem to be exploiting is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is controlled by two Gujaratis—Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

“In the sixties, the issue did strike a chord in the backdrop of the movement for Samyukta Maharashtra (United Maharashtra) which was essentially a call to create a state of Marathi-speaking people with Mumbai as its capital,” said a senior Shiv Sena leader who was in his twenties when the Sena was formed and who did not want to be named. He said the issue of Marathi identity then was fostered by economic, emotional and cultural factors. “We (the Marathi youth) did not have white-collar jobs, there was this lingual and cultural angst against the Tamils and Gujaratis which partly stemmed from the economic grievance,” he said, explaining the political engine that propelled the Shiv Sena into prominence.

Five decades on, does Marathi identity have the same emotional and political appeal? “The economic grievance of not getting white-collar jobs is almost entirely gone. Indeed, much of the white-collar Marathi crowd has moved away from Shiv Sena. But the cultural and emotional angst is still as fervent, though from the eighties onwards, its target has been the North Indian migrant in addition to Gujaratis,” the Sena veteran said. He said this angst was the reason Sena president Uddhav Thackeray and MNS chief Raj Thackeray had linked the bullet train project to “the Marathi-Gujarati fault line”.

Political commentator and long-time Shiv Sena observer and journalist Bhau Torsekar said Marathi identity is as relevant as it was five decades back. “It has its own vitality even without the anti-North Indian or anti-Gujarati overtones. There definitely exists a feeling of anger against the Gujaratis among the Marathis. The question is who represents this angst at the political level and I don’t think Shiv Sena has been able to do that under Uddhav Thackeray,” Torsekar said. He said Raj Thackeray had stolen a march over Uddhav by hitting the streets over the Elphinstone tragedy. “The emotional anger was there and it only needed someone who gave that call to rise. Raj provided that while the Shiv Sena continues to run itself from the office of Saamna,” Torsekar said, referring to the Sena mouthpiece.

Vaibhavi Palsule, vice-principal and head of the department of political science at Mumbai’s Ramnarain Ruia College, however, feels the regional or lingual identity and political opposition to a national party like the BJP are two different issues. “The politics of regional language is independent of positions against a national party. To oppose BJP’s national politics, both Shiv Sena and MNS need to have wider issues and informed narratives. For instance, linking the politics of language to the bullet train project is totally irrelevant and flawed,” Palsule said.