KOLKATA: Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari has waded into controversy by reportedly saying that Mumbai won't have money and would cease to be the financial capital if Gujaratis and Rajasthanis were removed from it. It is not entirely clear as to what prompted this gratuitous remark, and while his office has now issued a clarification, in effect, walking back his statement, the damage has been done.
In a state that has in the past been beset by strong nativist sentiments - Shiv Sena rode to prominence on the back of precisely such a feeling - to open this particular can of worms so cavalierly made little sense.
It is true that the office of the governor has been debased over time and therefore expectations around their actions now have a fairly low bar. The idea of neutrality of this constitutional position was discarded years ago by governments preceding this one, but even the idea that the office needs to carry an appearance of dignity is now seen as a dispensable option. That the governor should say something unbecoming is therefore not a matter of surprise; what is perplexing is that the Maharashtra governor should open this particular can of worms.
It is tempting to view any action linked with the ruling party as being part of some deep strategy, for the evidence so far has been that few events happen without being planned, but it is difficult to know what the strategic intent behind such an utterance would be. What it does is to potentially give Shiv Sena, which has effectively been decimated by Eknath Shinde's coup, a much-needed chance at revival. To insult the locals in such a casual and sweeping manner is to stir emotions even among the jaded and passive.
But above and beyond the political considerations surrounding his statement, the fact that our mental model of a metropolis is still rooted in such primitive terms is cause for larger worry. For in separating out the role played by a few communities and attributing the miracle of the city to them is to dismantle the idea of Mumbai itself. Any vibrant city is an alchemic combination of elements, where the chemistry is more important than the raw ingredients. If the communities themselves were the secret sauce, they could have reproduced this effect elsewhere, notably in the regions to which they belong. Belonging to enterprising business communities is by itself obviously not enough-the Marwaris for instance seem to have flourished everywhere except in Rajasthan.
The magic of Mumbai is that it assimilates cultures without asking them to abandon their roots. The city turns its citizens into Mumbaikars, without erasing their respective pasts. This is what makes the city such a crucible of creativity-the fact that influences of all kind are allowed free reign, and not flattened into a thin veneer of cosmopolitan sameness. No other metro has quite the same effect.
Delhi for instance, has no local culture of a significant scale. Which is why it adopts as its dominant ethos, whatever it is that its latest set of migrants impart. It is a city steeped in history, while being clinically detached from its past. Bangalore is cosmopolitan but given the fact that most of its newer residents come for professional reasons leaving their cultural antecedents behind them, the city is more a melting pot of aspirations than cultures. It is only Mumbai that is a living amalgam of cultures-regional and international, aspirations, customs, business goals and creative pursuits, money, glamour and fame-everything that fires imaginations and quickens the blood.
In any city where opportunities draw in a large number of 'outsiders', the tensions between the locals and the migrants is inevitable. The city cannot become what it is without the energy of the outsider, and it cannot develop in scale without the willingness of the local to accommodate and work with influences from elsewhere. And yet in spite of this symbiotic relationship between the two, the locals very often can feel alienated, and believe that their share of opportunities is being cornered by those who they believe have a less legitimate claim to the city. Bangalore is now feeling this divide, Delhi has no locals worth the name and Mumbai has gone through an intense bout of the insider-outsider conflict.
The fact that neither the Shiv Sena nor the MNS finds it electorally profitable to dredge up emotions on this front is testimony to the fact that this tension, while present, has been capped at a manageable level. The infrastructure might be sinking, but the city has managed to keep the aspirations of those living there afloat. Mumbai creates a sense of shared destiny that allows for these differences to get subsumed within the larger pursuit of building one's own future. It is presence of opportunities that prevents progress from being imagined as a zero-sum game, and focuses efforts on the future rather than the past.
And statements like the governor's unfortunately try to drive a wedge precisely at the very core of what makes the city tick. The politics of division and resentment are unfortunately more powerful than those of compassion and cohesion. It is much easier to mobilise people around perceived injuries than around shared aspirations for progress. The reason why people come to Mumbai and live there has to do with hope and progress, while the political imperative often is to work with anger and despair.
The fact that this statement has raised outrage among most sections of society, including many BJP supporters, is a sign that this kind of politics does not always work. This once, the politics of divisiveness might lose.