in the winter of our disconnect

A few days back, a man called balasaheb thackeray, aging tiger and ailing supremo of the shiv sena made a few snarky comments against sachin tendulkar- cricketing god and all-round nice guy (actually that phrase is more aaccurate the other way round – “cricketing nice guy and all-round god”).  The issue was Sachin’s comment about how he played for India, and not for the state of Maharashtra, and how Mumbai, his city, was for all indians. 

Balasaheb’s patronising manner was criticised by the papers, and his condescension ridiculed.  Some papers used it as a chance to twist the knife in further after the recent humiliating election drubbing, some others pointed at the sena’s increasing disaffection with the pulse of the people.  “Marathi Manoos” has suddenly become a funny buzz word, to be used in cheeky jokes and trying-desperately-to-be-vernacular English newspapers.

Then the Sena struck back.  The office of one of the offending papers was attacked, the editor roughed up, the receptionist slapped.  Escaping journalists were grabbed by the shirts on their backs : buttons popped, fabric ripped.  The sena was triumphant in its admission.  Yes, it was us, they said to anyone who would care to listen, and this is a warning, so please note.

There was media outrage, predictably.  The press angrily demanded just retribution, and the chief minister cooed, and tried to soothe ruffled feathers.  The issue was not about the marathi manoos, he said, it was about vandalism and petty populism.  The attacks were heinous, the perpetrators dastardly.

Then two days later, the chief min raised the marathi manoos issue again in public.  People who are local should be given priority for jobs, he said.  I shall take the matter up with the railway minster, he promised a cheering and adoring audience.

And the media continued to sullenly fold its arms and pout in offended disaffection.

Something does not make sense here.  Hooliganism is one thing, but hooliganism and post- ‘ganism chest- thumping is not usually par for the course, especially when it is such a sensitive issue and involves the greatest sportsman in the land. 

Generally, when a political party owns up to something, you can be sure that that “something” resonates with the approval of a significant number of people, of a group that is on its way to being considered a ‘majority’.  When a political party owns up to vandalism and wilful attacks on media, involving (however obliquely) a national hero, you can be sure that there’s support, even approval.

The bottom line is this: If there was no public support for the entire “maharashtra for maharashtrians” polemic, then it wouldn’t be made, stridently, from every available political pedestal that an avaricious neta can clamber upon.  The very fact that political parties make it a point to defer to linguistic chauvinism to define their ideology means that it resonates with their voting public, as well as with swing voters, disaffected and undecided.

Anyone who has travelled in the dusty bylanes of rural maharashtra will know that there are only two things that penetrate into the heart of the impoverished state: politics and cinema.  While this is true for almost all of the vast rural hinterland in India, in Maharashtra, that other great Indian Arterial presence : The Indian Railways, is conspicuous in its absence.

Cinema is paradoxical, because it is hindi cinema that thrives in the boondocks,  from slick SRK starrers to slimy sordid skinfests.  It is hindi cinema, certainly, but the sensibility it represents (NOT its context – most hindi cinema is exaggerated vaudeville of Punjabi ritual) is something that people feel they can ostensibly connect to, and revel in.

Politics, though, is ubiquitous.  And while each of us purse our lips in exasperation when we see political antics, and their unfortunate consequence, we spare very little thought for the core demographic for whom that elaborate charade is meant.  How many of us have travelled across villages in the country, outside of our own provincial “native places”?  And I don’t mean 79 photographs set against the quaint prettiness of Fatehpur Sikri or Khajuraho, but really travelling through unremarkable shanty towns and rural homesteads, filled with hopeless dreams and the grimy effluent of cities?  When villages are mentioned, how many of us imagine a SRK-less “Swades” landscape, or an amir khan-less Champaran?

For all most of us know, rural India could be anything from an 18th century feudal fief to a idyllic pastoral-paradise filled with belles and moustachioed villains at every corner.

If there is anyone who bothers to visit, or even tries to understand what the hinterland thinks, it is the local candidate, anxious to please, geared to ingratiate.

It is this knowledge that emboldens our political parties, this invaluable understanding of the “grassroots”.  And if the Sena and the MaNSa are pushing the marathi manoos plank, then it is because it finds currency with a significant section of that grassroots.

I am not for one moment condoning the violence and the hoologanism. I am also not for one moment condemning it.  But I do think that with the horrified, faux cosmopolitan and pseudo- liberal reaction to the controversy, urban India and the English media have truly exposed the extent of their disconnect with perspectives that other parts of the country consider justified.  Its as if among the many Indias that coexist in the one great India, two groups of competing India stand, unable to understand the other’s stance or vision.

Truly, this is the winter of our disconnect.