Politicians respond to constituencies. Their positions are deliberate.

What is the Thackerays’ constituency? Mumbai’s Marathis, whom the Thackerays speak for.

The cast: (clockwise from top left) Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray (AFP) and his estranged nephew Raj (Rajnish Kakade / Hindustan Times), founder of MNS, together control 42% of Mumbai’s votes (Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint); and north Indian taxi drivers have had to bear the brunt of their hate campaigns. Hemant Padalkar / Hindustan Times.

Congress does not represent Marathis in Mumbai, and they have surrendered this space politically to the Thackerays. This can be seen in their organizational structure (www.mumbairegionalcongress.org).

Neither the Mumbai regional Congress committee’s president Kripashankar Singh nor its treasurer Amarjit Singh is Marathi.

Of Mumbai Congress’ 18 vice-presidents, 12 are not Marathi. Of its 19 general secretaries, 13 are not Marathi. Of its 13 secretaries, eight are not Marathi. Of its seven executive members, none is Marathi.

Of Congress’s seven members of Parliament from Mumbai, six are not Marathi.

Of its 17 MLAs, 12 are not Marathi. Of its two housing board chairmen, neither is Marathi.

This surrender hasn’t come because Congress does not want Marathi votes, but because it cannot get them. Congress is inclusive by nature and cannot offer Mumbai’s Marathi what the Thackerays can, which is anger and resentment.

When Raj Thackeray left his uncle and launched his party it was inclusive, because he initially read the Mumbai Marathi wrongly. His flag makes space for the green of Muslims and the blue of Dalits. Marathis didn’t find that inclusiveness appealing and his party struggled. But after his calibrated violence against migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in which people were killed by his boys, Raj demonstrated his nastiness and Marathis gave him their approval and their vote. Between Raj (24%) and Uddhav (18%), the Thackerays control 42% of Mumbai’s vote, which corresponds to the city’s Marathi population. In the last election, not one opposition seat in the island city of South Mumbai went to Shiv Sena. They all went to Raj after his violence, and that is the reason why Uddhav is currently acting the way he is. The more unhinged the message, the more appealing it is to the Marathi.

Elected to power in 1995, Shiv Sena renamed Bombay. This began the series which has gifted us Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru. The Indian’s renaming of his cities is thought to be a positive assertion of identity, but it is actually negritude. Shiv Sena’s renaming did not stop there. It renamed Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) and Prince of Wales Museum (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangharalaya). Why is the Marathi angry with the British, who gave him his fine city?

The answer is that he isn’t. Those things were renamed because the British are gone and cannot defend themselves. Their property was available for the Marathi to stamp his ownership upon.

So the question is: Why does Mumbai’s Marathi want to assert himself? The answer is that he is disinherited from his city.

Of the 30 companies in Bombay Stock Exchange’s Sensex, the number of those owned by Marathis is zero. Of the 50 on the National Stock Exchange’s Nifty, the number owned by Marathis is zero. The Marathi is quite good at renaming things others built, but at building them himself he’s less able.

Three-fourths of India’s capital transactions happen in Mumbai but the participation of Marathis in this activity is irrelevant. There is a reason for this. If we observe Marathi society we notice the total absence of mercantile castes. Into this space the British imported the multi-religious trading community of Surat—Vohra, Khoja, Luhana, Memon, Jain, Parsi and Vaniya. They control the economy of Mumbai and its capital markets, and occupy the city’s best real estate.

Lower down, space opened up for others with enterprise, like the Bhaiyya, Bihari and Sikh taxi drivers of Mumbai. They are actually very good at their trade, hard-working and honest. Against them, the Marathi displays his valour and, like all Indians, he can be quite brave in a mob.

Face value: (clockwise from top left) Members of a fan club gather outside a multiplex screening of My Name is Khan (Shirish Shete / PTI); the film’s lead actor Shah Rukh Khan returns to the city after the world premiere of the movie (Punit Paranjpe / Reuters); Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray at an exhibition of cartoons by his father (Santosh Hirlekar / PTI); and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi rides a suburban train on 5 February. Hemant Padalkar / Hindustan Times.

The second big industry in Mumbai is media, especially Bollywood. Bollywood is dominated on the trade side by Punjabis and Sindhis, on the talent side by Punjabis and Urdu-speakers. The participation of Marathis is not of consequence. In some ways it is negative.

If we think about it, popular entertainment can only be produced on the cusp of immorality. Bollywood liberalizes India through its content which slowly pushes that cusp outward. Bollywood is based in Mumbai because it is India’s most liberal city. But the Marathi peasants who now control the state respond to their constituency in the village, which is illiterate and moral. As home minister, R.R. Patil banned this city’s unique dance bars where young women entertained men. Such acts pull the cusp inward.

The Marathi isn’t bothered about My Name is Khan being released, and by itself the matter is irrelevant, but he’s impressed by Thackeray’s ability to make Shah Rukh Khan grovel and to disrupt Bollywood’s business. It reassures him that Marathis control Mumbai.

Shiv Sena’s issues are always those where they can demonstrate to Marathis their ability to block events—we won’t allow Australian players, we won’t allow Valentine’s Day, we won’t let Pakistanis come in and so on. Shiv Sena has nothing constructive to offer Marathis, nor is it expected: Someone else will do all that.

All these events blocked eventually come to pass anyway, because the control is cosmetic, and it wilts when the state decides to apply rule of law. But that moment of theatre—when the media exhibits anguish—produces the spotlight that nourishes the Thackerays. This is the pattern to Shiv Sena’s actions.

It might appear that these actions are irrational, but the Thackerays’ method is cold and reasoned to squeeze out advantage. Witness the discipline of Raj. He works his strategy with great care. On national television he speaks Marathi no matter what language he is questioned in. The Marathi loves this because it reflects his defiance.

There is a second reason why the Thackerays are compelled to make a nuisance of themselves every so often. Unlike other parties, Shiv Sena has a physical presence in neighbourhoods. These offices, run by local toughs, are self-funded, meaning that they approach businesses and residents for “donations". This activity can be smooth only so long as Shiv Sena radiates menace. The party is not effective if it isn’t feared, and the grass roots reminds the leadership of this.

The Marathi pattern of resentment we have observed is visible elsewhere in time.

India’s nationalist debate a century ago was dominated by the Marathis: Tilak, Gokhale, Agarkar and Ranade. All four were Chitpavan Brahmins, whose members are fair-skinned and unique for their light eyes (like cricketer Ajit Agarkar and model Aditi Govitrikar).

Going against the current noise about Marathi in schools, Chitpavans actually demanded to be educated in English. By 1911—100 years ago—Chitpavans were 63% literate and 19% literate in English. This gave them the edge over other Indians.

All four were on the most influential body in western India of the time, Poona Sarvajanik Sabha. But English education had not exorcized the native instinct. There they unleashed their pettiness on each other. Agarkar and Tilak fought over leadership. Tilak was forced out in 1890 after quarrels over social status and money. Gokhale took his place but was opposed by Tilak who said the job required 2 hours of work daily and so it couldn’t be done by a college principal. Ranade was attacked in Tilak’s newspapers and Gokhale quit in 1895 because he couldn’t work with Tilak’s friends. A jealous Tilak sabotaged the Congress session held in Pune the same year.

When the Gujaratis—Jinnah and Gandhi—entered Congress, they immediately eclipsed the Marathis, because they had the trader’s instinct towards compromise. The Marathi Brahmin’s energy was then channelled into resentment, this time against Muslims.

RSS, founded in 1925, is actually a deeply Marathi organization. Hindutva author Savarkar, RSS founder Hedgewar, the great Golwalkar, his successor Deoras and current sarsanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat are all Marathi Brahmins.

Marathi resentment cuts down its own heroes. The first was Shivaji. Marathi Brahmins refused to crown him though he controlled dozens of forts in the Konkan. This was because he was a peasant from the cultivator caste and not a Kshatriya. He had to invent an ancestry, perform penance and bring in a Brahmin from Kashi before he could crown himself in 1674, with the title Chhatrapati, meaning leader of Kshatriyas.

The second was Ambedkar. A first-rate mind, he is seen by Marathis for his caste. The term “Ambedkarite" refers purely to the Dalit movement. Educated in America unlike Jinnah and Gandhi, he absorbed the pragmatism of John Dewey at Columbia. Ambedkar was methodical, unemotional and persuasive in all that he wrote. Europeans would classify him as an Aristotelian, against the Platonism of Gandhi. When the merchants of Mumbai voted for the city to join Gujarat during the reorganization of states, Ambedkar wrote a response that skewered their claims with finality. He did this without being parochial. He was above his caste, above his community.

Mumbai’s Marathis should be proud to own Ambedkar’s message of a universal civilization, but they cleave to the primitive charisma of the Thackerays instead.

Aakar Patel’s book on the changing world of Indian servants will be published by Random House India in 2011.

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