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Last week, at an election rally, Punjab chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi exhorted the people of his state to not let “bhaiyas" from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Delhi, allegedly keen “to rule", enter Punjab. The video went viral because he was standing next to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, in-charge of the party’s campaign in UP, and who seemed okay with the statement.

After the usual furore, Channi claimed he had been misunderstood and that he had “a close relationship with the migrants who have put their sweat and blood into the development of Punjab." He said he was referring to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leaders. But while AAP is a contender in Punjab, this explanation appears shaky. AAP has no presence in Bihar and UP. Whatever he meant, Channi’s invocation of regional chauvinism was distressful. Sadly, this kind of talk has become a regular part of state election campaigns.

During West Bengal’s assembly polls last year, its chief minister Mamata Banerjee had conjured up the threat of “bohiragato" (outsiders). She compared the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to “borgi"s, Marathas who raided Bengal every year in the mid-18th century. The horror of those annual plunders has not been forgotten—the most common Bengali lullaby, sung frequently by mothers to infants and toddlers at bedtime, recalls the helplessness of a farmer with borgis at his door.

Banerjee of course never mentioned that Alivardi Khan, the nawab of Bengal who routed the Marathas in the Battle of Burdwan in 1747 and ended the raids, was born in the Deccan and never bothered to learn Bengali during his 16-year reign. On the available evidence, neither did his grandson and successor Siraj-ud-Daulah, much glorified in Bengali popular culture as a tragic hero defeated by Robert Clive at Plassey. Interestingly, Siraj’s downfall was plotted by Jagat Seth, Bengal’s biggest banker, who had financed Clive.

But Banerjee tapped a set of popular perceptions in West Bengal with her rhetoric—that the BJP was a Gujarati party aiming to crush Bengali-hood. This, even though the BJP counts among its founders Syama Prasad Mukerjee, a Bengali whose picture is found on BJP office walls across India.

The “sons of the soil" slogan is used by almost every political party today. Many states have enacted laws reserving 75-80% of local jobs, including in the private sector, for residents of that state. On this, no state has met any resistance from opposition parties. It is the easiest bill to pass in any state, on par with those that raise the salaries of assembly members. In all cases, these private-sector job reservation laws have been challenged in courts and are in abeyance, but the politicians who enacted the law can always brag during elections that their hearts bleed more for the people than their rivals’ do.

The latest instance is Haryana, whose BJP-led government got a 75% reservation law passed last November. The state’s non-farming economy is almost entirely dependent on the industrial belt that stretches from Gurgaon through Manesar and Sohna and Bhiwadi to Dharuhera on the Rajasthan border. The India headquarters and manufacturing hubs of many Fortune 500 multinationals and big globally-competitive Indian firms are located here. The Haryana government knows very well that if the law comes into effect, many private sector firms may have no option but to downgrade operations in the state and move to safer zones. There will certainly be very few new investments. Of course, it is possible that the government secretly hopes that the courts will strike down the law, so it can have its cake and eat it too.

I have been living in Gurgaon for nearly two decades now—or rather New Gurgaon, which is the part that is hyped by the government in national and international media as Millennium City. Now, New Gurgaon is an extremely cosmopolitan place. It is not uncommon at a high-end restaurant to hear a dozen different languages, including Korean, Japanese and Swedish. Job reservations will be disastrous for Haryana’s economy.

Though a Bengali, I have spent less than one-third of my life in Kolkata and the rest in Mumbai and Delhi/Gurgaon. Unable to accept any of these cities as home, I have been ‘bohiragato’ all my life. In my Delhi kindergarten class, most teachers and students spoke only in Hindi; I was the sole ’outsider’ in a linguistic sense. Yet, I feel utterly alien in today’s Kolkata. And Delhi/Gurgaon is just a good place to work in.

When I came to Bombay as a schoolboy, the Shiv Sena (SS) was a rising force. There were regular reports of SS troopers accosting men who did not look Maharashtrian and asking them questions in Marathi. If they failed this language test, they were thrashed. The ire was directed mostly at South Indians, but everyone was fair game.

The SS once tried to stop the city’s largest Durga Puja at Shivaji Park. But when the wily organizers humbly requested Bal Thackeray to be chief guest at the puja’s inauguration, Balasaheb was pleased. He came and delivered a speech in Marathi, of which I did not understand a word, but cheered heartily. The puja was saved, but by then, fear was a rent-free tenant in the attics of our minds.

So, when Rahul Gandhi seems to stoke sub-nationalism with his “Union of states" reference in a Lok Sabha speech, or Channi speaks of “bhaiyas" as unwelcome, or state after state tries to keep jobs for locals, as someone who has always been ‘bohiragato’, I feel dismayed. But this time, I will not allow fear to slime into my mind-attic.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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