Maharashtra: Whose Mumbai is it, anyway?
When the Vilasrao Deshmukh government finalised what is now Atal Setu, the idea was to decongest Mumbai and offer speedier, affordable public transport
By the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the sea bridge christened Atal Setu and hogged the credit, the original plan to decongest the city had been junked in favour of connecting the metropolis to a ‘Third Mumbai’, complete with resorts, weekend homes and assisted living for senior citizens.
As with other infrastructural projects in and around Mumbai, the sea bridge too was conceptualised and initiated by a non-BJP government. Earlier plans visualised metro rail lines, local railways, bus services, integrated residential complexes with schools, colleges and hospitals, industrial spaces and shopping malls as part of the plan. The idea was to decongest Mumbai, connect the two ports and offer speedier, more affordable public transport.
It was the Vilasrao Deshmukh government which finalised the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL), billed as the longest sea bridge in India at 22 km. Various Congress and Shiv Sena governments in the state conceptualised, finalised and initiated the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, the Eastern Freeway, and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link projects as well.
The Mumbai-Pune Expressway, designed to cover the distance between two cities in two hours by road, was planned after the helicopter carrying then chief minister Sharad Pawar to an important meeting could not clear the Western Ghats owing to strong headwinds, and it took him five hours by road to reach Mumbai. The plans for the expressway were delayed, however, with local villagers opposing the land acquisition.
Before the acquisition and rehabilitation could be sorted out, the Congress government fell in 1995. The Shiv Sena-BJP government then resorted to bulldozing the villages rather than building consensus. The next Congress-NCP alliance government would open up the expressway to all traffic barring heavily laden trucks — but found resentful villagers resorted to looting motorists and mugging them after dark. Finally, things settled once the villagers were rehabilitated and highway patrols introduced.
The Bandra-Worli Sea Link was also initiated by the Congress and partially built by the Shiv Sena government. Protesting Koli fishermen, whose homes were going underwater (as was Chaitya Bhoomi, the Babasaheb Ambedkar memorial in Dadar), forced the government to change alignments. It was left to the next Congress government to complete the project.
The Eastern Freeway, however, faced no opposition. Shopkeepers and residents of back lanes in South and Central Mumbai, despite the freeway passing within inches of their windows in places, recognised the need for this public utility and allowed the project to go through without protest.
However, the road that was meant to connect the Worli end of the Sea Link to Chowpatty was designed to pass through Peddar Road, on which lived India’s nightingale, Lata Mangeshkar. Mangeshkar and her fans argued that the dust would kill her voice and forced the project into cold storage.
All in the family party?
“If dynastic politics has ruined the country, what are you doing with so many dynasts standing behind you?” questioned Supriya Sule, Nationalist Congress Party MP and daughter of Sharad Pawar. “Make sure that if you point a finger at someone, three fingers do not point back at you,” she said, responding to the prime minister’s familiar diatribe against dynasts and dynastic politics while inaugurating the sea bridge.
Sitting behind the PM were chief minister Eknath Shinde, deputy chief ministers Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar, minister for food and civil supplies Chhagan Bhujbal, and several other dynasts.
Shinde’s son is an MP. Fadnavis’s father was a legislator before him and his aunt was a minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP government of 1995. Ajit Pawar was groomed in politics by uncle Sharad Pawar, and has plans for his son to run for a Lok Sabha seat again this year. Bhujbal’s nephew was MP while he was a minister in the Congress-NCP government, and his son happens to be an MLA…
Milind Deora’s resignation from the Congress to join the Shiv Sena faction led by Eknath Shinde, the Maharashtra chief minister, created few ripples in the city — but caused a storm in a teacup on social media.
The Indian National Congress had nominated Deora to contest the Lok Sabha seat from South Mumbai both in 2014 and in 2019; he lost on both occasions. He was nevertheless made a joint treasurer with Ajay Maken, but the son of Murli Deora still felt slighted enough to leave the party.
He chose the day that Rahul Gandhi started on his Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra to make the announcement. His minders clearly decided on the timing, leaving him with no choice.
Ideally, he would have preferred to join Uddhav Thackeray’s party to Eknath Shinde’s faction — largely because the Thackerays and the Deoras have been friends for a long time, and the younger generation in both families moves in the same social circuit. Milind’s mother Hema Deora is also a friend of Uddhav Thackeray’s wife Rashmi Thackeray.
But Thackeray, who enjoys a cordial relationship with Sonia Gandhi, was not about to either hurt the family or jeopardise the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance by admitting a rebel. Moreover, his sitting MP Arvind Sawant had defeated Deora twice in the past and stood steadfastly by Thackeray despite the split in the party.
So according to Vinayak Raut, a close confidante of Thackeray, his party made no bones about telling Deora that they would not betray Sawant or hurt the Congress-MVA alliance. Deora thus had nowhere to turn but Shinde, who is currently facing the same issue that Thackeray did when he first took over the party: a lack of suitable candidates, articulate in English and from a non-goonish background who would be acceptable to the classes as well as the masses.
As for Deora, does he have that common touch? The jury is still out.
Hindutva’s older brother
Union minister Narayan Rane caused a flutter by questioning the standing of the Shankaracharyas in Hindu society, going so far as to ask what their contribution to Hinduism has been.
Rane may have been ignorant about the Adi Shankaracharya and his four mutts that carry forward the tradition, but his gaffe allowed political rivals to question his own ‘Hindu’ credentials. Uddhav Thackeray, said to be the only opposition leader not invited to the consecration of the Ram Temple, called for Rane’s sacking from the Modi cabinet.
Thackeray will be on his own Ram circuit in Nashik on 22 January — the city is full of places associated with Lord Ram’s exile. Indeed, the city gets its name from the Panchvati forest episode where Lakshman cuts off Ravana’s sister Shurpanakha’s nose — nasika in Sanskrit. Nashik has several Ram temples and various ponds where the trio are said to have bathed.
Thackeray has also invited President Droupadi Murmu to lead the puja at the famed Kalaram temple on 22 January. While she is unlikely to accept the invitation, he is clearly practising his own brand of Hindutva — and scoring a point with the inclusivity of inviting a tribal leader to lead the puja.