Mumbai needs to be like New York, not Shanghai     

If India’s cosmopolitan leviathan becomes embroiled in a quagmire of religious bigotry, the city will have itself to blame

Floods in Mumbai
Floods in Mumbai

Sanjay Jha

Both current US President Donald Trump and his vanquished rival in the 2016 presidential elections, Senator Hillary Clinton of the Democratic party, are denizens of New York, America’s gateway to global finance. Wall Street in downtown Manhattan is a perpetual fixture on the tourist calendar; people lean against the pugnacious Big Bull sculpture with a refulgent smile, often oblivious of the mortgage crisis of 2008 that was engineered by its lionized occupants.

While the capital city Washington DC houses the much-discredited establishment elite, tardy bureaucrats, a smorgasbord of think-tanks, public relations firms and scurvy lobbyists, and of course, the most powerful man in the world in 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue, New York is where the buzz is.

The Big Apple (there are several conflicting origins of why the forbidden fruit is associated with the city) is considered the bellwether of worldwide stock market indices in a hyper-connected world of foreign capital flows. But New York is not just about currency swaps, the neon signs at Times Square, the start-ups IPO listing on Nasdaq, adult shows in the by-lanes off Broadway and quaint Italian restaurants dotting Lower East Side, New York has a pulsating political pulse that throbs more than sporadically. The fact that New York Times has invariably got under the skin of President Trump is a manifestation of the city’s formidable prowess in opinion-making and affecting political chatter. Which brings me to Mumbai.

India’s commercial capital has also replicated the New York Stock Exchange model of having a snorting bull exhibit its rambunctious propensities, and the ringing of the bell by celebrity CEOs to mark the beginning of trading hours etc. But that’s where the similarity ends. Mumbai has become remarkably phlegmatic to obvious gushing political winds, often appearing to take its input from acrimonious television debates where famous TV anchors play to a choreographed government proscription. They often mistake the perpetual indignation of self-righteous conmen as gospel truth.

If New York shapes ideas and moulds opinions, Mumbai merely absorbs what is offered at face-value without even a plaintive remonstrance. Few read the daily newspapers and in the age of digital manipulation, a city with a stratospheric penetration of smartphones is easily susceptible to fake news and whataboutery conversations.

While it can be argued that news consumption habits are perhaps monochromatic all over the country, in Mumbai it is accentuated by the convincing counterfoil: people just don’t have the time to think, read or reflect.

‘The city never sleeps’ was the popular advertisement of an incidentally New York headquartered multinational bank. Restless, living edgily, jostling for space in a debilitating, dilapidated urban infrastructure that cannot even survive a torrential downpour and spending valuable hours of a lifetime in claustrophobic transportation, Mumbai has missed the political heartbeat of India. India Inc., which could have been a spark plug of independent thought has chosen to be in blissful stupefaction.
Mumbaikars — as the city’s inhabitants are often referred to — are aware that they contribute 32 % to the national exchequer through tax collections and have a municipal corporation whose annual budgetary outlay is the largest in Asia. And yet, South Mumbai parliamentary constituency that is a prized island with the country’s highest real estate prices struggles to register more than 50% voter turnout in various national to local elections. The voters are not just being nonchalant; they are messaging that they care a damn. And that should worry us all. It should, in particular, worry the Indian National Congress party.

If there is one city that best encapsulates the multicultural, pluralistic, multi-ethnic secular liberal character of India in its luminous glory, it is the capital city of Maharashtra. The city is not just about possessing a crucial 48 Lok Sabha seats to Parliament (second highest after Uttar Pradesh), Dalal Street, Big Business, investment banks, and the Grand Old Lady of Bori Bunder.

Mumbai has a towering advantage over New York; it also has Los Angeles incorporated within its glittering ambit: the famous Bollywood. Cinema mesmerises us all, and we are momentarily lifted into a wonderland of infinite possibilities. The same Bollywood where Salman Khan played Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Shah Rukh Khan ensured new-borns were named Rahul and Aamir Khan personified the revolutionary Mangal Pandey. And where another Khan (Saif Ali), whose father was the captain of the Indian cricket team, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, plays a Sikh cop in a web serial.

If India’s cosmopolitan leviathan becomes embroiled in a quagmire of religious bigotry, Mumbai will have itself to blame. The Congress party must restore Mumbai’s embellished track record of social cohesion and being a melting pot, where India effortlessly converges into one enchanting story.

It once prompted Johnny Walker to sing the classic Ye hai Bombay meri jaan. Where no cab driver is ridiculed because he has a beard, an actor is not denied staying in a housing society because he is a Muslim, where no public intellectual is splattered with blue ink all over his face at a book launch, and where bureaucrats do not post a sly tweet mocking Mahatma Gandhi. Where beef bans and cultural policing are not the zeitgeist of daily mass confabulations. The fact that the current Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has said that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will campaign in the assembly elections next month on the abrogation of Article 370 is a clear apotheosis of social sequestering using the “Other” in pernicious targeting.

Once during the time of senior Congress veterans like Rajni Patel, Sharad Pawar and Murli Deora, Mumbai was Congress party’s formidable barricade against the communal juggernaut. Mumbai needs to set the national political narrative instead of being subjected to New Delhi’s current cataclysmic Hindutva game-plan played along with its belligerent co-partner in the divisive balkanization of the city.

But for that the Congress party will have to do what it should have done earlier: make Mumbaikars politically conscious and socially aware. And make them realise their importance to the yet-enfolding India story. History is a marker in many ways; the Congress party has always done well in general elections when it has performed creditably in Mumbai. It is a no-brainer. The local foundations of the party have become tenuous; a weak Congress in Mumbai makes India’s democracy frangible.

Not Shanghai, Mumbai needs to be like New York, setting a solid pace, not being a stolid follower. The project Mumbai Reclamation needs to start now.

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