What led to Maharashtra’s poverty of leadership (Comment)

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS
Friday, November 5, 2010

Although the Congress’ decision to exclude Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan from its election campaign in Bihar is not headline news at the national level, it still has damaging implications for the party.

Chavan is the second chief minister to be kept out of Bihar. The first was his Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi. In the latter’s case, the decision - though formally the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) - was in response to Janata Dal-United (JD-U) leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s objections on account of Modi’s anti-minority reputation.

In Chavan’s case, however, the decision is his own party’s. What is more, it has nothing to do with any unavoidable or wilful administrative lapses or political motivation, as in Modi’s case, but with the charges of corruption which Chavan is facing.

As a result, it is something of a first. It is not often that a chief minister - and that too of such a large and important state like Maharashtra - turns out to be so much of an embarrassment for his party that he cannot be allowed to go on a public stage. In this respect, the Congress as well as Maharashtra has much to be ashamed of.

In a way, Maharashtra’s decline has been quite precipitous. There was a time when it was regarded as one of the best-run states and Bombay, as it was known till 1995, a model metropolis, which was replacing Calcutta, as it was known till 2001, as India’s premier town.

Although the standards of politicians were nowhere near that of Tilak and Gokhale, Maharashtra still had in Y.B. Chavan someone competent enough to be summoned to New Delhi at a time of national crisis to replace V.K. Krishna Menon as defence minister after the Chinese invasion. After Chavan’s departure from the state, there has been no one who can be held up as someone worthy of emulation. Sharad Pawar showed promise for a while but did not live up to it.

It is the poverty of leadership in recent years and the earlier bifurcation of the former Bombay state into Maharashtra and Gujarat that are responsible for the state’s decline and fall. The roots of parochialism, which were sown during the Samyukta (united) Maharashtra movement, are eroding its reputation today. Not surprisingly, one of the leaders of the agitation was Prabodhankar Thackeray, whose son, Balasaheb, set up the Shiv Sena in 1966, a fascistic outfit which thrives on violence and the targeting of vulnerable groups like Muslims and north Indian vendors and taxi drivers.

What is unfortunate is that if the Congress had been true to its pluralistic principles, it could have routed the Sena soon after its formation. Instead, the party nurtured the Sena surreptitiously in order to use its cadres to attack and undermine the communist trade unions.

Over the years, fascism triumphed over communism - as it did in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s - and well-known communist and socialist leaders of Maharashtra like S.A. Dange, Madhu Dandavate and Mrinal Gore gradually lost their influence. The main gainer was the Congress, for the Sena was destined to remain a minor party. But the loser was the state, which earned a reputation for intolerant sectarianism because of the Sena’s depredations.

It was perhaps inevitable that the Congress’ political pusillanimity in the matter of countering the Sena’s parochialism would foster leaders who would be unable to evoke respect and admiration. Chavan, therefore, is not an oddity, but the outcome of a clear declining trend.

One of the first signs of this fall was the inadequacies which Sudhakar Naik displayed as chief minister during the Mumbai riots of December 1992 after the Babri masjid demolition. Despite pleas from prominent citizens for firm steps against the lawless elements, Naik remained a virtual helpless spectator of the outbreak while the previously highly rated Mumbai Police disgraced itself by its communal outlook, which can be directly ascribed to the insidious influence of the Sena on the lower levels of the force.

Although the Congress, which lost power after the riots, regained it in 1999 and has managed to hold on to it, the reason is not the party’s shining image, but the failures of the BJP and the Shiv Sena (which split in 2006) to provide a credible alternative. But neither Maharashtra nor Mumbai has been able to recover the kind of prestige that they enjoyed in the middle of the last century.

While Kolkata has degenerated even more than Mumbai, it is cities like Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai which have emerged as new hubs of the corporate sector. New Delhi too is no longer the sleepy, bureaucratic town it used to be.

Mumbai is still the country’s financial capital and the home of Bollywood. But it is living on borrowed time and past prestige. While the underworld “dons” are no longer as active as before, it is the political “dons” of the Shiv Sena and its offshoot, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which are the bane of those who come into Mumbai from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere to earn a living.

And “rulers” like Chavan, who is mired in a housing society scam, let the two Senas survive because they undercut each other during elections.

(06.11.2010 - Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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