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Mumbai campaign highlights extremist views

Last updated on: April 29, 2009 12:15 IST

The terrace of Raj Thackeray's comfortable suburban home, with its commanding views of Shivaji Park in Mumbai, could hardly be better positioned to reflect the firebrand politician's opinions.

The Indian city's largest park is named after Chhatrapati Shivaji, a 17th-century Hindu warrior king and hero of the Marathis, the indigenous people of Maharashtra state, whose capital is Mumbai.

Like Shivaji, who terrorised the Muslim Mughal kings who came from central Asia to conquer India, Mr Thackeray, founder and president of the Marathi nationalist Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (Maharashtra Renaissance Army), is set on purging his state of "invaders" from the north - this time migrant labourers from the poorer states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

"We do not know who is a terrorist and who is a migrant worker," he says. "Enough is enough. We need to put an end to this migration."

His views may seem extreme, but Mr Thackeray represents a growing trend in India: the rise of regionalist parties campaigning in the current election on tickets of race, creed and religion. Indian politics used to be dominated by national parties, namely the centre-left secular Congress party and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

But their position has eroded so much in recent decades that there is speculation an alliance of regionalist and minority parties could form the biggest block in parliament when results are announced in mid-May. Some believe they might be able to cobble together a coalition government.

"Today, religion and above all caste have become deciders in our politics," says Gerson da Cunha, convenor of Agni, a group that campaigns for better governance.

Regionalism has its roots in the early post-independence period, when India's founding fathers divided the country into states along linguistic lines.

In Mumbai, regionalism has evolved into a toxic mix of ethnic and religious hatred that sits awkwardly besides the city's image as the home of Bollywood stars and billionaire industrialists.

In the early 1990s, hundreds of Muslims were killed in riots that the Shiv Sena, a rightwing Hindu regionalist party - led by Mr Thackeray's estranged uncle, Bal Thackeray - was accused of instigating. The Shiv Sena has denied such claims.

Mr Thackeray's own supporters have also been implicated in ethnic violence, last year beating up taxi drivers and samosa sellers from northern states.

He has also criticised Amitabh Bachchan, a Bollywood patriarch and Mumbai resident, for his loyalty to his birth place of Uttar Pradesh.

Sitting in his study opposite a signed original Walt Disney cartoon, Mr Thackeray, an avid comic artist, says he has nothing against non-Marathis, he just wants to stop new migrants who undercut locals on jobs and add to the city's vast slums.

"The locals here should be fed first and then outsiders. And I think every state and every country has a similar policy," he says.

Abu Azmi, a prominent Muslim businessman and the Mumbai leader of the Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party, worries that such policies will cause migrants to flee, leave the state short of labour, and undermine its industrial pre-eminence. "Muslims are not getting justice here," Mr Azmi says.

The Congress party candidate for south Mumbai, Milind Deora, argues that communalism is being used by parties such as the Shiv Sena, which runs Mumbai's local government, as a cover for poor performance. He says: "They've failed to deliver on core issues such as sanitation and drainage. They try to distract people by bringing in a social agenda."

At Mr Thackeray's house, the morning is passing and a crowd of supplicants is gathering at the gate. As he winds up the interview, he smiles when asked about his views on Adolf Hitler, for whom he has expressed an admiration, saying everyone has a good and bad side.

"Now whether it is Adolf Hitler or Mahatma Gandhi, I respect and appreciate both in equal measure," Mr Thackeray says. "I respect (Hitler) for his love for his country and not for the extermination of Jews. I respect him for his development work."

Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2009

Joe Leahy in Mumbai
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