Byline by M J Akbar: Licence to drive, everywhere
An Opposition talks [when it is not dumb]. Government acts [when it is not indolent]. A Government is measured by what it does. The Government of Maharashtra says that Mumbai belongs to every Indian, but decides that its 24,000 taxi licences belong only to a language-specific group. There is the usual fudge around the decision, typical of a Government which wants to hunt with the Shiv Sena and run with the Bihari vote.
One wonders if each licensee will actually be driving the cab himself. Here is a much more likely scenario: mid-level businessmen ready to deal with the rough and ready side of Mumbai, in cahoots with politicians on both sides of the fence, will pick up the licences and then hire cab drivers at competitive wages. Since eager Biharis — that term includes people from Uttar Pradesh, signalling the cultural power of Bihar — will be ready to work for lower wages than Mumbaikars, they will be eventually hired. It is a cheaper route to the status quo for both the politician and the businessmen; the first gets cheap votes and the second gets cheap labour.
There is something odd about the controversy. Common sense suggests that it is in any taxi driver’s interest to pick up the local language: why would he want to lose business by ignorance of the passenger’s language? A taxi driver does not need to be literature doctorate; just know enough language to be cordial and communicative. The whip-up is more about politics than jobs, which is why it is riddled with inconsistency. Nationalism always falters against chauvinism, unless nationalism becomes chauvinist. Thus, the Shiv Sena or its antagonist offshoot headed by Raj Thackeray, will demand the return of an Akhand Bharat from the Khyber Pass to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, but deny an impoverished fellow-Indian marginal space in Mumbai.
The sharpest tweak to the Sena froth came not from its foes but from its friend, the BJP, which raised an interesting contradiction. How could the Sena, which opposed Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir, demand protective restrictions for Mumbai? There was no answer, of course, because there isn’t one. My regret is that the question has not been asked more often. But it was a relief to witness all national parties taking on the Senas not only on Mumbai but also on their menacing and communal threats to Shah Rukh Khan. The BJP’s support to Shah Rukh was important not only for the actor but also for the party. It was an opportunity for the BJP to move a step or two away from its image, and it did so. Is it compulsory to hate Pakistan and Pakistanis in order to live in Mumbai? Is that the new oath you have to take before Bal Thackeray? Will the Senas send squads to drive the Prime Minister out of Delhi because he has agreed to restart talks with Pakistan?
There was a time when investment in conflict offered regular returns. The Senas have not understood a basic message from a series of humiliating electoral defeats: significant sections of the Indian electorate, and increasing numbers of the urban young, have decided that this is arid yield from a low-return idea. They understand something that seems to have escaped politicians at the apex: economic growth cannot co-exist with a culture of intimidation and violence. Indians have not fallen in love with their neighbour. Emotion, in any case, is unnecessary baggage. But war has never raised the living standards of men, unless you have notions of becoming an imperial ruling class, and that doesn’t work anymore, thank heaven.
A taxi driver has an iconic status, a signature presence, in any great city — and Mumbai is one of the great urban centres of the modern world. It must sustain both aspects: it must belong to the world, and remain modern as well. A city either grows or decays; it cannot stay stagnant. Mumbai cannot grow by becoming isolationist, nor can Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore or Chennai. Kolkata gave shelter and nourishment to the Sikh taxi driver without demanding he learn Bengali; but he did learn Bengali, and today his children have passed out from schools and got jobs. That is what a great city does; it welcomes the forlorn and lifts them. Mumbai’s extraordinary film industry is the most exciting meeting place of India; its skyscrapers were built with steel from Jamshedpur; its markets are full of food and goods from India and the globe. Mumbai does belong to Maharashtra, but it is also the present and future of India.