I hotfooted it down to the municipal offices in Mumbai today in the hope of catching some of the protests over water cuts. Mid-milkshake, the television had told me that these particular protests were turning rather ugly since the police had decided to employ their old trick of charging in with the lathis (nasty looking sticks that have a habit of wrapping themselves around the heads of anyone who unnerves a cop). The protests had lasted less than an hour, though, and by the time I got there only a few discarded flip-flops and a gaggle of news crews remained. At the time, the reporters were telling me that only minor injuries had been sustained, but soon after it emerged that one man (who was close to the organisers) had died, apparently of cardiac arrest or suffocation.
I got a local news reporter, Prerana Thakurdesai of Times Now television, to explain some of the background. Mumbai is no stranger to protests over water shortages, although the death was described by the Times of India as “unprecedented.” It was sparked by the municipal council’s decision to cut supplies by 15 per cent in residential suburbs in the wake of severe rain shortages in recent months. It was threatened that cuts might rise to 30 per cent, which would be bad enough except that richer suburbs are allowed to buy more water as needed, which does not go down well among those who can’t afford to do so.
However, as Prerana explained to me, today’s protests were not really about this at all. “These were pre-planned protests pushed by the Congress party to raise their image.” Although Congress runs the state, the Mumbai municipal council is in the hands of the right-wing Shiv Sena party, who also inflicted a humiliating defeat on Congress candidate Narayan Rane a couple of days ago in mayoral elections. “It’s opportunism,” said Prerana. “The parties make the most of these issues – water, migration, trains – to get the people on the street.” Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena council bods were keeping “absolutely mum” in response.
Familiar themes: opportunistic, populist politics; poor people paying the price for terrible infrastructure; rich people buying their way out of trouble. One thing I’m still struggling to understand is how a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai, which in many ways prides itself on its forward-thinking, liberal ideals, can continue to return the rabidly Hindu nationalist politicians of Shiv Sena. Much of the answer lies in the specific demographics of the city, but there is also a surprising trend by which popular politicians are able to gloss over the extremism of the parties they represent. A classic example is former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who only last week was indicted by an independent commission for his role in the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque 17 years ago. He managed to be a consensus candidate despite leading a party, the Hindu-nationalist BJP, that would look terrifyingly extremist in a different context. It will take far more India-watching before I can begin to understand how this can happen.