How Did Mumbai Spend Its Friday Evening? At PM Modi’s Rally or a Multiplex?

Politics

How Did Mumbai Spend Its Friday Evening? At PM Modi’s Rally or a Multiplex?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

O

n a Friday evening I saw an unusual sight – amid a sea of Mumbaikars heading back home was a young guy in his 20s wearing four Modi masks on each side of his head. I was on my way to the MMRDA grounds in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex, spending my Friday evening taking in the sights and sounds of the PM’s joint rally with Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and their ally Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. It was about 6 pm, and the quadruple-mask-wearer was making the best use of the sunset golden hour by taking a selfie in front of one the giant screens mounted on tempos that were parked outside the gates of the rally ground.

At selfie-time, the screens were showing IPL-style crowd shots of the audience at the rally. From where I was at the time, in the milling masses outside the entrance, I could see crane-mounted cameras swooping up and down to capture the images of the happy campers seated within. But this is 2019 and we should know better than to blindly trust the images shown to us on a screen. My scepticism was confirmed once I too had passed the security check and found my way to the venue.

Once inside, I realised that my first impression of a massive crowd had been greatly overestimating the ground realities. The first speaker on the dais, BJP MLA Ashish Shelar had already begun speaking, but over half the seats remained unoccupied. Perhaps the greater density of the crowds at the gates could be put down to the fact that queues are still an alien notion to most people, and they choose instead to cluster in a bottleneck around the gates until somehow everyone gets through. All I know is I was grateful for the breathing space after being jostled continuously on my way in by big groups chanting “Jai Shri Ram!”

If I do the math, then it seemed like more people in the city had an appetite to go see a Marvel film at the ungodly hour of 3:20 am than attend a political rally that was scheduled to start at 5 pm

Back home, when I had a chance to look up the coverage of the rally, I couldn’t find any official attendance figures, so I was unable to quantify the numbers. But I know what I saw, which was a lot of empty seats, and an approximately even ratio of political workers to ordinary citizens. Shiv Sena and BJP scarves were the hottest accessories of the evening, but I also saw groups of people wearing Nehru topis with the most favourite word of this election season – “Chowkidar” – emblazoned on them in Devanagari. Almost everyone present was sporting some sort of token of allegiance to the PM or Shiv Sena, and those who weren’t could pick up merchandise from the many stalls set up outside the rally ground. A lot like any rock concert held here.

Clearly, these were die-hard supporters of the BJP and the Shiv Sena. Or karyakartas from these parties. But where was the average middle-class, office-going Mumbaikar that the PM so keenly addressed in his speech? Portraying the Congress as anti-middle class, Modi said that it’s rule meant “high corruption, high taxes, and high inflation”.

On my way to MMRDA grounds from my office in Bandra’s Turner Road, the 15-minute drive took a little over twice that long. Nothing unusual. Just the everyday rush-hour traffic. Most Mumbaikars seemed to be in a rush to get home on Friday evening and kick-start their weekend. My rickshaw passed the office district of BKC, and contrast between those marching to rally raising slogans, and the indifferent office-goers tuning out the noise by plugging in their headphones while waiting for their buses was a glimpse at the two faces of the city. For a city that thrives on deadlines – to finish work, catch the train or the bus, to pick up groceries before the shop shuts down – a political rally is nothing but an inconvenience. It only means more hours in traffic and delays in your schedules.

But I know what I saw, which was a lot of empty seats, and an approximately even ratio of political workers to ordinary citizens.
Image credit: Getty Images

Even Mumbaikars closest to the venue – those working at BKC – seemed least interested to hop across the road from their offices and watch the PM, arguably our country’s best orator, speak. They had other plans.

Earlier that day, I’d attempted to book tickets for Avengers: Endgame. There was not a single ticket to be found, in the dozens of theatres across the city, in any of their screenings, which were running 24/7. If I do the math, then it seemed like more people in the city had an appetite to go see a Marvel film at the ungodly hour of 3:20 am than attend a political rally that was scheduled to start at 5 pm.

In any case, MMRDA grounds felt much roomier than the last time I had attended an event here, more than ten years ago. Back in 2008, heavy metal legends Iron Maiden kicked off a world tour with a performance in Mumbai, and unlike yesterday’s Modi rally, the crowd was maddening. On 1 February, 2008, I was one of 30,000 screaming metalheads, and the crowd at the rally did not feel close to as big, despite covering more ground by putting in chairs as opposed to thrown together in a mosh pit. In a way I was glad – after a long day at work I wasn’t in a mood for any moshing. I had other intentions, I was there to hear the PM speak, to listen to what promises he had for the city that goes to polls on Monday.

Yet, I didn’t even get a glimpse of Modi that evening. In fact, I was ejected from the grounds by a pair of police constables after a tiff with some BJP supporters. They were upset after we caught them on camera urinating in public, at a rally for the visionary who came up with the Swachh Bharat campaign. The irony was not lost on me. As the exchange heated up, in true Mumbai style, the cops played peacemakers. I walked out, with people staring daggers at me all along. By then, the crowds outside the gate had thinned even further.

I hadn’t been able to hear Modi speak, but apparently, neither had most of Mumbai.

Comments