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Smuggler City to Smart City: Masculine City-Making on the Urban Periphery

By Lalitha Kamath and Radhika Raj

This is the story of one man’s self-making through the making of a city[1]. Starting off as associates of the well-known gangster Dawood, dreaded ‘dons’ Hitendra Thakur and his brother enabled explosive growth at the peripheries of Mumbai through the 80s and 90s by grabbing land, controlling water supply, and building chawls and apartments. With the onset of neoliberal governance and decentralisation reforms, however, we see a negotiation with the changing ideals animating urban India. Self-making of Thakur progressed through the merging of both business and governance interests: standing for assembly elections, and building an empire based on real estate, education, hotels. Today, the gangster turned benevolent patriarch of a rising city is (fondly and fearfully) called “Appa” (father) by all. City-making moved in tandem with the formation of a political party by Appa, formulated on the plank of ‘bahujan vikas’, a promise of inclusive progress for minorities and backward castes, along with the determined wooing of private investors, and the marketing of Vasai Virar as a real estate destination. By 2009, the transformation of both Thakur and Vasai Virar was rendered complete by the formation of the democratically elected Vasai Virar Municipal Corporation. With this, the former don became the business tycoon cum ruling patriarch and Vasai Virar was projected as the next “smart city”.

At the core of both narratives of powerful transformation is the performance of masculinity – one that is personalised and imbued in city governance networks and spaces. Recent writings on political strongmen in South Asia view their politics as muscular, with its appeal rooted in the concept of ‘mardangi’ or manliness, harking back to masculine ideals of honour, valour, and strength (Hansen 2005). In this essay, however, our study of strongman politics reveals how muscular posturing frames new city-wide domains of neoliberal infrastructure, cultural spectacle, and inclusive gender representation in electoral politics. This makeover from a ‘goonda’ to a more ‘genteel’ masculinity is geared toward representing a strongly aspirational middle class identity, which  is not a unilinear, stable transition, as it reveals  frequent slippage back into violence. This has strong bearing upon how urban residents experience themselves as men/women in the city, how they perform and negotiate their gendered identities.

The Gangster and His City

The figure of the gangster, especially in Mumbai, has been associated with ambivalent heroism. Most of them are often portrayed as flawed heroes in Bollywood with a cinematic larger-than-life quality and their stories are told with relish and pride. Appa’s story similarly ties spectacular violence and revolutionary social transformation into a single narrative, as he emerges as the patriarch of a rising city.

“I was a child when Appa used to come to our locality and a crowd would gather just to see him … People in the 90s were enamoured by the ‘dada’, the ‘don’ then. It didn’t matter that he had a criminal background. No police, no revenue department, no Mahanagarpalika is stronger than him,” said a journalist during an interview. His party members often speak of how easy it was to meet Appa and approach him even for “private matters”.

Though generosity and violence may seem like antithetical qualities, we argue that they are both registers of a type of sovereign masculinity that is familiar to Indian democratic politics. It is the skillful straddling between the role of benevolent father and autocratic tyrant that enables Appa’s effective control of place and consolidation of willing, loyal subjects. While this sort of following hinges on the big man’s style and demeanour, it is also a result of deliberate manipulation of opinions, of designed spectacles that produce consent and of electoral strategies. Appa’s charisma is both inherent within his performative style – his deep voice, his habit of remembering every person by name, his anger, his love, his flamboyant speeches, and the multiple rumours of illicit activities that surround him – but it is also deliberately produced through party propaganda and carefully crafted spectacles, such as the victory rally.

A year ago, at a spectacularly staged Vijaya Melava (Victory Rally), where Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, his political party, celebrated a majority at the local municipal elections, the patriarch underscored the deep connections between Vasai Virar and its ruling patriarch. “Call me mafia, call me a thief, call me what you want but keep talking about metoday if you say Appa, the other person will say ‘Vasai Virar’”. As the crowd cheered and whistled, Appa went on to threaten those who dared to harm “his people”. “Hitendra Thakur does not forget,” he said to thunderous applause. The violence contained in his threats is not a mere warning, but also a resource that is harnessed, time and again, to keep the city, and those who dare to stand against him, in line.

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Large posters with a series of mugshots of local youth leaders wishing Appa’s son, Kshitij Thakur (top left) dotted the landscape of Vasai Virar a few days before his birthday.

The party’s culture revolves around Appa’s charisma, the intimate relations he develops with his subjects and his style of doing things that is both efficacious and violent. Young men in Vasai Virar are generously rewarded for their unquestioning loyalty and ability ‘to get the job done’ with key party positions within their neighbourhood, turning them into unofficial local guardians, while simultaneously enabling surveillance across his territory. In the absence of stable employment opportunities on the peripheries, these coveted roles allow men the chance to establish their own fiefdoms and rise in the ranks of the party, while women remain in supporting roles as devoted wives and daughters, assisting in election campaigns, participating in cooking competitions, and turning up in large numbers for rallies. City-making and control over the territory thus remains a masculine domain limited to those men who can wield power through Appa’s rhizomatic network.

This type of regime engenders a precarious, violent city that mimics the persona of its beloved and feared patriarch. Names of neighbourhood signify terror and violence. For instance, ‘Laden Nagar’ is allegedly named after Osama Bin Laden or ‘Chota Pakistan’ a term derogatorily used to describe predominantly marginalised Muslim areas across the country. Unsurprisingly, Vasai Virar’s most precarious regions, known for “illegal” constructions, gruesome murders, and virtual absence of state provided services, are also Appa’s electoral strongholds. It is the very strength of Appa’s violence that signals the ability to protect interests of voters in areas where there is no other champion.

The turn to neoliberal governance since the 1990s in India, with its pressures for conforming at least outwardly to greater efficiency and public participation, has contributed to a change in the performance of masculinity. This transition is marked from father to son, from Appa to Kshitij. 

A Genteel Masculinity to Suit a New Urban Imagination

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Appa’s recent propaganda material tries to move away from his gangster persona towards a more ‘genteel masculinity’. The above image showcases Thakur’s renewed vision for Vasai Virar.

In 2009, Appa announced that he would not be standing for assembly elections and hand over the seat to his 25-year-old son, Kshitij. Importantly, the election of Kshitij marked a new masculine youth politics that was starkly different in style and organization from his father’s. Kshitij had recently returned from the United States with an MBA. Unlike senior party politicians, he presents to the world a male body that is marked as ‘educated’ and ‘civilised’. He is suave, comfortable in English, tech-savvy, and often seen driving around the city in an expensive Lamborghini. His long list of degrees is purposefully mentioned during every interview. He presents himself as an “anti-politics” politician, who does not treat politics as a money-making business; instead, he talks about corporate governance. As his father’s son, he also possesses the metonymic charisma of Hitendra Thakur and by extension the support of the party. At his first speech to a raucous crowd of supporters, Kshitij, dressed in jeans, remarked that he knew that the crowd that had gathered for his “papa” was now ready to stand behind him. “If you close your eyes and listen to him, you will hear Appa speaking,” said a party member after one of his speeches. That year, Kshitij won with a large margin of over 40,000 votes. Overnight he emerged as the new face of BVA and soon unveiled a different style of strongman politics, marked by a more genteel masculinity. 

Extending beyond his father’s promise of development in the form of better services for the ‘bahujan’, Kshitij deployed a neoliberal imagination in the form of a ‘Smart City’ to be built on 1500 acres of reclaimed salt pan land, along the lines of many corporate parks in Mumbai and in Singapore. Widely popularised before 2015 municipal elections as ‘Kshitj Thakur’s Vision for Development’, the plan included the development of several theme-based townships with world-class architecture, international brands, and colleges that would cater to different aspirational and employment needs of the growing youth.

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Kshitij Thakur introduced a new style of politics that depended heavily on social media networks and appealed to the youth.

The new blueprints developed by foreign consultants painted a dream of turning Vasai Virar into a global destination. Vasai Virar has long suffered as Mumbai’s backward, ignored backyard where unfit populations and hazardous industries were dumped, so Mumbai could realise its ‘world-class’ dreams. The father and son’s renewed narrative for the city centres around reinventing it for its native population, Vasaikars, so that they could reverse generations of perceived neglect and harness city pride. “A man from Vasai Virar should not just wake up, go to Mumbai, come back and sleep here. All his needs should be developed in our area…,” Kshitij said.

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An election campaign poster showcases one of Bahujan Vikas Aghadi’s female candidates.

An important part of the discourse of corporate governance is the adoption of inclusive rhetoric. This is particularly seen in the field of electoral politics. State mandated equal gender representation (manifested as reservation of 50 percent seats for women) has been effectively repurposed to reinforce particular notions of genteel masculinity and domesticated femininity. Elected women comprised 50% of the municipal corporation seats but most remained on the sidelines, and restricted themselves to portfolios that dealt with the household or women and children. During their tenure, their husbands/fathers often sat in their elected representative offices and tackled the important business of city building and governance. Posters of women candidates introduced them as worthy wives, mothers or sisters, emphasised their educational qualifications, and typified a certain type of domesticated feminine looks.

The notion of genteel masculinity conveys ideas of some restraint or remove from violence, particularly by its key protagonists. By no means, it implies the elimination of violence. A year ago, Kshitij was caught and fined by an inspector for speeding. In retaliation, the inspector was thrashed by at least three MLAs outside the state legislative complex. While the inspector was temporarily suspended, the MLAs walked out of jail the same day. “Now that he had been to jail like most of his seniors,” his father joked during a meeting, “he is truly fit to become the new face of BVA.” It reveals that ‘genteel masculinity’ clearly has an inner core of steel and the reputation of the family as strongmen of Vasai Virar who depend heavily on violence. This also reiterates that vigilante justice remains intact. 

Conclusion

While this story represents an alignment of masculinity, class/caste, and violence, it troubles easy association of these categories in fixed and unilinear ways. Identities that are mobilized by this masculine governance are not exclusively associated with a particular (lower) class but rather seek to transition from focus on the lower caste/class ‘bahujan’ from a neglected, edge city to one of ‘middle class citizen’ in a soon to be global city. This is a nativist politics, built on the perceived neglect faced by local Vasaikars from the mega city of Mumbai, but with a neoliberal twist – strongman politics consciously constructs middle class citizens as allies of neoliberal capital. The transformative potential of this new category of ‘middle class’ is in the promise it holds out to all groups to become members. Actual opportunities for poor groups to own land or a house or achieve upward social mobility remain frustratingly few. Kshitij’s constituency Nalasopara, home to some of the poorest, most vulnerable and stigmatised populations, is a case in point. In this seemingly unbridgeable gap lies the vulnerability of this neoliberal strongman politics and the potential for spawning more violence.

[1] This research is an ethnographic study conducted between August 2013 and 2015. It forms part of a three-year comparative study titled, ‘People, Places and Infrastructure: Countering Urban Violence and Promoting Social Justice in Mumbai, Durban & Rio De Janeiro’ hosted at the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

References
Hansen, Thomas Blom. 2005. “Sovereigns beyond the State: On Legality and Authority in Urban Asia,” in T. B. Hansen and Finn Stepputat (eds), Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants, and States in the Postcolonial World, pp. 1-36. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Bios:
Lalitha Kamath is an Associate Professor at the School of Habitat Studies, in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Radhika Raj has an MPhil from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her research has focused on exploring gender in the city through an ethnographic lens. She is a former journalist and has worked with some of India’s leading broadsheets.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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