The Congress Party leader in Bombay, Murli Deora, a member of Parliament from South Bombay, has promised to sponsor a law that would allow longtime renters here to buy their apartments for a hundred times the monthly rent.
Since many old rents are very low, this would allow many renters to become owners. It would also attack the problem of landlords who neglect their buildings--even sabotage them--in an effort to drive out tenants.
Deora, a former mayor of Bombay and one of the impressive young leaders in Gandhi's party, has promised the slum dwellers, who account for more than half the city's votes, that the party will not drive them from their homes.
"We have accepted the slums as part and parcel of the city," Deora said. "We cannot eradicate them. We must improve them."
The main beneficiary of the housing issue, however, is one of the dark figures of Indian politics, a 59-year-old former political cartoonist and charismatic leader named Bal Thackeray, whose father took the name of the 19th-Century English writer William Makepeace Thackeray.
An Admirer of Reagan
Bal Thackeray is an admirer of President Reagan and the late Walt Disney--he can wax lyrical about the order and cleanliness of Disneyland. He has led his Shiv Sena (Army of Shiva) political party in a campaign against the slum dwellers and other "outsiders." He has vowed to remove them, by force if necessary.
On the surface, his movement, one of the few populist political machines in South Asia, is based on the idea that Bombay has been taken away from its original inhabitants, the Maharashtrans. His slogan is "Maharashtra for the Maharashtrans."
But the movement's young followers use it more as a vehicle for their outrage at the condition in which they find their city and their lives. In their view, if they are unemployed, it is because one of the pavement dwellers has deprived them of work; if they cannot afford a nice apartment it is because it has been taken by an outsider; the filth on the streets is because of outsiders.
"I want discipline, that's all," Thackeray said. "The (pavement dwellers) don't have any civic pride. They put dirt on the footpaths. They pay no taxes. They pay no rent. They have no responsibilities."
Thackeray's critics call him a fascist and a demagogue. But the tide of public opinion seems to be sweeping his way. In the last municipal elections, his party, which he administers with dictatorial powers, won 80 of the 170 seats in the municipal council, compared to only 30 for the Congress-I. An Army of Shiva man is now mayor of Bombay, and Thackeray calls him "my mayor."
As for being a fascist, Thackeray simply laughed.
Refutes Fascist Label
"People may think I am a chauvinist or a fascist or a provincial man. But what I have done is save the young bloods in this town from turning to communism. I should be thanked," he said.
Other leaders in Bombay may disagree, but at least one prominent Bombay resident, Palkhivala, the lawyer, agrees on at least one score--that the political climate here is unstable because of the city's explosive growth.
"I see a time," Palkhivala said sadly, "when law and order may break down completely."