A ROSE BY ANY other name smells just as sweet and any Indian city by any other name would be just as decrepit. And there is not a soul, dead or alive, in the country who does not know it either. But here we are once again with the prime minister in a speech addressing Hyderabad as Bhagyanagar. A couple of weeks ago, the last act of the Uddhav Thackeray government in Maharashtra was to rename two cities—Aurangabad to Sambhajinagar and Osmanabad to Dharashiv. The former of the two was in fact a proposal lying in the attic of Shiv Sena for decades to be pulled out when necessary and what could have been more appropriate than a death knell for desperate measures.
But it is not the politicians we must quibble with for a gimmick so obvious that there is not even a pretence now that it is anything more than an election tactic. It is the voter on whose shoulders this burden of being willing to be manipulated must rest. For either, one of the two things is true—renaming pays dividends or they don’t. If it doesn’t work, then there is no reason for politicians to pull this card out with clockwork regularity for every election.
What does renaming of a place appeal to? The sense of historical injustice. Note that these cities that are now sought to be renamed all bear Muslim names. The Hindu vote is the most valuable one because that is the mood of the moment. Earlier, it was British names that were being changed, as when Bombay became Mumbai and Madras became Chennai, and at that time, the flavour of the season was regionalism. You can make a fair bet that at some point of political desperation, India will be changed to Bharat or Hindustan. It is such an old trick that cobwebs have gathered over it but remains one with a payoff.
One could ask what is the harm in it since it is legitimate political action and far better than other dangerous populist measures like the feeding of violence or economic misadventures. Fair point, but the problem with renaming is that it clouds the real issues that a city needs to address. Making Bombay Mumbai has done nothing to the slow and certain degradation since the name change. This week, the city once again went under with a big downpour of the monsoon. Daily commute remains a horror story; no one can afford a house; police, municipal and political corruption has only increased, and so on. The renaming of Mumbai is touted as an achievement because all the other things that make lives better as a resident of the place have gone down. It is the only line item of the resume hiding the unruly scrawl beneath it. The only itch that renaming serves to scratch is pride and it gets traction because Indians have given up expecting anything better when it comes to better surroundings. When the present is hopeless, one lives in the past.