In politics, it pays to bite off only as much as you can chew. Unless it’s street politics in Maharashtra, in which case it pays to go the whole hog, stuffing your mouth as much as everybody else’s you can find—with vada pav. As civic body elections approach for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), almost all political parties are at it. Playing food politics.
That this little snack was destined to attain cult status as a symbol of Maharashtrian identity would never have struck the man who first came up with it, a handcart entrepreneur who began selling it at a street corner of Mumbai in the 1930s. The vada itself was not new to Maharashtrian homes. The round lump of mashed potato, seasoned with green chilly, coriander, turmeric and salt, coated with gram-flour and deep fried (akin to the north Indian bonda), was familiar enough. But enclosed in a nicely slit squarish bun, a pav, it was an altogether new package of culinary convenience.
Since most people back then ate only what was cooked in their own trusted kitchens, the new idea took time to catch on. But as the decades rolled by, the city’s appetite for the humble vada pav swelled and swelled beyond anyone’s imagination. By one estimate, at least half a million units of this handy little snack sell in Mumbai every single day.
With mass popularity comes political appropriation. Witness, for example, the recent launch of Chhatrapati Vada Pav, a brand that seems to give the snack an added coat of valour. Behind it, however, is not the Shiv Sena, which had earlier tried to corner the Mumbai market with its homegrown brand of Shiv Vada Pav, but the Swabhiman Sanghatana, an organisation led by Nitesh Rane.
Now, Nitesh is the son of Congress leader Narayan Rane, a former Shiv Sainik, and he is candid about why he has entered this market: to end the Sena’s dominance. The strategy of Chhatrapati Vada Pav is to outflank the Sena almost one-to-one; each of its stalls will come up next to a Shiv Vada Pav stall. Oddly, however, neither of the two has bothered to reduce its price to fit the aam aadmi’s budget in these times of runaway food inflation. Both are priced at Rs 8 apiece.
Price undercutting may not yet be part of either’s battleplan, but a war of words is well and surely underway. When Mumbai’s Municipal Commissioner Subodh Kumar declared Chhatrapati Vada Pav’s stalls illegal, Nitesh dared him to shut them down. “If our stalls are illegal,” he said, “then Shiv Vada Pav stalls are also illegal. The BMC will have to shut down the Sena stalls too. Let us see who shuts us down.”
Evidently, what has got the Sena’s goat is Nitesh’s use of the name Chhatrapati. This is an insult to Chhatrapati Shivaji, the medieval-era Maratha king, according to the Sena. Many others agree. Even Chhatrapati Udayanraje, the 13th direct descendant of Shivaji, is not amused. Calling it a ‘political gimmick’ by the Ranes, he has called for an agitation against the use of his ancestor’s honorary title for a snack-vending chain. “Change the name or face the consequences,” the descendent has warned.
These are strong words, coming from someone who rarely lets himself be dragged into Shivaji-related controversies (of which there are many). Even when the brouhaha over James Laine’s book on the Maratha warrior erupted a few years ago, Udayanraje had nothing to say. So this intervention comes as something of a surprise.
Yet, for all the heated words in the media, when Nitesh Rane inaugurated the first Chhatrapati Vada Pav stall in Powai, an eastern suburb, there was no one around to protest. It is located, as planned, next to a Shiv Vada Pav stall. Perhaps the rivalry will play itself out more starkly in places like Shivaji Park, Dadar, seen as prime Sena territory.
In itself, branded vada pav has been around for about a decade. Jumbo King began about 10 years ago as a chain selling a super-sized version of the snack at its bright yellow-and-red stalls. But that was a brand name intended to convey little other than size.
Rather than size, it is taste that is being fought over in Mumbai’s market today. The Shiv Sena believes it has the winning formula. In 2008, it had held a festival inviting 27 sellers to woo Mumbaikars with their own vada pav recipes. One among these was picked as the ideal vada pav in taste, aroma and satisfaction, and this is what is available at Shiv Vada Pav’s 150 stalls across the city.
The Sena’s association with the snack goes back to the 1970s. When the party launched its agitation against Mumbai’s South Indians, it marked them out as ‘outsiders’ by the taint of their dietary habits. Heaping scorn on the idli and medu vada, the Sena advised the Marathi manoos to patronise the batata vada (the potato version) as a mark of loyalty to the land. It soon became a staple item at the party’s political rallies. The tradition continues till this day. On Gokul Ashtami, for example, the Sena runs trucks stocked with vada pav to feed all the boys forming human pyramids to smash curd-filled earthen pots, hung high in Lord Krishna’s memory above street squares, all over town.
The Sena considers the vada pav business a divinely bestowed monopoly of sorts. Since the party has controlled the BMC for over two decades, it has also found it easy to get licences for its vendors. In 1995, when the Shiv Sena-BJP combine came to power in the state, the Sena also set up zhunka bhakar centres all over. The idea was to sell one-rupee vada pav. All these centres were located on prime land and were run by party activists. However, when the saffron combine lost power to a Congress-led alliance, the licences were revoked.
The Congress, new to food politics, appears wary of the role vada pav has come to assume in Mumbai. Narayan Rane, a Congress minister in the state government, has his own son in the food fray, but his party publicly seems to disapprove of the venture. In fact, the Congress has been critical of both brands—the Sena’s and Nitesh’s. The ruling party maintains that vada pav is not really a Maharashtrian food item anyway. This is because a bulk of the state’s potatoes come from north India, and pav is of Goan origin, if anything.
In the run-up to the BMC polls, due early next year, the Congress’ own food hopes are likely to ride on kanda pohe, a preparation of onion and puffed rice that the party hails as an authentic Maharashtrian dish. The Congress plans to set up over one hundred kanda pohe stalls in the city. It has already applied for licences, which, needless to say, the Sena has declined so far.
The Congress’ biggest challenge, though, might be in coming up with an apt name for its proposed food stalls. Ridden with factionalism and unsure of what signals to send to voters at large, its food project may never get off the ground. That would leave the Thackerays and Ranes free to stuff as many mouths as they can before polling day arrives.