"When will Raj Thackeray be arrested?" The filing of charges against the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) leader has revived the question. It might be the wrong one but it did grab much media time some days ago. It then morphed into "Why hasn't he been arrested?" There were also reports that "the government has gathered the evidence" and might strike at any time. And of course the television talk shows on who is an outsider - and the cosmopolitan character of Mumbai, and the rest of it. All this followed some attacks on north Indians. Mostly on taxi drivers, who work alone and were helpless against MNS mobs.

The filing of charges has revived the 'arrest' story - which was otherwise losing ground to Munnabhai's "tying the knot" once again. Raj Thackeray has been charged with provocation with intent to cause riots, dividing people on the basis of place of birth, etc., and the rest of it. The police have also barred him from holding press conferences or public meetings till February 25. And there are police vans outside his house this moment. So when will he be arrested?

A more useful question might be: "Why is Raj Thackeray trying so hard to get himself arrested? What are his objectives - and how are they working out?" Even a token arrest could greatly further his aims. (And by the way, help the Congress, too.) If it hasn't happened so far, it's not for want of his trying.

Faced with similar situations involving Bal Thackeray during the past 25 years, all Maharashtra governments have displayed the same weak-knee syndrome. The present one has worked itself into a corner where, arrest or no arrest, the MNS leader gains where he wants to. If not arrested he gains in stature with the Sena's core constituency, just as his uncle once did. If arrested, he might well refuse bail, placing the government in a fix. And sparking off violence on the streets. Besides, the polls being not too far off adds to this heady logic.

On one count, Raj Thackeray has already scored. The main Shiv Sena is in a bind. Even as it mocks his 'antics,' it feels compelled to reiterate that it, and not he, is the defender of the Marathi people of Mumbai. Uddhav Thackeray has warned that the new airport project had better hire Marathi people only, or else.

Sena leaders worry that Raj might have touched a chord amongst their younger cadres. On the one hand, they need to broaden their base to play for bigger stakes. On the other, they have to keep their existing one intact in a time of growing distress amongst the less privileged. Meanwhile, each new MNS move adds to the pressure. Like not inviting English and Hindi channels to its press conference, but only Marathi ones. That's laced with a symbolism the Sena knows and understands well.

Even more embarrassing, while the Sena cannot condemn the attacks on north Indians, its top leader came out in defence of one north Indian. Just the one. To wit: Amitabh Bachchan. And if Raj is indeed arrested, the symbolism would be complete. In this phase, at least.

It is another matter entirely that the Raj-Uddhav rivalry unfolds as a small play on a big stage. But in the battle for the Sena's soul - if such exists - it is an important drama. It also has vital sideshows. Raj might just about have gifted Mumbai's north Indian votes to the Congress. The BJP which had a large chunk of those votes will be the loser. In turn, that would also put pressure on the Sena-BJP alliance, thus hurting the Sena in two ways. In short, an arrest could work out well for both Raj and the Congress at these levels.

That Mumbai has changed is a cliché. Reading that change means more than just counting migrants. It also means, for instance, looking at what people are migrating to and for. As Maharashtra moved from a manufacturing capital base to a speculative capital base in the 1980s and '90s, the world of its working poor transformed. What we now have is a struggle for survival at the bottom. A contest of the less privileged within the unorganised sector. A pitting of poor against poor or less well off whether Marathi or Oriya migrant - in a battle for meagre resources. So it is, across the nation. And so it happens locally, too. Except that Mumbai's scale is huge. Though it is not just Mumbai people go to. Many migrants now push towards smaller cities and towns as well.

The numbers of industrial worker jobs in Mumbai declined steadily from the mid-1970s. By 2000 many, if not most, of the major factories in and around the city shut down. The great mills had of course spun their last yarn even earlier. Countless thousands turned jobless and were left in despair. It is no accident that much of Maharashtra's communal violence over years has occurred in the zone worst-hit by the death of manufacturing. The Mumbai-Thane-Pune industrial belt.

Many of those coming to Mumbai have been from other parts of Maharashtra itself. Apart from which, says the government, over a million migrants came to Mumbai from outside the State between 1991 and 2001. Meanwhile, total employment in both public and private sectors together across the State as a whole fell. It was lesser in 2005 than it was in 2004, though the job seekers were many more.

But the peasant leaving Raigad or Ratnagiri four decades ago went on to be a worker in Mumbai. With links to the land that might take him or her home at sowing or harvest time. Today, that migrant often moves to being neither worker nor farmer. At home, agriculture is in ruins. Indeed, the farm crisis accelerates the process, pushing ever larger numbers of people out of the villages. In the cities, the certainties that once existed are gone. Quite a few end up as domestic servants.

True, some find a space in the unorganised sector. Like in construction, in and around Mumbai. But their lives are insecure and fragile. Also, across the country, contractors prefer outside workers to locals. Thousands of people come from Mahbubnagar in Andhra Pradesh to Mumbai each year seeking work. In Mahbubnagar itself, you can find workers from Orissa and Bihar, labouring on project sites. In Mumbai, by the time a high-rise building is done, workers from four or more different States might have worked on it. Migrant labour is easy to exploit. They have no unions and cannot enforce the few rights they have. Most do not know the local language. And some like brick kiln workers - just outside the city proper - even buy their food from the contractor's dalals.

Yet it is in this sector that the government sees the future. As the State's Economic Survey puts it: it is "essential to promote non-farm and unorganised sector employment." The survey notes that "employment in the organised sector has decreased continuously over the past few years. The State has about 45 per cent of its youth population in the age group of 15-40 years." They have to be "brought into the economic growth mainstream." This is a growing and volatile section that responds to "he-has-taken-your-job" mantra. The truth is there are often no jobs and the few there are keep declining. This is the constituency that the Sena and its splinter compete for, apart from the dispossessed within Mumbai themselves.

Things aren't so great in the organised sector either. The report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector is revealing. As it says of the six years leading to 2004-05: "the entire increase [in jobs] in the organised sector over this period has been informal in nature. That is, without any job or social security." And no, the poor peasant from Raigad landing up in Mumbai does not find employment in Infosys.

Different Mumbais existed earlier. But the gaps between them have grown. All of India's divides can be found within this megapolis, with bells on. Rural misery meets and merges with the urban in Mumbai, which has more dollar billionaires than many European cities. A vast pool of poor labour struggles to survive in the metro setting records for growth rates in CEO salaries. Here, the poor compete with the poor for dwindling jobs and resources. All in all, an explosion waiting to happen.

And still more and more people pour out of the villages, voting with their feet against the distress in the countryside. They come to Mumbai and other cities and towns, spurred by a search for jobs that are often not there. The base the Shiv Sena built within Mumbai's own dispossessed and those of Marathi background coming into the city is now under contest. One that might bring the contestants themselves minor dividends but which will indeed impact on the next election's outcome, in the battle of the alliances. The Raj-Uddhav rivalry might seem a play within a private sandbox against this large canvas. But it's a canvas that won't go away. Arrest or no arrest.