Some years ago, when Sunil Dutt was the Congress MP from North West Bombay — Bal Thackeray’s home turf — and the city was headed for a municipal election, I had an enduring lesson in what makes the Shiv Sena tick and why the Congress might find it difficult to replace the party at the local self-government level.
One day, when a leaky tap in one of the wards in Dutt’s constituency ran dry, he had a major representation of people in his office demanding immediate water supply. As is the wont with gentlemen in the Congress, Dutt picked up the phone daintily and asked the municipal commissioner to sort out the problem.
This was the first election wherein seats had been reserved for women and I was interested in talking to these wives and daughters of sitting corporators — all parties had indulged in nepotism (parties like the Shiv Sena had no independent women candidates at the time) and what I learnt from that dry tap was very interesting, The Congress candidate in that Muslim majority ward — the daughter of a sitting corporator — seemed uninterested in campaigning. When I asked her why, she said, “You saw how Dutt saab dealt with that tap issue? Now the commissioner sahib dare not ask him which ward has that dry tap. He will pass instructions down to his deputy who will pass it on to the ward officer who in turn will look for the local guy to locate the tap. That is three days and it will be another three before they find a plumber to fix it. We would have gone without water for almost a week. By contrast, the Shiv Sena man, whose wife is standing opposite me, will locate a plumber within an hour, catch him by the scruff of his neck, bring him to the tap and demand that he fix it within two hours or else. We will have water by the evening. So who would you rather vote for?”
I was not surprised then when she lost and the Shiv Sena won that election. But the party has gone on to win every municipal election since then for reasons like these even when the Congress was otherwise sweeping assembly and Lok Sabha polls.
Now the Congress is within striking distance of rupturing the Sena stronghold and that is owing in no small measure to someone who has the Sena’s measure every which way. The Congress usually does not trust its imports with crucial responsibilities but Sanjay Nirupam, the president of the Brihanmumbai Regional Congress Committee, is their bet best for he knows how the Sena works and what hurts it the most.
He has begun targeting Uddhav Thackeray, holding him responsible for the dismal state of Bombay over the last two decades. Shiv Sainiks, used to awe and reverence in respect of their leaders, have been taken aback and are begging him to cry off. I am told, Nirupam has refused. “You can call Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi names when they were not even in government and I cannot hold Uddhav responsible for something he was more closely responsible?”
It was not surprising then that, last week, Shiv Sainiks populated his roadside meetings in large numbers and rained down sticks and stones on the dais in large numbers. Nirupam escaped unhurt but one of his workers was seriously injured. The Congress is not used to this kind of pugnacity for they are always mealy mouthed but Nirupam minces no words and his combativeness is alien to the party’s style. But the Congress, perhaps, has finally found the right man to fix that leaky tap.