The contest is between the Shiv Sena and the MNS. But the Congress hopes to emerge victor. This is the story of Mumbai south-central. The constituency is vast and diverse, encompassing Shivaji Park, home to the Maharashtrian elite, Dharavi, the country's largest slum, and Dalit-Muslim dominated Chembur and Anushakti Nagar. The Congress' Eknath Gaikwad wrested the seat from Sena's Manohar Joshi in 2004 and retained it in 2009, thanks to the MNS.MNS candidate Shweta Parulkar got 1.08 lakh votes while Sena candidate Suresh Gambhir lost to Gaikwad by 75,000 votes. The candidates The Congress retains the edge as it holds five of the six assembly segments and the MNS, the other.
However, the Sena has pulled out all stops this time to reclaim this seat hoping to cash in on the Narendra Modi factor in a constituency that has large Gujarati dominated pockets in Sion and Matunga. Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray handpicked Rahul Shewale to take on two rivals -- Congress and the MNS -- at the same time.
One of the new generation of leaders, civil engineer-turned-politician Shewale was preferred over Manohar Joshi. Shewale, who travels in SUVs, heads the BMC standing committee and is known for his expertise in mobilising resources. Besides, he is a Dalit like Gaikwad.
The Sena also hopes that the return of ex-MLA Sada Sarwankar to its fold in Mahim will help curb the MNS influence. The MNS has fielded Aditya Shirodkar, who is not a seasoned politician. Son of Raj Thackerayfs business partner, Rajan Shirodkar, Aditya has been heading MNS' students wing with limited success.
Apart from helping his father in his construction business, Aditya runs an independent business where he provides security and housekeeping staff to various companies and societies. Like other MNS candidates, he, too, largely relies on Raj to woo the voters. The Congress' Gaikwad is a low-profile, grass-roots man.
Area under the Mumbai South-Central Constituency
The Congress is banking on Raj's determination to deny the Sena a victory in his stronghold, which also houses the Shiv Sena Bhavan. His support to Modi will further queer the pitch for the Sena, as Maharashtrian voters who want to vote for Modi could vote MNS too.
The MNS, which already controls the Dadar-Mahim belt, sees this as an opportunity to spread its wings in the neighbouring Assembly constituencies, in preparation for the state elections later this year. Gaikwad, a two-term MLA from Dharavi, which his daughter Varsha, Maharashtra's minister for women and child development, now holds, hopes to get the support of people from areas such as Chembur where Dalits are numerous.
Gaikwad's campaign managers are also confident of support in Muslim areas. He is considered a safe bet for the Congress though he has his critics. There is dissatisfaction among legislators and Congress workers in the area with his lacklustre performance as MP. In 2012 civic polls, the Congress did poorly in the Dharavi area. Defending his performance, Gaikwad said, "It's not important just to shout in Parliament and be in the news. I believe there are various forums to get work done and I have pursued all my work diligently.
According to political commentator Uttara Sahasrabuddhe, though the Congress faces anti-incumbency, Gaikwad will benefit from the MNS's presence. "The MNS is worrisome for the Sena," said Sahasrabuddhe.
Gaikwad's credentials as a Dalit leader also matter in a contest where the Sena has fielded an energetic young Dalit candidate and also has an alliance with Dalit leader Ramdas Athawale.
Citizen activists believe the corruption charges dogging the UPA will be a problem. "There is large scale inflation and prices of essential commodities have gone up. Also, Chembur and Anushakti Nagar have been neglected by Gaikwad. His opponents will benefit," said Rajkumar Sharma, Advanced Locality Management and Networking Action Committee, Chembur.