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How Congress chiefs are selected in the city

Over the years, the chosen heads of Mumbai’s Congress party have evolved from being highly educated elites from the island city to candidates coming from across the suburbs.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2012 01:24 IST
Ayaz Memon

The Congress party chief’s post in the city has been occupied by some fascinating and colourful personalities — Rajni Patel and Murli Deora come readily to mind — but none perhaps as compelling as Kripashankar Singh, who resigned last week. Had there not been serious allegations of graft and financial chicanery ranged against him currently, Kripashankar Singh, whose stint as Bombay Regional Congress Committee (BRCC) president was rather brief, would have made a fantastic case study for business schools. After all, how many guys could there be in the world who start out as vegetable vendors and are worth almost $100 million within a couple of decades!

In a sense, his meteoric rise would have been a wonderful tribute to the mercantile ethos of Mumbai, which promotes entrepreneurship like no other city in the country. It may be crumbling where infrastructure, transportation and some other aspects are concerned, but Mumbai still provides opportunity to not only dream the big dream, but also to actualise it. For a few years before his recent travails, the more debatable aspect of Kripashankar’s public life had to do with his educational qualifications.

Frankly, though, that would not have bothered anyone too much. There are umpteen examples from business, entertainment and public life of school and college drop-outs who have either reached positions of great eminence, or changed the world, or made billions. Alas, the legitimacy of his massive wealth, which is now under dispute, puts Kripashankar beyond the pale of being clubbed in this category till the courts clear him.

But his ascent to power is a noteworthy story in itself, of how the Congress’s politics has evolved in Mumbai and of the people they’ve chosen to head the party here. In the early days, Congress chiefs — or at least the prominent faces of the party here — were drawn from the highly educated upper crust and primarily from the island city. Lawyers, barristers, industrialists, social workers with proven merit made the cut. It could, of course, be argued, that this was almost true of the country’s political scenario.

But let me get back to the Congress and Mumbai post-Independence. Before the BRCC was formed, there was SK Patil, an eminent lawyer, scintillating orator and fiery politician who was the party’s most significant representative in the city apart from being a three-time Member of Parliament (MP).

Patil strode the city like a colossus. He wielded power without compunction and was widely feared. I was in primary school in 1967 when Patil was felled by trade unionist George Fernandes in the general elections and remember there was widespread astonishment, but also great delight. I suppose this was because of empathy for the underdog as much as disenchantment with the Congress.

By the time Rajni Patel became the BRCC president, Bombay was beginning to acquire new political hues. It was no longer a Congress monopoly, at least at the assembly and municipal levels. The Shiv Sena was making rapid inroads, at least in the minds of the sons of the soil. Rajni Patel may not have had the aura of Patil (who had been a freedom fighter and a Maharashtrian) but was no less powerful for that. A bar-at-law, a man of fine taste, and not a little arrogant, he ran the city on his fingertips as it were. More than the BRCC office, it was his residence at Eden Hall in Worli that became the centre of power. But power went to Patel’s head, the story goes, and the high command moved swiftly to cut the ground from under him.

Patel’s fall from grace marked a shift towards more egalitarian candidates like Murli Deora, who started life as a social worker, then became a corporator and finally an industrialist residing at Peddar Road. He was the BRCC president for 22 long years, and after a failed attempt, has been a many-time MP from one of the toniest areas of South Mumbai.

Deora’s approach was based less on power-play and more on net-working, especially with the industrialists based here.

Traditionally, BRCC chiefs (or SK Patil earlier), are necessarily fund-raisers for the party (doubling up sometimes as lobbyists for business houses) and nobody did it better than Murlibhai. He kept himself rooted to the ground by playing bridge, which was perhaps particularly useful when the Congress was out of power at the centre!

After Deora, BRCC presidents have come from the suburbs in acknowledgment perhaps of how vastly the city had expanded and that newer vote banks had to be serviced. Gurudas Kamat, for instance, came from Ghatkopar, and Kripashankar Singh from Santacruz.

Interestingly, after the stringency of Morarji Desai and his unseemly role in the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement, the Congress switched quickly to ensuring that Maharshtra’s chief ministers would be sons of the soil while the BRCC chiefs have all been non-Maharashtrians.

It could be a co-incidence, of course, though it is more likely that the High Command wants checks and balances in place to control the city and state. But this has had its repercussions. In the past 60 years, Mumbai has often been caught between these two power centres — although from the same mother ship — pulling it in different directions, the politics of survival and exigency prevailing over the dire need for balanced development.

When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds