South Mumbai now has nearly 1.7 million voters, or more than double the number of voters it had on its rolls in the 2004 general election. In fact, it’s gone from being one of India’s smallest, most somnolent (it registered only 274,358 valid votes last time) constituencies to being among its largest. It goes to vote on 30 April.
This time Deora faces a dual challenge. Multiple opponents including banker Meera Sanyal and ophthalmic surgeon Mona Patel Shah of the Professionals Party of India, are eyeing Deora’s young, urban support base. All of them have the same "leadership with conscience" message for their voters. And post-delimitation, this support base isn’t enough anyway to emerge a winner here. This time, analysts say, South Mumbai will go to the person who carries the morning walkers on Marine Drive and the mill workers of Parel with the same ease.
"Milind is too honest and frank to be a politician," says one of his friends. Even his appearance is deceiving. At the airports and shopping malls, he could pass off as a young executive. He is a musician (his guitar, pup Muddy, politics and new wife Pooja Shetty all feature on lists of loves) to his friends, and in Parliament, he is a serious politician, who keenly listens to every speaker and makes good use of the time allotted to him to raise issues or participate in debates.
After a not-so-bad performance in the Lok Sabha during the last five years, the young Deora, who won the 2004 election by a margin of 10,000 votes, is back to seek the blessings of his voters once again.
This time Deora’s to-do agenda reflects the concerns of a city that has not yet recovered from a horrific terrorist attack last November, coincidentally, just a couple of weeks after Deora got married. He’s promised cynical voters, who feel the ruling Congress party didn’t do enough to safeguard their city, that he will lobby for police reforms and work across political barriers to bring in a system in which Mumbai can directly elect its mayor.
Milind argues that his response to the blasts would actually work in favour of him in the coming elections. "After 26 November, people are concerned about who is going to represent them. I was the only one who was taking rounds in the city during that crisis. People have realized that for defeating the external threats, they need a stable government," he says.
Also on the young politician’s list of priorities: Expediting the Trans-Harbour (Nhava Sheva) Sea-Link to decongest Mumbai and promoting public awareness on Right to Information or RTI. "He took interest in RTI and listened to me when I met him to gather support for the legislation. It is a good sign that he has included creating awareness on RTI as one of its agenda. I want all MPs to do that. But we have to go and hold them responsible to implement it also," says Shailesh Gandhi, noted RTI activist.
This time, Milind’s biggest opponent is not from among the New Political Indians who are cannibalizing his urban votes. He goes head-to-head with Shiv Sena’s Mohan Rawale and, to a much lesser extent, former Shiv Sainik Bala Nandgaonkar, who is now standing for Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
"I am confident," says Milind. "I do not perceive the multiple candidates as a threat because the voters in South Mumbai are well informed that the battle here is between the Congress and the Shiv Sena and others are in the fray just to split the votes. So the voters will not let the votes to split," he said.
Milind believes that the work he has done during the last five years will stand him in good stead. Which is why Rawale’s seniority and experience do not trouble him. "People have our records before them. He has done nothing to demonstrate, but criticizing the government. It is easy to criticize the system," he said.
Born and brought up in the city, Deora studied at the Cathedral and John Connon High School and Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, before heading to Boston University, maybe to learn the basics in business to join the family’s plastic packaging containers business. After Milind joined politics, the family sold its plastics business. His brush with social work through SPARSH, a social initiative which aims at educating students of government-aided schools in computer and IT proficiency, has also given him a clear direction on what he wanted to do in his life. A die-hard fan of Shah Rukh Khan, however, he does not enjoy just any Bollywood movies, but only those that inspire him and make him think. Even his wife Pooja’s link with the filmworld (she’s the daughter of former chairman of Adlabs Films Ltd, Manmohan Shetty, and now has her own production company) does not seem to have changed that.
The young Congress leader’s election campaign received a shot in the arm last week when mafia don-turned-politician Arun Gawli, a sitting legislator from Chichpokli, opted out of the contest for the Mumbai South constituency and announced support for him. "Dad feels that Milind has done good development work in his ward. Plus, he is inside [the jail] so what is the use," Gawli’s daughter Gita was quoted saying in reports.
Milind also believes that the mill workers of Parel, the new entrants in his support base, would support him in the 30 April election. His reasoning? "The mill workers will vote for Congress as they have already seen the true colours of the BJP-Shiv Sena. These parties had stabbed them in the back when they bought the land of Kohinoor mills." Despite the opposition from mill workers against the sale of defunct mill land, developers closely associated with top leaders of Shiv Sena had purchased the land.