In many ways, South Mumbai is one of India’s most unusual constituencies. And it is also a microcosm of the city of Mumbai itself.
It is home to the gleaming towers of Nariman Point and the socialites of Malabar Hill. But its constituents include a hefty chunk of the city’s Muslims, a significant proportion of market-friendly Gujaratis and many of the slum-dwellers who often swing elections in the city.
Now, South Mumbai has added a further dimension to its already eclectic nature. A redrawing of constituency boundaries has meant that the old Mumbai South Central constituency has been merged with South Mumbai. This constituency takes in the dockyards, the old mill areas and its voters include industrial workers.
Traditionally, battles in South Mumbai revolve around a fight between members of the Deora family and assorted Gujaratis. In 1980, Murli Deora lost the seat to Ratansinh Rajda, a Gujarati. He won it in 1984 and represented it for several years, till he lost to the BJP’s Jayawantiben Mehta, a Gujarati. In the last election, he handed the seat over to his son Milind who went on to become the city’s most effective and visible MP.
This time around, the BJP has ceded the seat to its ally, the Shiv Sena, dashing hopes of such aspirants as Poonam Mahajan, daughter of Pramod Mahajan, and fashion designer Shaina NC. The Shiv Sena candidate, Mohan Rawle is the sort of Sainik that Gujaratis, the Malabar Hill elite and the city’s Muslims abhor and fear.
So why isn’t Milind Deora smiling?
Well, because things are never simple or easy in Mumbai. Rawle may be the archetypal Shiv Sainik (he was once Bal Thackeray’s bodyguard) but he is also the sitting MP for the now defunct South Central constituency, which he has represented for several terms. And he believes that the chawl-dwellers and industrial workers who have now become part of the South Mumbai constituency will back him and defeat Deora.
It’s not that straightforward, of course. Rawle has a curious reputation even within the Sena: he once disappeared when he was supposed to vote in a no confidence motion against the central government and then claimed that he had been unwell, so his standing in his own party is a matter of speculation. Moreover, he has close links with don-turned-politician Arun Gawli who Bal Thackeray hates. A further complication: this time Gawli has abandoned Rawle and is backing Deora.
And after the attacks on North Indians in Mumbai, say Rawle’s campaign managers, the South Indians in the old South Central areas have grown increasingly hostile to the Sena. “They have come for the bhaiyyas today”, they say. “They will come for the Annas tomorrow”.
Oddly enough, it is South Mumbai that worries the Deora campaign. Milind will get the traditional Congress voters (the poor, those in the slums etc.) and he will even get the Gujaratis, but there are questions about where the rest of his support will come from.
Murli Deora once lost to the BJP because Amar Singh in an obvious effort to spite him put up a Samajwadi Party (SP) candidate. The SP man fared badly everywhere except in the Muslim areas where he took away votes that would otherwise have gone to Deora. Now, the SP is threatening to do the same to Milind.
There is another electoral suicide bomber in the race as well. Mohammed Ali Sheikh, a local Muslim notable with a colourful police record, is standing on a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ticket even though he has no hope of winning. He, too, will take away Congress votes.
And finally, there is the socialite factor. Two independents from affluent backgrounds are also contesting. They may well lose their deposits but equally, they might take a chunk of the Malabar Hill votes. One of the these independents, a banker called Meera Sanyal has become the darling of the TV channels and her supporters may vote for her anyway, despite the fact that in doing so they will probably help the Shiv Sena. A vote for Meera Sanyal is a vote for Mohan Rawle, say Deora’s campaign managers.
Both Deoras seem uncharacteristically concerned about the outcome of this election. The younger Deora who has been an exemplary constituency MP and has a high national profile had expected to fight on the basis of his record — and win.
But he is discovering now that nothing goes according to plan in politics. And certainly not in Mumbai where you have to deal with the underworld, Bal Thackeray’s bodyguards, block Muslim votes and the aspirations of publicity-hungry