For the first time in the decades since the Congress lost the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections, the grand old party has climbed down from its lofty political perch to the level of the streets—literally.
But that is a distinction its city president Sanjay Nirupam, considered an outsider by many blue-blooded Congress leaders of Mumbai, wears proudly on his sleeve. Nirupam has been holding an audit of potholes on the city’s roads—30,000, he claims against the corporation’s admission to about 2,000—holding padyatras in the rain, looking at the terrible quality of water supply to the city’s denizens and, of course, the sewers and garbage that piles up causing environmental hazards as well as health risks to the people.
The Congress has never fought municipal elections purely on civic issues. Usually, past campaigns have been polarised politically on issues around community, religious and immigration. But now Nirupam, himself an immigrant who defeated the formidable Marathi manoos Ram Naik of the BJP (now the governor of Uttar Pradesh) in 2009 to gain one term in the Lok Sabha, is battling the odds to unite the people on issues that affect every citizen of whatever community.
Nirupam has one advantage: the support of party vice-president Rahul Gandhi. The Gandhis have never concerned themselves with municipal elections anywhere, but Rahul gave Nirupam a thumbs-up in January this year by forgiving an inadvertent faux pas. That was when Congress Darshan, a party mouthpiece edited by Nirupam raised questions over the Kashmir policy of iconic Jawaharlal Nehru. Rahul also walked the streets of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, to give the Congress civic campaign a leg-up. He returned two months later to wade through garbage at the Deonar dump, which had caught fire twice in the course of a few weeks and resulted in a pall of smoke across the city for days on end.
Senior Congress leaders have complained that Nirupam has reduced the Mumbai Congress to the “municipality’’. But that is precisely where it will remain until next February. “After that, the Mumbai Congress will venture out towards the rest of Maharashtra and India,’’ Nirupam told the Hindustan Times, unabashed by that criticism.
His plan seems to have found acceptance by the party leadership. Rahul called a meeting of all the city’s stalwarts in Delhi last week to read them the riot act – shape up or ship out, unite and fight together to win the BMC polls this time. Letters, too, have gone out to these leaders. And, although, at one level, the Mumbai Congress is preparing for a street fight, at another, it is treating this municipal election as no less than a Lok Sabha poll.
The plans are big: to create various committees, like campaign committee, manifesto committee et al with each charge given to each one of the former Mumbai MPs—Milind Deora, Priya Dutt, Gurudas Kamat and Eknath Gaikwad—who lost in 2014.
“I have understood my problem,’’ Nirupam says. “There are many leaders here who let me be and stand aloof. I need to pull them in and mesh them together so that we get a good chance at breaking the Shiv Sena’s stranglehold on the city.”
For the first time in years, the BJP and the Sena are “bitter enemies” standing opposite each other, he notes. “We must not lose that advantage. We must stand as one force against them.’’
Nirupam, 52, is also aware of his handicap—that he is an outsider. To both the party and the city. “The only criticism against me is that I came to the Congress from the Shiv Sena, and that I am a Bihari. But those issues should not be held against me,” he says. “There are others from the Sena in the Congress. Also, the
Mumbai Congress president’s post has always been held by non-Maharashtrians. Bar one or two Maharashtrians since Independence, this job by and large has gone to migrants from other states.’’
It is true. But, today that becomes a major issue in view of an intense polarisation between Maharashtrians and Gujaratis. They are neatly divided between the Shiv Sena and the BJP respectively.
The BJP has tried to develop Ashish Shelar, its Mumbai president, as a Marathi face of the party for the BMC elections to get over its overtly Gujarati image. The Congress has none such who can take on the Sena measure for measure. It does not even have a Gujarati face of repute. The situation gets more complicated with the new entrant, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-e-Muslimeen, making a bid for the Dalit and Muslim votes in the Congress strongholds.
But, Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant says there is a certain amount of disenchantment in all these communities with all the parties: the Sena, the BJP, the AIMIM and the Republican Party of India (numerous factions). “That gives us the hope that at least half these voters who were ours before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls might look towards us again in some small measure to help give us a push towards the BMC,” he notes. “But it depends on how much the other parties polarise the issue on community and religious lines.’’
Political polarisation by other parties has always proved troublesome for the Congress. The party, given its avowed man-for-all-seasons kind of ideology, has never been able to match up to their divisive campaigns.
Nirupam, therefore, is in no doubt that at least this season the Mumbai Congress will steer clear of those issues. Instead, roti, kapda, makaan, bijli, sadak and paani will be the Congress themes for 2017. “A 24-hour purified water supply, electricity at reasonable rates and potholes that do not open up for at least 20 years after they are filled,” he says. “Then, affordable housing to slum-dwellers and middle classes, jobs and sustained employment for all.’’ The detailed plans will be drawn up shortly.
The infrastructure for all these begins from the streets. The street fight, then, is what the Congress is gearing up for this election season.