In his first reaction to the union budget 2017-18, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi remarked, “We were expecting fireworks, instead got a damp squib” and added that the budget lacked vision. The context is different but a similar assessment can be made of the Congress party in Mumbai, the city where it was formed in December 1888 and where some of its significant leaders hailed from.
In election after election, Mumbai’s voters hope that the Congress will shake off its self-induced stupor, be an aggressive opposition party to the Shiv Sena-BJP, and present a vision for the city’s comprehensive development. Instead, the party appears a dysfunctional and faction-driven organisation with little imagination for Mumbai’s future, and no political appetite to take on the saffron alliance. The Sena-BJP alliance has enjoyed a majority in the Municipal Corporation for 20 years, uninterrupted.
This is why Congress’s “charge-sheet” against the Sena-BJP and former union minister Shashi Tharoor’s comments on Mondayare both laughable and disingenuous. Tharoor lamented that the Asia’s richest civic corporation had “collapsed under the Sena-BJP rule owing to corruption and mismanagement”. City Congress president Sanjay Nirupam listed the lacunae on every front – roads, water supply, solid waste disposal, healthcare – and blamed chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray for the sorry state of affairs.
Of course, urban governance in Mumbai has all but collapsed, but Tharoor-Nirupam’s party must share the blame too. The larger point is that despite the appalling incompetence and corruption that marked Sena-BJP’s rule, the Congress is not seen as a viable alternative, either on its own strength or with its sometime-ally, the Nationalist Congress Party.
There are historical as well as contemporary reasons. Through the 70s, 80s and 90s, as the Sena spread its network and politics of fear, the Congress was content to sit back and watch the polarisation of the political landscape in Mumbai, besides, of course, covertly encouraging the fledgling Sena. More lately, factions within its Mumbai unit have meant that the party cannot be a strong and cohesive unit. This election too is marred by factional differences and ego clashes between Nirupam and older leaders such as Gurudas Kamat.
Later, the Congress-led governments in Maharashtra gradually but surely put in a place a system of governance by which the BMC’s powers would be checked by the chief minister acting in his capacity as the urban development minister. This meant a slew of autonomous organisations planned and executed mega projects with hardly a nod to the BMC. It was either a devious way for the Congress-NCP to retain some hold over Mumbai despite the Sena-BJP rule in the BMC or a mutually convenient way for all parties to share the spoils of power.
If Fadnavis and Thackeray must share the blame for the poor state of Mumbai – which they must – then blame must be laid at the doors of Fadnavis’s predecessors too: Congress CMs Prithviraj Chavan, Ashok Chavan, the late Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushil Kumar Shinde, and Sharad Pawar who as urban development ministers could have taken more meaningful and far-reaching decisions for Mumbai. None made Mumbai’s all-round development a priority.
In the last two civic elections of 2007 and 2012, the Congress secured 75 seats (25.3% vote share) and 52 seats (21.7% vote share) respectively. In the 2012 election, its vote share combined with the NCP was 28% while that of the winning Sena-BJP was a mere 2% more. Indeed, the Congress still enjoys a presence and goodwill in Mumbai but does not have the organisation or appetite to grab power in the BMC. But for its leaders to ignore its role in the collapse of the BMC – and Mumbai – would be disingenuous.