“Numbers are crucial for us to implement our vision for Mumbai,” BJP MP and national president of the party’s youth wing, Poonam Mahajan, said on Thursday, during an informal chat in the HT newsroom. The leader spoke of how the BJP wants to make a fresh start with these polls to implement CM Devendra Fadnavis’ vision. “Whatever we have done at the state level — a war room on infrastructure or transparency, we want to replicate in BMC...’’ Mahajan also said BJP was keen on a 24x7 Mumbai. “As a Mumbaikar, it’s my dream”. Some excerpts:
BJP has been a part of the ruling alliance in BMC all this while. Now, you criticise its work. How will you convince voters things will change in your regime?
It’s about showing people how we implement work, how accountable we have been so far and what we can offer. Everyone has seen the work done by PM Narendra Modi at the national leveland at the state level, we have CM Devendra Fadnavis. No other CM has looked at the Mumbai Metropolitan Region so holistically — considering transport, infrastructure, employment. I know this because I am a part of his team. And, there’s a reason we are looking at MMR, 25 % of the country’s GDP and 80 % of Maharashtra’s GDP comes from this region. Of this, Mumbai is a big part. We have a vision for its development. When you are a junior partner, you have a limited space to work in policy implementation. This is a new start for us. We want to replicate what we are doing at the state level here in the civic body. The way we have a war room on infrastructure, we want everything to be made public and transparent. If tomorrow, BJP leads in polls and our mayor sits in BMC, we can take this vision forward.
BJP seems to have taken the local elections, primarily concerned with ‘gutter-water-metre’, on a larger scale. The CM is the party’s face, but do you have good enough candidates to implement your vision?
Candidates are important in every constituency, whether it is the local or national election. You need a face from down to up, you need someone who handles booth too. One person cannot do everything. Despite that, you still need one face, someone who is smart and has a vision. The CM represents this strong, decisive leadership for us. After all, Mumbai is a global city, we can’t limit ourselves to gutter-water-metre. Basic amenities are important for the city, but not just ‘gali’ ka ‘gutter’, instead we need to put in place an overall sanitation policy, water supply, sewerage systems. We have selected candidates after studying them, they have worked in their wards. We have a collective responsibility.
Didn’t BJP have a tough time finding candidates for all wards ? You didn’t have a presence across the city...
We didn’t have a tough time finding candidates. We were ready with candidates much before anyone else. In fact, there was a lot of excitement among BJP workers as they were working in these wards but didn’t have a chance to contest. We had over 1,000 candidates applying for 227 seats.
Over 20 of your candidates were pulled out from other parties...
This happens in every constituency, where we may not have a presence. Even if a party has a presence in a constituency, winnability becomes an important factor. If the gap is 10-20 % between winnability and our candidate, we have to get someone else. Right now, numbers are important for our vision.
Do you expect the support of all sections in Mumbai, because BJP has been primarily seen as a party of Gujaratis or traders?
I will answer by giving the example of results in Orissa’s gram panchayat and zilla parishads, which are BJD strongholds. The way they voted in our favour shows a change in mindset. We are not known as a party of the poor or having a grassroots connect here. Similarly, in Mumbai, we have realised dividing Mumbaiites into languages and caste and creed is not going to work. Whether it is traders, Marathi-speaking or Hindi-speaking, all Mumbaikars will support BJP.
We talk of a global city and having a vision. How is it that a city that wants to have the best public WiFi continues to have bad roads?
I agree with you. But, to the credit of our state government, we managed to put CCTV cameras and public WiFi in one year. Let me say here the entire road contracts scam started in some sense from me, after I sent a letter to the civic commissioner. I had said there were many roads in my constituency that were substandard. This led to the entire drama and a probe. As a BJP MP, I feel strongly about this and CM is also clear that this will not do. Getting good roads is a priority.
When BJP says there should be more transparency in BMC, what do you mean, because in the past year, a lot of information from work orders to corporators fund spending is online.
It’s the CM who pushed for this initiative and insisted that we put basic information, processes online. When we say transparency as an agenda, this is exactly what we are looking at.. it is our vision that tomorrow in Mumbai as a Bollywood city, permission for shooting should come from a single window, instead of running around for 20 permissions. In BMC, even birth and death certificates were not available online.
Why is it the BJP shrugging off all responsibility over scams and shifting responsibility to the Sena?
We are not shrugging off any responsibility of any scam. I was the first person who wrote the letter to the civic commissioner about the road scam. There is nothing to hide from the BJP’s side. I am not blaming anyone. I have questioned the way it was happening. If something in the scams is being linked a committee led by BJP, we are ready to face the consequences… something has come out which is not linked to our decisions. It is being probed now. Those who are responsible will face the law.
In the current scenario, it seems no party will get single-handed majority. Will you tie up with the party you described as ‘khau Sena’ (Shiv Sena) or ‘Naturally Corrupt Party (NCP)?
We are starting with 32 corporators and going beyond 100 is going to be tough. But, I believe in political arithmetic and going by that, we will be the single largest party. Whether we can cross the magic figure, we will know on February 23, let’s wait. As far as naming these parties, I don’t believe in that. I call them Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress.
Two people were seen as the architects of the saffron alliance, Bal Thackeray and your father, Pramod Mahajan. What were your thoughts when the alliance broke first in 2014 and then now?
That time was completely different. They were both smaller parties, one was a national party that wanted to expand, the other a regional party in Mumbai. Both parties got strength by coming together. We still respect that. But, both parties have expanded. BJP is now the largest party in the country, with its government in 10 states. There will be increased expectations from both sides. I do feel sad as a Mahajan about the split. But I am BJP’s strong karyakarta and for me, right now I have to get maximum seats from my constituency, that’s my duty.
I think from both sides, the equation there was when Bal Thackeray and Pramod Mahajan were alive does not exist. And, you can’t blame anyone. It just happens and you move on. The Thackerays will take their party forward. I am a true blue Mahajan and I’ll take mine forward. There is no bad blood. It’s politics.
How long do you think the saffron alliance will last in the state, given the bitterness ?
I feel the BJP-led state government will survive till 2019. I am very sure about it, even if you look at numbers or the way government is taking things forward. I don’t see any stressful moments later in February. I don’t think the Sena will pull out.
Did you decide much in advance to take on the Sena in Mumbai when you started planning for the elections, or did you think there would be an alliance and you can strategically increase seats?
We started planning for the BMC elections a year ago because we wanted our performance to improve, have more corporators. We just wanted to prepare more, which the BJP always does. How to reach to the booth level, how we make our booth level karyakartas believe they are the ones who can get people to vote. That’s the only strategy we worked on.
Would you say the seat-sharing talks were more of a façade?
No, not at all. I can openly say both sides tried well. But at times, the meetings didn’t go well and fell to a derogatory level. That’s why it was difficult to find a mid-way from the BJP’s side. We didn’t say we are not open to negotiations. It just went to a level where we couldn’t get a breakthrough.
Do you see a role for yourself in mediating a truce between the Sena and BJP, considering you have good personal relations with the Thackeray family?
I hold a position in the BJP. I am an MP of the BJP. I am a youth wing president. For me, it is my responsibility to work on whatever my party thinks. Let’s not connect the relations of Thackerays and Mahajans with the Sena and BJP right now. If my party wants me to contest and get maximum seats, I will perform for my party and the Sena will do the same for itself. So, we should separate personal relations from the relations between two parties. Right now, my party has not told me anything, it has just told me to get maximum seats.
As a youth wing leader who has grown up in Mumbai, what is your take on Yuva Sena chief Aaditya Thackeray’s statements about opening up Mumbai’s nightlife?
We have already started working on it. It’s better to do something than just talk about it. Yes, it is my dream. It is everyone’s dream. We live in a 24x7 world. The Shops and Establishments Act has said people can keep shops open. We have to work on zones. In my area, BKC works as it is office area... May be in a few months, you will see 24x7 zones. As a Mumbaikar, I need this.
Won’t security be an issue?
I don’t think so. You remember how we did the Global Citizen’s event? We studied security, had 1,50,000 people attending. Mumbai is the safest city in India , but precautions will be taken.
Somehow, there is an impression the BJP in BMC and even the CM has not been in favour of opening up nightlife.
I don’t know where the CM has indicated this, because we have had discussions about it. Also, it is not a proposal only related to BMC. It is a proposal that is first concerned with the police. It’s already been spoken about and discussed. I am saying this as a responsible MP, which means there is some thinking happening from the government’s side.
What is the status of getting an International Financial Services Centre in Mumbai? Is the project affected as the Centre wants to give priority to the Gujarat International Finance Tec-city?
We want the Ministry of Trade and Commerce to designate this as a financial Special Economic Zone (SEZ). The first proposal was sent back as we need a particular amount of area to qualify for an SEZ. We tried to think out of the box by asking the government to consider built-up area, but it didn’t work out. We still have an area that we can show as an absolute for the financial SEZ. That proposal is being put up. The ground-breaking will happen very soon, at the end of the year. We are looking forward to the IFSC coming up. We will have a bullet train going below it, connecting it. We are looking at Mumbai’s IFSC and GIFT complementing each other. GIFT has one amazing benefit that we don’t and that is space... All your front offices can be in Mumbai, but those looking for a larger space can go to GIFT.
There was a fair amount of debate over the proposed mid-sea Shivaji memorial. There were petitions opposing it, questions raised about what it will do to the ecology, debate on whether it was a symbol for Mumbai and if the statue should come up at all.
I don’t want to give any logic about Shivaji Maharaj to anyone. I think we should be proud of him, his way of governance. We don’t know our culture. We don’t know what Shivaji Maharaj has done. ‘Sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas’ should actually be learnt from him. My father used to tell me if you forget your martyrs, you forget your heroes, you will always be vulnerable to invasion. So, when it is our culture we should not be questioning it. We are lucky this country is a complete democracy. There is nothing wrong in questioning something.
How is it working with BJP chief Amit Shah?
It is wonderful. I see in him and in our PM a devotion and dedication to work. There is always a time limit. As the youth wing president, I have a deadline to build my team. I have to make my calendar for the year. If there is a kind of responsibility and someone is looking at your capability and taking it forward, it is professionally wonderful. We youngsters need that.