The Congress’ core voter base is intact, Congress’ city unit chief Sanjay Nirupam told Hindustan Times. During a chat in the HT office on Monday, Nirupam said , “Marathi voters would not vote for the BJP. The Gujarati voter is not happy with the party, neither are the north Indians owing to slum demolition and other issues.” He also justified the Congress’ decision not to forge an alliance with Sharad Pawar’s NCP, saying that party would have ended up helping the BJP. Excerpts from the interaction:
Why is Congress not seen as a serious contender for the BMC elections? It looks like the contest is between the BJP and the Shiv Sena.
I was made Mumbai Congress president about two years ago, when the Congress was in a shambles and our workers were depressed. There were three main questions in the minds of the workers: were really very corrupt? Was there dynastic politics? Has the Congress really done nothing for the country? I addressed the issues: Yes, there was corruption, but we took action immediately unlike the incumbent BJP government; there were hardly four to five families in the party and other parties also had families, such as three generation of Thackerays ruling the Shiv Sena; and to answer the third question, we highlighted work done by our government. Today, our party members are energised and we are a strong force. We see both the Sena and BJP trading charges against each other. The BJP calls the Sena ‘extortionists’, the Sena calls BJP a ‘party of goons’. I don’t think people like these fights. People have to now choose whether they want goons, extortionists or a good party like the Congress.
Although the Congress was in the Opposition for five years in the BMC, there was hardly any impact felt. Why so?
Ever since I became chief of Mumbai Congress, I have not missed a single opportunity to target the ruling party. In the BMC, I got the opposition leader changed and appointed Pravin Chheda. He did a good job, but he didn’t get much time. With regards to Congress as a main contender, we are seeing the whole media focusing on the fight between the chief minister and Uddhav Thackeray. Our programmes hardly get covered. The BJP and Sena are only accusing each other, but there is no meaningful debate on crucial issues. The traditional voters of these parties are deserting them and here they are seeing Congress as a third alternative.
The Congress was expected to highlight flaws in the governance of the city, but that job is being done by the ruling parties.
We exposed irregularities, including the scams in road contracts, desilting works much before the BJP made noise over them. If an opposition party leader like me talks of such scams, it is a natural thing, but when the BJP attacks the Sena, it becomes big news. I do agree that in this infighting, they are taking over the opposition space. However, the way they are fighting is deplorable and not good for Mumbaiites
What, according to you, will be the scenario after these elections?
The 2017 BMC elections will spring surprising results. The Sena and BJP would not be in a position to continue with their old gimmicks of fighting ahead of the elections and then joining hands to enjoy power. People will not accept this anymore. The BJP, which claims to be the largest party in the state, will be pushed to third position as the fight for the top position is between us and the Sena. Barring one or two seats each in areas like Bhandup, Mulund, Kandivli and Jogeshwari, the Sena is not in the position of winning with it own vote bank without additions of votes from other communities. The Sena’s fate in its bastions of Mahim and Dadar depends on the performance of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. The BJP would not get support from the Marathi voters, reducing its chances to win sizable seats.
The BJP is focusing on non-Marathi voters, which could give them an edge.
Not at all. The BJP is known as a party largely representing the Gujarati and Marwari communities. It has no support from the middle-class Marathi voters or north Indians. The Gujarati voter is unhappy with the BJP and hence, will not vote for them. A large number of north Indians who stay in slums or who are hawkers are hit by the BJP government’s policy against them. Besides, we have given tickets to 35 north Indians, and of the 39 Muslims in the list, most of them are north Indian. This makes us a strong contender for the north Indian vote.
You have alliances with like-minded parties in UP and Bihar, and a section of leaders in your party feels you should have tied up with the NCP and Samajwadi Party in Mumbai to improve your chances. Why did the Congress no do so?
Much before the civic elections, I was told by our central leadership to take a call at the local level. When I spoke with the leaders of the executive committee of the party, everybody was against forging an alliance, as the NCP hardly has any base in the city. Still, I wanted to have an ‘adjustment’ on a few seats, but our leaders were against any such arrangement too. The NCP also appeared to have accepted the decision of breaking up, as it had announced its first list.
However, all of a sudden, pressure started mounting for a tie-up when Sena and BJP resumed talks for an alliance.
By then, even our high command signalled us to tap the possibility. State leaders were firm, however, on not tying up as they were of the opinion that sharing seats with NCP caused the Congress’ loss in 2012. When talks between Sena and BJP failed, the pressure on us to work with NCP receded.
Could you please elaborate?
The NCP was interested in an alliance to safeguard the interests of the BJP. It is our past experience that seats conceded to the NCP prove beneficial to the BJP. Had we conceded 60 or 80 seats to NCP, the BJP would have benefited more than the NCP.
Why should I believe the NCP, which has a tacit understanding with the Fadnavis government? It’s a fact the NCP was the first to extend support to the BJP government on the floor of Assembly.
Even today, the NCP has not clearly denied that it will not back the government if the Sena pulls out. With this background, we decided not to join hands with them.
The infighting among senior Congress leaders has been making headlines. As the party leader, is it not your failure if the party isn’t putting up a united front?
I admit the onus is on me as I head the city unit. I did try my best. However, I alone should not be held responsible as they (those creating trouble) are also senior leaders. The party is supreme and we are there only because of the party.
If two Congress leaders are fighting, what have people to do with it or how is it connected to BMC elections?
People would worry about the candidate and his connectivity and performance. Everyone is praising our list and one analyses even said 185 of our candidates are competitive, while the BJP had only 110 competitive candidates. More than the BJP or Sena, we have people eager to join our party, but we declined as our local leaders were opposed to their entry. In four-five cases, we had to rope in the high command to admit people from other parties. In every ward, we have 10-15 candidates, but we had to choose from them. The Sena-BJP vote has split. This is just like in the 2009 election — the MNS model — when the Marathi vote got split between Sena and MNS. This time, the division will be between Sena and BJP. My strategy is to consolidate the Congress vote.
What is your understanding with the Sena? Why has it been praising the Congress and Congress led governments?
The Sena is worried about the core Congress voter moving away from it. The praises are coming out of that fear. We do not need any endorsement or certificate from Sena for the work done by our governments. It was surprising that Uddhav Thackeray was showering praises on the Congress, which was hated by his father, the late Balasaheb Thackeray, all his life. But, we have categorically said there will be no understanding with the Sena.
The BJP has been wooing the traditional Congress voter, be it non-Marathis or urban poor. Won’t this affect your party?
The BJP has never been a pro-poor party. Hawkers have been removed by BJP MLAs and MPs, and as a result, they have started hating BJP leaders. They (BJP) might be thinking people living in buildings will be happy for not having hawkers around them.
There is no problem in removing hawkers from pavements, but then they should be given an alternative space. Similarly, the BJP is demolishing slums. The slum-dwellers are scared of the BJP leadership. They are in distress. We have been experiencing this in various parts of the city, where people have started supporting us.
More than 60% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. A major part of the budget of the civic body should be allocated to the this chunk of population, but the Sena-BJP government has failed to do so.
The BJP has promised in its manifesto to allocate Rs1,000 crore for slum-dwellers…
Yes, they have promised that, but it might be to fill the kitty of builders through slum redevelopment schemes.
Your Development Plan is yet to be cleared, the Development Control Rules are yet to be finalised and the BMC is announcing incentives to builders…for obvious reasons. On the other hand, the government has now announced to levy heavy charges for parking on the roads.
What is wrong if you are charged for parking on public places such as roads, meant for traffic flow?
It is the government’s duty to create sufficient parking spaces in the city instead of levying charges for parking on roads. It is the failure of the government, as it has not been able to provide parking lots.
There are countries where parking charges are levied for parking on the roads, but these cities first provided people with parking lots and had undertaken measures restricting vehicular traffic in certain areas.
I am for the development of public transport, but public transport is in poor condition. In Germany , Singapore and London, public transport is in good condition. They have very good traffic management too.
But public transport facilities were poor even when your government was at the helm in the state.
As far as public transport is concerned, it is the responsibility of the civic body. The state government cannot interfere in Railway services as they are run by the Centre. As for Mumbai’s Metro and Monorail projects, it was the Congress government that brought these to the city.
I agree the network of Metro and Monorail should have been much wider. Our government tried to give the best infrastructure projects it could, battling the difficulties of land acquisition and others.
These infrastructure projects seem to be moving faster after the BJP took over…
The BJP has been making a big noise about the projects, but many of them have not taken off — be it the coastal road, Metro lines or the Dr Ambedkar memorial at Indu Mills. They (BJP govt) have been talking about the Metro lines under being construction, but the fact is the funding is yet to be approved.
The MMRDA has just cordoned off roads leading to serpentine traffic on the western expressway. The elevated rail corridor was envisaged by our government with the idea of having a parallel road along the corridor.
Though the BJP government has been talking big about the elevated rail corridor, but I can vouch that the corridor is not going to happen.
Another ambitious project is the bullet train to Ahmedabad, but not a single inch of land has been acquired. Railway minister Suresh Prabhu has admitted it was a project conceived by Congress.
You have been cursing BJP government for slow pace of infrastructure projects, but during your government, there little coordination between state and Centre...
Is there better coordination between the incumbent governments?
Our government obtained almost all permissions for the coastal road barring one or two. But in the past two years, the project could not take off.
They have been claiming all permissions have been obtained with the help of Centre. This is the BJP’s misleading propaganda about their achievements.