In the game of political one-upmanship, it’s Mumbai’s transport unions that have become the latest tool.
All political parties recognise that control of the city’s taxi, rickshaw and bus unions can pay rich dividends. Apart from controlling the votes of the sizeable number of people in the trade — the city has 56,000 taxis and 1.05 lakh rickshaws — having the unions under their thumb helps parties project their clout.
Anybody who controls the unions can effectively paralyse the city — as was witnessed on Tuesday, when rickshaws and taxis refused to ply, and to some extent on Wednesday when taxis stayed off the roads.
This, in turn, gives the union leaders great influence in the corridors of power.
This time around, Nitesh, son of Revenue Minister Narayan Rane, attempted to cut Sharad Rao, trade unionist and Nationalist Congress Party leader, to size by projecting himself as the cabbies’ messiah through his outfit Swabhiman.
The Ranes have been hunting for issues that could give them political mileage ahead of the civic polls scheduled for 2012. In the summer, for instance, Nitesh protested against water cuts.
Nitesh, who celebrated his birthday on Wednesday, was unavailable for comment.
“It’s not about paralysing the city, it’s about justice for the poor,” said A.K. Tiwari, president of the seven-month-old Swabhiman union which claims to have 24,000 members.
Almost every union has a political affiliation and claims a membership of 20,000 to 56,000. They seek credit for every success and try to create a niche in the power structure.
Rao has been running the dominant rickshaw and bus unions after splitting from trade unionist George Fernandes. Rao also set up a taxi wing in 2004.
“We fought hard when the government decided to phase out 25-year-old taxis,” said Tambi Kurian, general secretary of Rao’s Mumbai Automen and Taximen Union.
A.L. Quadros leads the 50-year-old Mumbai Taximen’s Union, which, with 56,000 members, is the largest. It is governed by the Hind Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat, a Fernades-led umbrella organisation.
The Sena’s Taxi Chalak Malak Sangh is led by Deepak Sawant. It was set up in 2000 and has 4,500 members. “We are number three,” said Dilip Tammal, general secretary of the union.
The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), recognising the political benefit of a union, launched the MNS Vahatuk Sena in 2008. So far, it claims, it has got 30,000 rickshaw and taxi drivers into its fold.