The Golibar slum demolition and re-development story was, as all such stories in the city tend to be, a layered and complex story. On the one hand were hundreds of slum dwellers, some who saw a better life for themselves in the re-developed slum-scrapers and on the other hand were a powerful cabal of builders who saw easy profits if they could pull off the re-development. A few slum dwellers protested the forced consent that they were forced to give to the re-development, the blatant forging of signatures and the open theft of prime land adjoining the Western Express Highway in Santacruz for private profits.
In this battle, through the last two years, Medha Patkar took the side of those we expected her to take: slum dwellers fighting for their rights against wealthy builders. Her sit-in protests and hunger-fasts elicited the expected reaction. There was a pause in the process of re-development. But no sooner did Patkar, and her organisation Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao, did so than they were met with resistance. About 4,500 slum-dwellers protested against her because her actions had stalled the re-development which would have meant a slum-free life; so what if there was some cheating and fudging involved, they argued.
It's a barometer of how a section of the poor and dispossessed of the city see Patkar and her relentless battle to give a voice to their concerns. The middle class and the wealthy Mumbai has never had a warm word to say about Patkar and her many struggles; they have willingly bought into the argument that she is "anti-development" and a road-block in the path of a Striding India. It was always a flawed narrative but it has stuck to her persona since her anti-dam agitation in the Narmada valley in the early 1990s. But it's a myth that all the poor fall behind her.
Now, with her declaring support to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the possibility of her joining it, how can Patkar be an asset to the party given its emphasis on the concerns of the urban, educated, middle-class? This is the question that some in AAP here are asking. They are perhaps unaware that their party's national leaders see Patkar, given her impeccable activist credentials, as the face of the AAP particularly in Mumbai and Maharashtra.
Patkar is no stranger to politics, even electoral politics. After nearly 30 years of struggle for rights and justice for the rural and urban marginalised Indians, and intense debates on whether joining politics would propel the struggle forward, she formed the People's Political Front just before the 2004 general election. Aruna Roy, convenor of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan, and veteran Gandhian Siddharaj Dhada were among her colleagues then.
"Electoral politics can't be treated as untouchable anymore…our activism has to more than influence politics, it must also intervene," she had told me then. The PPF fielded a handful of candidates and supported many more, mostly independents with ad admirable track record, who Patkar said would intervene in the Parliament when necessary. The PPF was an earnest attempt, a response to the six years of BJP-led government at the centre.
Patkar sees the AAP as an extension of that idea. "The time has come for a new wave in Indian politics," she said on Monday. The veteran activist, with a deep socio-political understanding, views the AAP as a medium to get political traction for the agenda of the marginalised and dispossessed. Her PPF colleagues were active in drawing up the AAP's vision and policy documents, never mind its middle-class orientation.
The issues on her political agenda, drawn from the people's movements for justice and articulating the concerns of those on the margins of the Striding India, may evoke derision from many AAP's supporters. But for Patkar and her long-standing colleagues, indeed all those in people's movements, the AAP offers hope that their agendas - long discarded by the dominant political parties - will become part of the political discourse. It means Golibar and Mandala slums, and similar issues, will receive more than the usual lip-service in this election. Despite its drawbacks, the AAP is Patkar's best bet yet.