Whom does the Mumbai Congress represent?
The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party lost all six Lok Sabha seats in Mumbai to the BJP-Shiv Sena in this election. If it came as a surprise to any of the candidates or their supporters, then it shows how far removed from reality they have been. It isn’t the case that the outgoing BJP-Sena MPs had done an outstanding job of representing the city’s interests in the Parliament or Delhi’s corridors of power. Yet, the Congress-NCP fell short.
Some of the BJP-Sena’s success can be attributed to the fact that voters across class, caste and special interests saw their vote as a mandate for Narendra Modi and wanted him to have another chance. Some of it may be thanks to the BJP’s strategic planning down to every page of voters’ lists, the support it gets from mainstream media, its clever and targeted use of social media, and of course the whopping funds – nearly ₹3,600 crore only in last two months – it mopped up through electoral bonds. All this adds to the hypnotic mix of religion and nationalism it peddles. Allowing for all these factors, it must be said that the Congress and NCP looked out of touch with Mumbai’s ground realities, Mumbaiites and their aspirations.
Political parties reveal themselves in the most unexpected of ways. A tweet by Mumbai Congress showed how far off the pulse of the city it is. The tweet fused two issues of the week together – its losses and the alleged caste slur-driven suicide of Dr Payal Tadvi. The 26-year-old doctor from Tadvi Bhil Muslim community, a second-year post-graduate student of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, was driven to suicide allegedly by casteist remarks which her seniors consistently threw her way since last year. An internal anti-ragging committee report of the BYL Nair Hospital and Topiwala College found evidence of caste-based harassment including verbal remarks and comments on Whatsapp groups.
Reacting to the horrific incident, the Congress party’s handle tweeted last Saturday, “This isn’t Mumbai, unheard of in our city” even as it stated the truism that “discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or class was unacceptable and highly condemnable”. Seriously, is caste discrimination unheard of in Mumbai? You’d have to be living in ivory towers and zipping around the gilded zones of the city in Maybachs or BMWs to believe this.
It spoke of a party, certainly its public outreach, out of touch with large swathes of Mumbai. Caste is a lived reality for lakhs of Mumbaiites. Later, Mumbai Congress chief Milind Deora took up the issue of Dr Tadvi’s suicide with the city police, party workers joined protestors demonstrating at the gates of the Hospital and generally made themselves heard. A degree of wisdom seems to have dawned.
Yes, the Congress, which fielded five of the six candidates, has been beset by structural problems such as not having a ground-level active cadre and leadership crisis brought about by intense factionalism. Sure, this electoral battle was not between parties of equal muscle and resources. Even so, for the Congress to become relevant once again to Mumbaiites, it must answer at least two questions: What does it stand for and whom does it represent in this city.
Unless there is clarity within the party on these fundamentals, unless its key leaders are able to communicate these to people, unless there is connect between leaders and average Mumbaiites, the Congress is bound to remain a marginal player in the city. A back-of-the-envelope analysis shows that Deora, Priya Dutt and Eknath Gaikwad did well in Muslim or Dalit-dominated areas of their respective constituencies and took more votes here than their BJP-Sena rivals. But surely the party does not want to be limited to these sections of the population. The party picked up a low of 17.6% vote share in Borivli to 63% in Mumbadevi.
The BJP has had an urban bias for years. The Congress has carried an anti-urban bias. This is unfortunate. Irrespective of how party president Rahul Gandhi’s resignation saga plays out, the Mumbai Congress would have to pull up its socks, iron out a working relationship among its warring leaders, and determine what it represents in the city. And it must do this quickly – the Assembly election is four-five months away – else Mumbai’s 36 seats are the BJP-Sena’s for taking.