In many ways Mumbai South is a perfect microcosm of the monster that the city Mumbai is. From the quiet roads and magnificent British buildings of the Fort and Colaba area, to the bustling chawls that house millworkers in Parel, the middle-class settlements of Khetwadi and the narrow lanes of Mohammed Ali Road from which wafts the smell of perfumes and kebabs, this constituency is as diverse and cosmopolitan as it can get. However, the people of this constituency, presently helmed by union minister Milind Deora, all complain of the same problems. The rich, the poor, the middle-class, the Muslims, the Christians, the Gujaratis… they all need clean water, better roads, reduced prices for essential goods, safety for women and children, and traffic control. They do not want to get entangled in the traps of red tape and want honest leaders to whom they can look up to. And, they are keeping their hopes pinned on the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in April.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Mumbai South chose the Deora scion over Shiv Sena’s Mohan Rawale, MNS’s Bala Nandgaonkar and Meera Sanyal, who contested as an independent candidate. “He is a very educated man and therefore understands the needs of everyone,” says Vinita More, 25, of Churchgate, on Deora’s second consecutive win. “There is an instant connect he has with the youth and he is very visibly active in the area.” Of the six Assembly segments of the constituency, Deora also has the strong backing of four sitting MLAs–NCP’s Sachin Ahir (Worli), Congress’s Madhu Chavan (Byculla), Amin Patel (Mumba Devi) and Annie Shekhar (Colaba). Nandgaonkar is the sitting MLA of the Shivdi segment and Magalprabhat Lodha of BJP heads the Malabar Hill Assembly segment.
The two strongest contenders, in Deora’s own words, is MNS’s Nandgaonkar, who surprised everyone by coming a close second in the 2009 polls, and Sena’s Arwind Sawant. Nandgaonkar’s candidature worked to Deora’s benefit in the last polls, as it created a split in the votes between the Sena and the MNS, thus weakening the Sena. Of the 6,41,571 votes polled in 2009, 2,72,411 were in Deora’s favour, 1,59,729 in Nandgaonkar’s and Rawle came third with 1,46,118 votes
This time around, the fight has tightened with the presence of the Aam Admi Party. With the AAP’s victory in the Delhi Assembly elections, Arvind Kejriwal seems to be the flavour of the season. His visit to Mumbai on March 13, when he travelled by autorickshaw and local train around the city, did end up in a ruckus, but it was also was proof of the kind of following he commands. AAP has fielded Sanyal, who quit as chairperson of Royal Bank of Scotland to join politics, as its candidate for the constituency. The many scams that have been unearthed and the widespread allegations of corruption against Congress leaders have made matters worse for the party as it has dampened even the spirits of loyalists like Christians and Muslims of the area.
Says A.K. Christopher, 38, a group C officer in the Indian Army’s Station Health Organisation: “I have always been a Congress supporter as they have stood up for the minorities. But off late I have been so disturbed and disappointed by the scams and corruption and I myself have been a victim of their inaction. They make promises during the election time, but when we approach them with a problem, they make us run from pillar to post and feel no remorse in abandoning us.” Christopher has made up his mind to “vote for change” which he believes AAP has the capability to bring. But, his wife Mini, is not too sure. “Whoever helps us on a day-to-day basis should become our representative,” she says. Going by this logic, she is even considering the Sena this year.
Tabrez Patel, manager at Chinese n Grill, a restaurant in Mohammed Ali Road, says he has lost hope in every party. “I have worked with almost every party in this area, be it Congress, BJP or MNS,” says Patel who also runs his own Hindi newspaper MumbaiTeam News. “But no one has helped us at the time of a crisis.” And, corruption is the main problem that worries Patel. “If a layman goes to a government office, he needs to bribe the officer to get things done,” he says. “I am in touch with most of the leaders in the area, but I figured that even such contacts are of no use. The common man has to shell out money, if not to the minions, then to the bigger fish, to get even his basic needs met.” The politicians are busy sharing public funds among themselves and lining their own pockets, he says. “I have come to realise that when it comes to the cream, it is not about being a Hindu or a Muslim,” says Patel. “Like terrorists, these politicians also have no religion. They worship only money.”
However, Patel’s co-worker Shabbir Soni, 60, is not ready to “waste his vote” on AAP. “Almost 30 per cent of the Muslim votes from this area will definitely go to the Samajwadi Party,” says Soni. “All this AAP talk is just temporary. The youth thinks that they can bring change, but they are forgetting that there is zero chance that AAP will win. It will only lead to a division of the Congress votes and the Sena is set to gain out of this equation.”
Despite the knowledge that it is near impossible for AAP to win, those like 70-year-old Kanti Lodia wants to support them as a protest against the existing parties. Once a trader, Lodia says he is fed up by ideology of the BJP and the mismanagement of the Congress. “The only one who is progressive in the BJP is Modiji, but only one person cant change anything,” says Lodia. “Same goes with Kejriwal, but I will definitely vote for AAP. They may not win, this is their first year, but only if we initiate change like this can we make our displeasure be heard.” More than Sanyal, it is Kejriwal who has impressed Lodia and made him arrive at this decision.
The fact that she is highly educated adds to Sanyal’s appeal among the women of the area. Kanan Parekh, a teacher from Pedder Road, says that she voted for Sanyal last year even though she contested as an independent candidate. “Only an educated person can understand and find solutions to our problems effectively,” says Parekh. “Congress is corrupt, one hears a lot of stories about Modi and BJP, too, so the best bet is to choose someone you know is honest.”
To detractors who comment that she doesn’t even look like an “aam aadmi” and will not not be able to tackle constituency-specific problems, Sanyal points out that the country as a whole has a strong desire for change which has translated into support for AAP. “Agreed that every city has a different character and different issues but people everywhere in India are fed up with the corruption that has paralysed every aspect of our life,” says Sanyal. “Rising inflation, lack of safety, absence of infrastructure, and a political establishment that seems not to care – these are problems that are common not just to Mumbai or Delhi , but to every city and village in our country.” Eradicating corruption is the only way to ensure equal opportunities and thus put an end to the poverty in the country, she says.
The AAP and the anti-corruption wave is a hit among the youngsters, too. Although he hails from a Sena stronghold like Parel, Rohan Anchrekar, 22, an artist and first-time voter, is confident that AAP is the way to go. “Be it the Sena or the Congress, nobody does any work for us. They host the Worli Festival. How will it benefit the poor ones like us? They host cricket matches. Is that what a government should do?” asks an angry Anchrekar. “What is the point in giving us two kilos of free sugar during election time? Have you seen the quality of rice and sugar we get at ration shops?” He points out that the development they claim to do is lopsided. “Look at Pedder Road and Napean Sea Road. They are all chakachak and look at our roads and those in Mohammed Ali Road,” he says. “They say they are doing development and build high rises but send all the drainage into the sea only. What kind of development is this?”
The pinch of rising prices is felt in their life every day and it has made them lose hope in their future, says Sushant R., Anchrekar’s friend and co-worker, who is also contemplating the NOTA option that is being introduced this year. “Every decade the expense for running a small family of four is increasing 10 fold. It won’t be long before we will need at least Rs 50,000 to meet the monthly needs of a family,” says Sushant. “Let me give you a simple example. I used to take the bus from home to college and in my first year, it used to cost me Rs3. By my third year it has become Rs 12. How much will a man save? How will we ever own a house or do anything in life?” Inflation is a serious concern for housewives Bhakti and Sheetal Shinde, of Parel, too. “Gas cylinder and petrol prices have shot up insanely,” says Bhakti. “This in turn affects everything in our lives. If we don’t have money to buy and make food then how will we live?” But they are not ones to be swayed by the likes of AAP. “It is a new party. How can we trust them?” asks Sheetal. “And, from the times of Balasaheb, it is Shiv Sena that has helped us for everything. We trust only them.”
The mention of Balasaheb’s name evokes a highly reverential smile on 63-year-old millworker Suryakant Ramachandra Shinde’s face. An almost similar sentiment is echoed by Preetesh Cheda, owner of Anandji, Premji and Co, a grocery store in Khetwadi, at the mention of Narendra Modi’s name. “Modiji is a great man and I will support him irrespective of the party he is allied with,” says Cheda. “He is a man with a vision, a mission and a plan to make it a reality,” adds Anuja Shah, 35, who picks up her daily groceries of Cheda’s shop. Shah, who is a programme co-ordinator at a private firm that raises funds for education, Adhyayan, is convinced that Modi is synonymous with change and development. “Kejriwal had given us a bit of inspiration but when he got the opportunity to make a difference, he did not use it well,” says Shah. “Modi has been consistently working towards development in Gujarat and although I do not support the Sena and its activities, I will vote for them as it indirectly means supporting Modi.” BJP’s prime ministerial candidate has found support from the most unexpected pockets like Nazeer Shaikh, a resident of Nagpada. He compares Modi to Balasaheb and says that both of them were powerful men who used their clout to do good for their communities. “Just because we have no Muslim leaders working towards our betterment doesn’t mean that Modi is a bad leader,” says Shaikh. “He is one of the best leaders the country has seen.” However, Shaikh says that his loyalties lie with the Congress, which according to him, is the only party that has worked consistently towards helping the minorities in the past 25 years.
The Modi and the AAP wave, however, doesn’t seem to worry Deora. “We have all seen what happened when Kejriwal visited Mumbai. This shows that their ideas and modes of action are no different from the other options available for the voters here,” he says. “But I do not want to get into a negative campaign against any of my contenders. I only want the voters to look at the work I have done for my constituency in the last five years, be it the RTI bill or ordinance on convicted lawmakers, and make a decision on that basis.”
He admits that Nandgaonkar, rather than increasing his chances of winning, could prove to be one of his top contenders. “Nandgaonkar has been an MLA in the area and therefore has been actively involved in the problems of the area, which makes him a candidate who cannot be taken lightly.” Priyanka Kakotkar, an accountant from Girgaum, confirms this. “Nandgaokar has been active even in our area,” she says. “He had conducted computer classes for senior citizens and helped us get Aadhar cards.”
However, the rhetoric in the country is shrill, says Deora. But he is confident that the voters will come out of their misconceptions and not be swayed by misleading campaigns. But, it is easier said than done and looks like Congress will have to pull up their socks to ensure that Deora retains the constituency.