With the Shiv Sena wooing outsiders, the Congress banking on film stars and the BJP determined to repeat its best showing ever, it is maximum politics in the Maximum City
Lhendup G Bhutia | 18 Apr, 2019
THE SITUATION IS very tense,” the media manager tells anyone who cares to ask. “Urmila is very upset.” Moments before, a message has travelled to journalists across Mumbai, about an attack that morning on Urmila Matondkar, the actress who is now contesting on a Congress ticket from the Mumbai North constituency, bringing, it appears, almost all of the city’s television media to a hurriedly announced press conference. And although the hall in this office isn’t particularly small, it appears woefully inadequate. There are cameras and journalists sticking out from every corner. Visiting party workers and guests are turned away. Outside, a quiet residential area is abuzz with parked OB (outdoor broadcast) vans and policemen with large guns.
“When will it start?” a journalist asks the manager. It’s been several hours since many of them turned up.
“Very soon,” she replies. “Let’s wait for some more journalists to show up.”
“But where’s the space?” another journalist mumbles.
The entire schedule for the day, the media manager tells us, has been torn asunder. Even scheduled interviews have had to be put on hold. More journalists are trooping in every few minutes. The owner of this office, a Congress worker, unused to so much attention, goes about arranging the photos in his office and ordering refreshments—first cups of tea, then some sandwiches and finally little colourful ice-lollies.
Around the hall, a man is walking around sizing the crowd. He is built like a bull. And although dressed plainly—in a yellow kurta—he is a little too striking for these dour surroundings. He looks the sort one encounters in Lokhandwala coffee shops but a bit too large and muscular. And there is an acknowledgement in his physical shape of the transition his career has made: from a film hero aspirant to a character actor/villain aspirant. “Main hota toh, murder ho jaata (Had I been there, there would have been a murder),” he is telling someone. He is Matondkar’s husband, a former model and sometime actor Mir Mohsin Akhtar.
Matondkar descends from the stairs of some hidden upper room after a while. She is dressed carefully to convey a sense of plainness—an olive-green kurta, the hair tied behind in an ordinary scrunch, a face dabbed with only the slightest amount of make-up, and unpainted fingernails. Her unremarkable slippers flap and make a military clatter behind her.
She looks around as she finds her seat in front of the cameras, hard-eyed, as if she has arrived to bear witness to a crime. Any query that questions her narrative is parried back as an instance of a biased media, as a continuation of the crime. The facts of the matter are this: earlier that morning, Matondkar had appeared at a crowded local train station during peak hour to campaign. A number of people—whom she claims were BJP workers—began to chant ‘Modi’ slogans and, according to her, gesture obscenely towards her and the women gathered at the station. At some point, a fight broke out between both sides.
“This was the first time I was scared for my physical safety,” she tells me later. “I wanted to keep this campaign clean and on issues. But they have stooped to such a level. And this has been going on from day one, right from the time my name was doing the rounds [as a Congress candidate]. I have been harassed and trolled both online and outside.”
The Congress and NCP suffered a humiliating defeat to the BJP and Shiv Sena in the 2014 General Election in Mumbai. All six seats—and these included some held by well-known Congress names like Milind Deora, Priya Dutt and Gurudas Kamat—were won by the BJP and Shiv Sena with victory margins that were often in the lakhs. But even the most enthusiastic supporters of the BJP and Shiv Sena will acknowledge that this is going to be a much more closely-fought election.
Yes, people come to see me wondering what I am like a person. But then there are others who take me less seriously. They think I am a bimbo,” says Urmila Matondkar, Congress candidate, Mumbai North
“[In 2014] people held their noses and voted,” says Milind Deora, the current Mumbai Congress chief and candidate from Mumbai South. “How do you otherwise explain a Shiv Sena fellow winning from here [Mumbai South]?” Deora reasons there was a Modi wave in 2014 and people voted for either BJP or Shiv Sena candidates, even those whom they did not like, simply to get Modi elected Prime Minister. “Tell me the name of a single MP? People don’t even know who their MPs are. That’s how bad they have been… There were some very good candidates in 2014, but people overlooked them. But the situation has changed now, there is no Modi wave.”
We are seated in Deora’s Churchgate office. Outside his room, the rest of the office is reminiscent of a 1970s Bollywood film. There are small broken sofas and white tables and floor, and creaking pedestal fans. Deora looks like he has just emerged from the peakhour crush of a local train. His shirt tails are out and the collars lie flattened. He is on a chair now, multi-tasking. He is typing out phone messages, scribbling out little numbers in the margins of paper sheets, while picking out the remainder of his lunch caught between his teeth (with a toothpick, a hand always covering his mouth).
The son of a well-known Congress leader from this area, South Mumbai, has been considered something of Deora’s family fiefdom. But the former minister and close confidante of Rahul Gandhi lost his first election in 2014. He is in a good frame of mind now, he tells me. He has had some time away from active politics, last year even briefly forming a jazz-cum-rock n’ roll band, Third Degree, where he played the guitar.
According to Deora, the biggest setback that has befallen the city since 2014 is the loss of its voice. “The city is the economic and cultural capital of the country. But where is its voice in New Delhi. It is not that our MPs [from Mumbai] do not talk in Parliament. But are they even heard?” he asks.
What does the current election mean to Mumbai? It is about the identity of Mumbai, he says. “Mumbai is such a diverse city, more so than any other [Indian city]. It is for everyone. But the identity of the city is in threat—it has been for some time,” he says. “What the city needs is a political platform that takes everyone along, that can articulate the true identity of the city.”
To add to the perception of the Congress’ decline in Mumbai is the infighting that has plagued the party’s city chapter. Deora had spoken against the “sectarian politics” of Sanjay Nirupam, who was subsequently removed as Mumbai Congress chief. Deora refuses to get drawn into that conversation today. He claims all is now well within the party.
The words emerging from Gajanan Kirtikar would have been received with a shock, even an abomination, in Shiv Sena circles had it not become increasingly common in recent years. “Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city,” he says. “We must always respect that.”
“Of course we have the interests of Marathas on our mind. But the city has changed a lot. And to win an election we have to get votes of people from other communities too,” says Gajanan Kirtikar, Shiv Sena candidate, Mumbai North West
The 75-year-old Kirtikar is one of Shiv Sena’s seniormost leaders. He is re-contesting in Mumbai North West which he won in 2014. “Of course we have the interests of Marathas on our mind,” he clarifies. “But the city has changed a lot. And to win an election we have to get votes of people from other communities too.” Even north Indians, Gujaratis and Muslims, communities the Shiv Sena has targeted at various periods? “Yes, all of them,” he says.
Although the Shiv Sena and BJP have come together in an alliance, beneath the bonhomie, there is an ideological turf war going on. The two have cast their nets wide, but at least since 2014, the BJP is reeling in the bigger catch. The city’s demography is changing rapidly. Former Marathi-speaking areas like Girgaum have large populations of Gujaratis and Marwaris now. “Even in Marathi-dominated areas like Central Mumbai, places like Dadar, Parel and Lalbaug, they are changing. The Marathi population is being pushed away as big corporate companies, shopping areas and residential high-rises come up instead,” the Mumbai-based political commentator and political science professor Surendra Jondhale says. Every constituency in Mumbai has a large number of other communities, and no political party—even the Shiv Sena or Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS)—can ignore them. The MNS is campaigning for Congress and NCP leaders in the state and might deliver some Maratha votes to them.
The rise of BJP, Jondhale argues, means that apart from their pre-existing vote base of Gujaratis and migrants from Bihar and UP, even the middle and professional classes are moving into their fold. Aaditya Thackeray, son of the Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, a few weeks ago addressed a gathering in Thane, many of whom were from Bihar and UP, telling, “I was asked if I will speak in Hindi. I will speak in English, Hindi, Marathi or French because here language is not important, but what is said from the heart.” He however uttered these lines, according to Hindustan Times, in Marathi. Last December, even Raj Thackeray, whose MNS was built on a plank of ejecting migrants, addressed north Indians, to tell them—in Hindi—that he wasn’t against them, only politicians from their states for impeding the progress of their constituencies and thus leaving the people with no choice but to migrate.
According to the organiser of that event, Vinay Dubey of the Uttar Bhartiya Maha Panchayat in Mumbai, an organisation that seeks to safeguard the interests of north Indian migrants, there are around 4.2 million registered voters from these communities in Mumbai and nearby areas. “Historically, our community [of north Indians] hasn’t voted only for one party. We have voted depending on who we think can protect us. Sometimes we voted for Congress and sometimes we voted for BJP,” he says. According to Dubey, the community has been particularly suspicious of the Congress since 2008, when MNS workers targeted north Indians in the city. “Although we had voted for the Congress [which won the state election in 2004 with the NCP], they allowed MNS to run riot because it helped them that a new challenger to the Shiv Sena should arise,” he says.
Dubey is a 32-year-old e-commerce merchant who deals in used electronic goods. A popular figure amongst the north Indian community in the city through his organisation, Dubey has sniffed a good enough chance, he says, looking at the sizeable north Indian population in Kalyan, a distant suburb to the east of Mumbai, to contest as an Independent candidate.
Back in Kirtikar’s office, anywhere you cast your eye, something saffron glows. Paperweights, press releases, statues, chairs, walls, and little ribbons that loop around files gleam in a sharp orange. Even the beverage served here, Mirinda, is saffron.
In front of me, Kirtikar is rattling off a series of his achievements as an MP. He talks of his attendance percentage in Parliament, the debates participated in, questions raised, and the average of all MPs. Two years ago, he was caught in a bitter fight with BJP MLA Vidya Thakur, for taking the credit of naming a local railway station Ram Mandir. Both parties claimed their party had done it. To many in the city, the Sena took such an active role on the station’s naming to pander to north Indians. According to Vinod Pokharkar, one of the convenors of the Maratha Kranti Morcha, the group which led a series of silent marches in Maharashtra a few years ago, all this points to how the Shiv Sena doesn’t really have the interests of the Marathas on their mind. “They say Maratha this Maratha that, but they don’t really care about us,” he says. “When we were doing the marches, Uddhav Thackeray did not say anything about us. In fact, he was in Ayodhya talking about the Ram Mandir issue.”
“Mumbai is such a diverse city. But the identity of the city is in threat. What the city needs is a political platform that takes everyone along,” says Murli Deora, Mumbai Congress chief and candidate from Mumbai South
Pokharkar was born and raised in a Maratha neighbourhood in the city’s Ghatkopar area, although he has now moved to Navi Mumbai. He claims to represent Maratha youths disillusioned with political parties. There has been a split within the Maratha Kranti Morcha itself, with one wing against the ideas of contesting elections. “These are people with ties to pre-existing parties,” he says. And there are others, such as Pokharkar, who believe they need to contest to bring Maratha concerns to the fore. He and three members of the Morcha are contesting as Independents. Their ultimate aim, he says, is to contest all 288 seats for the state elections later this year. “This is just the trailer. The picture is later this year,” he says. “We are going to teach all of them [various parties] a lesson.”
Amongst Congress candidates, Matondkar has perhaps the toughest fight on her hands. Mumbai north is currently held by BJP’s Gopal Shetty, who registered a victory margin of 446,000 votes in 2014. He was, until recently, considered unbeatable. The former Mumbai Congress chief, Sanjay Nirupam, who had lost to Shetty then, relinquished the post of Mumbai Congress chief, according to rumours, on the condition that he be allowed to fight from another constituency, Mumbai North West.
Mumbai North has been a BJP stronghold since the late 1980s when Ram Naik, UP governor now, went undefeated through five General Elections there. He was eventually defeated by another actor, Govinda. “With actors, you can never tell,” say Jondhale. “You can have the toughest politicians but an actor-politician can come from nowhere and change all that.”
At the Matondkar press conference, a photographer who covered Govinda’s election campaign tells me, “You know how Govinda is.” He uses a finger to turn an imaginary screw to his head. “He would come late to his own rallies. Everyone from the media to the party workers would be waiting from the afternoon and he would show up at night.”
Unlike other actor-politicians—especially female-actor politicians like Hema Malini—Matondkar appears to know how the beast works. Her glamour has been carefully tempered. She knows what to say, how to say. She eats vada pavs (if there is ever a symbol to establish ones’ Marathi credentials, that is it), she will play cricket, walk into tiny slums and hug children, speak in a variety of languages at her events, yet cry foul and claim her opponent is communal when he takes out advertisements in Gujarati.
Until a few weeks ago, Shetty might have appeared invincible and Matondkar a complete novice. But she and her PR team have learnt quickly. Shetty appears worried. He recently told a journalist that Matondkar had been given a Congress ticket because of her face. It might have been a crude statement but there is some elemental truth because, because—without any record of political activity—she was obviously chosen for being a Bollywood personality. Within hours, he was being called out for his misogyny.
“She is a complete natural,” Deora says about Matondkar. “She has taken to politics like fish to water.”
According to Matondkar, her celebrity status both works in favour and against her. “Yes, people come to see me wondering what I am like a person. But then there are others who take me less seriously. They think I am a bimbo,” she says. “Let me tell you I had a great life before this. Not a five-star life, a seven-star life. But there are so many issues with this current government, that’s why I am here.”
It is about 5 pm now. “I don’t know for the past how many days I have gone without lunch,” she says. She casts her eyes across the room as though in search for a meal. But her manager is at the door looking at her watch. It is time for another rally.
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