By Smita Deshmukh
Rahul Gandhi's two-day visit to Mumbai is expected to focus on city development issues, and to enthuse party workers and to engage young Mumbaities. However, the Congress vice president arrives in the city on Friday at a time when his party is facing its toughest political challenge ever in the state of Maharashtra.
After its embarrassing rout in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, where the party won just two seats out of 48 in the state (and lost all six LS seats in Mumbai), the Congress has been struggling to fight back. The multiple camps, the lack of a strong leadership has meant that the party along with its coalition partner – the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has failed to mount a single, combined campaign on any issue against the Devendra Fadnavis- led BJP-Shiv Sena government.
The old Congress guard also has its own set of problems. Former CM Prithviraj Chavan is not acceptable to the party cadre as a leader, Patangrao Kadam remains sidelined and Narayan Rane is considered to be too ambitious, and is considered as a leader who keeps everyone guessing on his next move. Former CM Ashok Chavan is the state Congress chief and has won his Nanded LS seat, but the taint of Adarsh scam continues to haunt him. This leadership vacuum has forced Rahul Gandhi to grapple with junior state and city leaders for the crucial battle for Mumbai.
Rahul Gandhi arrives for a Mumbai darshan with the clear aim of preparing for the mother of all battles in Feb 2017 – the polls for the richest civic body – the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. In the 227 member BMC, the Congress has 52 corporators, second best to the Shiv Sena with 75. With Sena and BJP yet undecided on the alliance, the civic polls are an acid test for all political parties in Maharashtra.
For over three decades, Mumbai Congress was the fiefdom of a senior Congress leader – the late Murali Deora. Deora’s reign was challenged by Congress MP and CWC member Gurudas Kamat, known to be close to the Gandhi family. The entry of Sanjay Nirupam was to garner the crucial North Indian community, often at the receiving end from all three saffron parties – the BJP, Shiv Sena and MNS. The battle royale between Kamat and city Congress chief Nirupam has now reached epic proportions, with supporters almost physically attacking each other a couple of days ago over the planning of Rahul Gandhi’s visit. While Kamat’s camp is ecstatic over Nirupam getting a show cause notice over the ‘Congress Darshan’ article, which was highly critical of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Nirupam supporters claim some kind of moral victory as Rahul Gandhi chose to visit Mumbai despite this controversy.
But the rot runs deep. Out of the 52 corporators in the BMC, over 40 are Kamat supporters. Observers feel that Kamat would want his team to get the maximum number of tickets for the BMC polls. The big question is whether the camps led by Deora and Kamat will align to tackle Nirupam. The party’s five MLAs in the city, who could play a crucial role in deciding the political strategy for the civic polls, are also caught in the politics of rivalry. While Naseem Khan and Varsha Gaikwad are open supporters of Kamat, Amin Patel is seen to be in the Deora camp, Kalidas Kolamkar is a Narayan Rane man, while Aslam Shaikh is in the Nirupam group.
As Mumbai grapples with environmental, traffic and infrastructure issues, Rahul Gandhi arrives in the city without any definite plan on the party’s strategy for Mumbai. He will visit the political constituencies of all top leaders, address college students (something seen as ‘routine’) and hold a padyatra (seen as show of strength) from Bandra to Dharavi, focusing on growing electric bills in the city, an issue which is almost a year old now.
Perhaps a photo op with a slum-dweller, or a journey in a local train? Nah, maybe next time!
Smita Deshmukh is a senior journalist and communication expert based in Mumbai. You can follow her on twitter @smitadeshmukh