Ghatkopar (East) rendered itself as the unwilling arena for ego bouts played out between the BJP and the Congress in the past two days. But the choiceless audience the local shopkeepers were left to suffer the blows of the political fisticuffs exchanged in the central Mumbai suburb.
On Wednesday morning, traders were forced to shut shops following a bandh call after angry claims that local BJP MLA Prakash Mehta had sent a bunch of goons to beat up Congress supporter Ashok Bhanushali the night before, in the aftermath of a parking fight at a local sweet shop. The shopkeepers were miffed for losing out on almost a day’s business owing to what they said was a first-of its-kind petty bickering among netas.
The locals said they had never before been forced to stop work so brusquely. “We have closed shops in the past, but only when the whole of Mumbai was on a bandh or during a social movement or protest. On Wednesday, we were forced to down shutters without being given a reason. It was only in the afternoon that we got to know of the squabble,” a shopkeeper said, refusing to be named.
According to sources, Mehta had a scuffle with a sweet shop owner in Ghatkopar on Tuesday afternoon. Bhanushali, who apparently received a call from the shop owner to intervene, claimed Mehta threatened him as well, and later sent goons to bash him up at his office in the locality. The Pant Nagar police registered an FIR following a complaint by Bhanushali, who was later taken to Rajawadi Hospital sporting a black eye.
Shop owner K Karani was annoyed that he had to miss out on business for a day. “It’s a personal matter between the politicians. Why did they force us to shut shops? Who will make up for our losses? Had we objected and kept the shops open, we would have suffered some other kind of loss,” he said, referring to political hooliganism.
Ajay G, another trader forced to shut shop, said, “I don’t know whether it was a Congresswala or BJPwala who wanted our shops shut. Many of us suffered losses due to the unwarranted bandh. The netas should at least let the rest of us go do our business.” A shop owner who didn’t want to be named said if politicians continue with this attitude, they would, in turn, suffer losses in elections, irrespective of which party they belong to.
Ashok Bhanushali, once considered a close aide of Mehta’s till he digressed to the Congress a few months ago, said the shopkeepers shut shops of their own accord, and were not forced by any Congress leader. “I was attacked by BJP goons sent by Prakash Mehta. He is frustrated that the public of Ghatkopar are tired of him. He considers himself a ruler and not a public servant, and so has been boycotted by the educated Ghatkopar residents. Now, he’s stooped to this level,” Bhanushali said.
The BJP claimed the closure was imposed by Congress workers. Mehta, who has been representing the constituency for two decades now, said his scuffle with a sweet shop owner was a personal issue and no complaint had been lodged in the matter. “The person I slapped at the shop is very close to me and my family. There are 50 persons to testify that. Ashok Bhanushali was present there.
If I wanted him attacked, I would have hit him then instead of waiting till evening to send goons. I prefer open confrontation rather than hiding in the back. All of this is a lie and I am not afraid of it. If anyone challenges me, I am ready to face them and give appropriate answers.
This place has been my home and I have been in politics here for the last four decades. I am an established politician and won’t stoop to such a level,” said Mehta. The BJP MLA later changed his version of events, and said, “Even though I never slapped anyone, I wouldn’t hesitate to hit someone trying to disrupt peace by forcing shopkeepers to shut shops in my constituency.”
The road show
Following Bhanushali’s complaint Mehta went to the police station in the afternoon on Wednesday, accompanied by BJP city chief Raj Purohit, party MLAs and corporators, and almost the whole local party unit. He led the pack, covered in a banner that read, ‘Arrest me if I’m guilty.’ In his tow were his supporters shouting slogans. Security was upped and policemen were deployed to keep a tight watch to maintain order. Said Purohit, “We know that the allegations are not true and we all stand by our MLA in this fight. Let there be an enquiry. Mehta has assured his full cooperation to the police.”
Mehta seems set for a battle to rein in the growing clout of the Congress in his constituency, even with fights within the Congress for MLA tickets. Pravin Chedda, a local Congress corporator formerly of the BJP and an aspirant for the assembly elections, is campaigning openly against the BJP legislator. Bhanushali, who has been antagonised by Mehta, is perceived to be close to Raja Mirani, another Congress aspirant for the assembly elections. A party insider said, “Earlier this month, Chedda had carried out a protest in Ghatkopar to gain some brownie points. Now, the Mirani camp is doing its bit to show even they are in the fray.”