Congress vs Congress: Protest politics leaves party split wide open

A day after Mumbai Congress president Sanjay Nirupam's protest at Hutatma Chowk saw dismal attendance, Gurudas Kamat organised a packed protest in Bandra, intensifying the cold war between the two camps

Former Mumbai Congress president Gurudas Kamat has taken the battle straight into incumbent president Sanjay Nirupam’s camp. A day after Nirupam led a silent march of party workers to Hutatma Chowk to protest the suspension of 25 party MPs, the Kamat camp staged a show of strength at Bandra for the same reason on Wednesday.

Also read: Ex-Mumbai Congress head Gurudas Kamat blasts Sanjay Nirupam for anti-BMC tirade

Sanjay Nirupam and Gurudas Kamat. File pics
Sanjay Nirupam and Gurudas Kamat

Eschewing his usual aggressive style, which was criticised by none other than Kamat a fortnight ago, Nirupam chose to be patient in staging the agitation this time. Kamat, on the other hand, could not prevent his supporters from engaging allegedly aggressive BJP supporters, who had come down to shield the Bandra residence of their Mumbai president, Ashish Shelar. Nirupam and his close supporters did not attend the protest.

Widening rift
The incident shows that the rift in the Congress has widened and it could do further harm to the party’s prospects ahead of the municipal elections in 2017. The Kamat camp is expected to mount pressure to get the Mumbai president changed before the civic elections.

Also Read: After BJP vs Shiv Sena, it's BJP vs BJP in Maharashtra cabinet

Sanjay Nirupam and Gurudas Kamat. File pics
Sanjay Nirupam and Gurudas Kamat. File pics

On the other hand, Nirupam, who took over the office earlier this year, is not ready to relent and is using all his connections in New Delhi to hold on to the coveted Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan, the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee (MRCC) headquarters.

The protest, organised by Gurudas Kamat, in Bandra on Wednesday. Pics/Rahul More
The protest, organised by Gurudas Kamat, in Bandra on Wednesday. Pics/Rahul More

When mid-day spoke to him on Thursday, Kamat said that the morcha was held in response to a call made by the party’s high command, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. “In fact, it was the responsibility of others (read: the Nirupam-led MRCC) to hold such protests but, if they have failed to do so, it is their job to explain,” he told mid-day from New Delhi, adding that he would not take any names.

The silent protest led by Nirupam at Hutatma Chowk on Tuesday
The silent protest led by Nirupam at Hutatma Chowk on Tuesday

Kamat said he did not want any credit for the protest. “I compliment the heads of the party’s frontal organisations for staging a protest which was expected by our high command. They showed the city BJP’s real face. I don’t want any credit for this agitation because it was primarily Congress workers who responded to the party’s call.”

Striking early
A leader close to Kamat said that all units across the state were informed to hold protests against the BJP on August 5 and 6. “But Nirupam did it on August 4 in a manner which showed the party in poor light because he could manage to gather only 100 people at Hutatma Chowk. Is this the Congress’ strength in Mumbai?” the leader asked.

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Nirupam did not reply to our text message asking whether taking out the morcha a day after his protest was an act of indiscipline. Kamat supporters said they also wanted to embarrass Nirupam. “It’s time we showed our strength to Nirupam, who has sidelined our representatives in the city committee of office-bearers. On Tuesday, Nirupam had only a small crowd with him at Hutatma Chowk,” said a leader who is part of Kamat’s core group.

Getting even
Sources in the Kamat camp said they had a reason to get even with Shelar because the BJP supporters had violated political norms while staging a protest at the Congress leader’s house last week. The BJP protesters were angry over Kamat’s alleged remarks on union HRD minister Smriti Irani’s educational qualifications.

Kamat, whose family was not home when the BJP workers had become violent last week, had warned the ruling party of similar demonstrations by Congress workers outside the residences of BJP leaders. And, when he sensed an opportunity, he got his supporters, including women, youth and students to gather in large numbers near Shelar’s Bandra home.

His second line of leadership, MRCC’s vice-presidents, general secretaries and secretaries were in full attendance in his absence. According to a leader who is close to Kamat, some 15,000 supporters travelled in 200 buses from various corners of Mumbai to Bandra.

An official release signed by the chiefs of the Congress’ frontal organisations said that the Mumbai Police were against their peaceful demonstration. “We condemn the police for putting up barricades on all roads leading to Ashish Shelar’s residence and for resorting to violence to stop us,” it said.

‘Let actions speak’
Persons close to the MRCC president told mid-day that the high command, especially Rahul Gandhi, was instrumental in giving Nirupam the city’s responsibility. They said that the high command was aware of his role as a Sena leader and they wouldn’t have approved his appointment if they held grudges against him.

“Nirupam is a firebrand leader and his actions speak louder than his words. Kamat has a reason to feel insecure because Nirupam may overshadow his influence in the years to come. Nirupam is well aware of his past. He also knows the Sena in and out and this quality will help the Congress in strategising against the party, which holds sway in Mumbai."

The row
Late last month, Gurudas Kamat had come down heavily on Sanjay Nirupam for threatening to beat up municipal officials if the hawker issue was not resolved in the manner proposed by him. Kamat had said that the threat, if issued, did not reflect the values and sentiments of their party.

“The party (Congress) does not believe in illegal actions of taking the law in our own hands or provoking others to do the same,” Kamat had said. He had targeted Nirupam, a former Shiv Sena MP, saying that the Congress had a rich history of 130 years of service and sacrifice, which new entrants needed to understand, and act accordingly.

Nirupam had not responded officially to Kamat’s remarks then, but his supporters had questioned Kamat’s sudden interest in city matters. They had said on social media platforms that Kamat had not said a word against the state BJP ministers who faced corruption charges and also pointed out the infrastructure issues of the city, a part of which Kamat had represented in the Lok Sabha for several terms.

What next?
People in the know said that the Kamat group will get other disgruntled factions to gang up against Nirupam. Ex-MP Milind Deora, who commands a sizeable and influential group of Congressmen after his father’s death, has reportedly given tacit support to Kamat’s activities.

Some leaders like Eknath Gaikwad (ex-MP) and his daughter and MLA Varsha Gaikwad, however, have been opposing Kamat all along and hence will be difficult to get on board. Several North Indian Congress leaders are against Nirupam for obvious reasons. They see him as competition and would like get him removed from the post or at least get his wings clipped ahead of the civic polls.

Some Nirupam detractors who have been keeping a tab on him ever since he started editing the Shiv Sena’s Hindi mouthpiece ‘Dopahar Ka Saamana’, have been collecting anti-Congress articles and editorials authored by the ex-Sainik. They have been telling the high command about the speeches made by Nirupam in which he has allegedly made defamatory remarks on the Congress leadership.

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