In the Congress, it's loyalists vs ex-Sainik

Mumbai has always played a crucial role in the shaping of major political parties. The city has given political outfits master strategists and, being the economic capital of the country, has been their eternal source of funding. It has also hosted their respective launches the Congress was founded here more than a century ago, and the party which is currently ruling in New Delhi and Mumbai the Bharatiya Janata Party too was born here in 1980. Mumbai’s civic corporation, which is also the country’s richest local self-government body and has an annual budget higher than some small states, has always been on the political radar.

The metropolis is the only power centre, apart from Delhi, where politicians from other states have built their careers. One goes to Delhi through the Parliament or party organisations but, in Mumbai, one has to explore many options to make it big and be in a position to direct the party. We have seen that a change in leadership leads to a change in a party’s approach, which others in the outfit may not necessarily approve of, giving rise to intra-party squabbles. Discreet skirmishes turn to public battles.

Mumbai Congress’ incumbent president Sanjay Nirupam is at the centre of one such factional feud. Nearly two decades ago, Nirupam, a sub-editor in a national Hindi newspaper, was handpicked by the late Bal Thackeray to edit the Sena’s Hindi mouthpiece. The tactical Bihari was soon rewarded with two successive terms in Rajya Sabha. Nirupam developed differences with Thackeray in 2005 and quit the party as well as the Rajya Sabha seat the same year. He said then that the Sena’s aggressive stand against North Indian migrants in Mumbai and the party’s ally BJP, which did not allow his fight against corruption and nepotism, made him resign.

Nirupam joined the Congress soon after and party loyalists opposed his induction, arguing that his speeches and writing against the Gandhis were unpardonable. Nirupam, however, outwitted detractors by getting a Lok Sabha nomination from Mumbai North in 2009. Splitting of votes by the MNS helped him win the seat, which he lost to BJP’s Gopal Shetty by the highest margin in the state last year. The 50-year-old was later made the Mumbai unit chief. The loyalists, who were reduced to ‘emotional wrecks’ in view of the party’s poorest show ever, were unwilling to take responsibility.

With the changing political discourse, especially the anti -BJP voices gaining ground, the Congress loyalists have realised the importance of being active in the party ahead of the 2017 civic polls. Firebrand Gurudas Kamat, who says he doesn’t spare anything wrong within the party, has attacked Nirupam for allegedly threatening to use violence against civic officials if they continue to act against hawkers. He has reminded Nirupam that he heads a Congress unit and not a Sena shakha. The former Mumbai Congress chief is also not happy with the way Nirupam is treating party seniors in the city.

More importantly, Nirupam is accused of toeing a line which will help the Sena in polarising Marathi votes against north Indians in the forthcoming polls. The non-Nirupam factions fear that the Sena, if pitted against the BJP and Congress in the civic polls 18 months from now, will walk away with the most seats yet again. Another charge against Nirupam is that his overall approach and conduct is not in sync with the Congress’ philosophy.

Massive social media campaigns are being run by both sides. The Nirupam camp wants to know where Kamat was when the party needed him the most to attack corruption in Maharashtra’s BJP-led government, and when the city’s poor civic infrastructure was troubling citizens. Kamat says he has been busy in the other states assigned to him by the party.

This time, Kamat is not alone in the fight. The Deora faction, now led by ex-MP Milind Deora in his late father Murli Deora’s absence, seems to have given Kamat a freehand. All north Indian leaders, who were otherwise scattered, are supporting Kamat’s strategy.

The feud is expected to escalate further. The fact that various factions, which have been ganging up against Kamat in the past, are now with him, should be a cause of concern for Nirupam and the Congress as a whole because both have the all-important BMC polls to think about, which is a chance to redeem some lost pride.

The writer is Political Editor of mid-day

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