The Mumbai Congress doesn’t need any opponents. Even in the time of a crisis, Congress leaders in Mumbai are busy fighting among themselves. For decades, the Mumbai unit of the party was divided into 2 camps, under Murli Deora and Gurudas Kamat. Now, things have only gotten worse, with the city unit disintegrating into five warring factions!
In the last BMC election in 2012, the Congress won 52 seats with a 21.23 percent vote share. But Congress’ fortunes have only taken a turn for the worse after 2014. The BJP and the Shiv Sena are in power at the Centre as well as in Maharashtra. And the two parties are fighting the upcoming BMC polls separately, making things even tougher for the Congress.
The Mumbai Regional Congress Committee (MRCC) technically comes under the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee, but has been functioning as an almost autonomous unit.
So, while the MRCC has been imploding ahead of the BMC polls, state leaders like Ashok Chavan and Prithviraj Chavan have refused to help save the sinking ship.
While factions in other parties are closing ranks, the rifts in the Mumbai Congress seem to be growing. Here are the leaders of the 5 warring camps in the party.
1. Sanjay Nirupam
From a backward district of Bihar to being the editor of Hindi Saamana (Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece) in Mumbai; and then from featuring in Bigg Boss to becoming Mumbai Congress President – Sanjay Nirupam’s journey has seen several twists and turns.
After the Congress’ debacle in the 2014 Assembly elections, Mohan Prakash, the Congress general secretary in-charge of Maharashtra, made Nirupam the President of the Mumbai Congress. Prakash wanted to try out a new leader in the faction-ridden MRCC but Nirupam ended up creating his own faction, thereby deepening the existing divides instead of bridging them.
Nirupam began his reign with a major reshuffle in the party, appointing his supporters as block presidents. The tipping point was the ticket distribution for the BMC polls, when he turned down requests made by senior leaders in the party. All his detractors publicly questioned his style of functioning and withdrew from the election process.
Old timers look at him as an “outsider” and he’s accused of not taking senior leaders into confidence. Nirupam claims that candidates were selected by a procedure that was put in place by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. His supporters point out that he’s accessible, energetic and knows how to take on the Shiv Sena.
These pictures of a Congress press conference in Mumbai retweeted by Nirupam are telling: while the party’s national leaders are seen with Nirupam, big names from the Congress’ local unit are missing.
2. Gurudas Kamat
The five-term MP from Mumbai’s suburbs, who has often made news for his bad temper, was earlier the biggest challenger to long-time Mumbai Congress chief Murli Deora. He now poses the biggest threat to Nirupam.
In 2011, he skipped a Union ministers’ swearing-in to protest the fact that he was given an MoS post instead of a place in the Manmohan Singh cabinet, like he wanted.
The 62-year-old Rajiv Gandhi loyalist resigned last year as the secretary in-charge of Congress for Gujarat and Rajasthan. He did so because he felt left out of Rahul’s ‘young’ Congress. He is, however, known to be close to party chief Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel.
Kamat has the strongest group of supporters in the MRCC, especially in the suburbs, which has more seats compared to Mumbai ‘town’. Last month, he sent a message to his followers and the media, announcing his complete withdrawal from the election process and levelling charges against Nirupam.
All applicants for municipal corporation tickets are requested to contact their local MLA candidates and district Congress President to get the party nomination as I have withdrawn from the entire exercise of selection of candidates and campaign due to the negative attitude of Mr Sanjay Nirupam, Mumbai Congress President.
He also took to social media to express his anger.
The party next appointed former Haryana CM and senior leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda to douse the fire. An upset Kamat finally agreed to hold a few rallies, but his 'rebellion' has already done the damage.
3. Milind Deora
Murli Deora was the face of Mumbai Congress in the 1980s and 90s. He managed to win the BMC in the early 90s, when the Ayodhya movement had peaked. (After that term ended in 1996, the BMC has been ruled by the Shiv Sena-BJP combine for the last 21 years.)
Deora was close to industrialists in Mumbai and was a powerful Congress leader in South Mumbai. After his passing in 2014, his son Milind took up the mantle and along with it, the leaders who were loyal to Deora Senior.
Milind, 40, was seen to be at odds with Nirupam when the Coldplay concert was organised in Mumbai. While Nirupam opposed it tooth and nail, Deora Junior supported it and even participated in it. Nirupam supporters accuse him of not attending meetings and spending more time abroad. Expressing his displeasure over such an impression being created, Deora wrote a message to Rahul Gandhi and senior Congress leaders, which was then leaked to the media:
Unfortunately, this has been happening for the past several months and does little to help the party’s prospects in Mumbai. Regardless of whether or not all of Murli bhai’s and my supporters have been given tickets, in the interest of our party and as per the directions of Rahul ji, I have been working sincerely and wholeheartedly right from the very beginning.
4. Priya Dutt
Priya Dutt has been in politics for over a decade, following the death of her father, the actor-turned- politician Sunil Dutt.
In true Congress style, the 50-year-old has learnt the art of maintaining a low profile and avoiding excess publicity. She didn’t make her resentment public when her loyalist and former MLA Krishna Hegde “was forced to leave Congress due to Nirupam”. Hegde later joined the BJP.
Many of her supporters are upset that they have been denied tickets. And in what is probably a mark of protest, her unverified Twitter account does not have a single tweet about the ongoing BMC elections. It only has detailed updates about the work done by the Nargis Dutt Foundation for cancer patients.
Dutt usually does not interfere in politics outside her constituency. That’s why she’s accused of not working for the party across the city. But she has a strong presence in her area of Bandra, especially among the Muslim community and slum dwellers in Nargis Dutt Nagar, named after her film star mother.
5. Narayan Rane
Narayan Rane is new to the complex politics of the Mumbai Congress. When he was the Chief Minister of Maharashtra for nine months in 1999, he was a Shiv Sena MLA from the Konkan. After he joined the Congress and later lost his seat in Sindhudurg district, he fought a bypoll from Bandra in 2015. That’s when he realised how difficult it is to be a Congressman in Mumbai.
After losing to the Shiv Sena candidate, he publicly criticised Mumbai Congress leaders and blamed them for his loss. However, it was during this election he gained an understanding of and became part of Mumbai Congress’ politics.
When he was not consulted in the ticket distribution process, an upset Rane announced that he won’t campaign for the Congress in Mumbai. Like Kamat, he too got several calls from Delhi and finally agreed to campaign in the last 7 days. Rane is not active in the party organisation. But he is the most effective orator in his party and one of the few in his unit who can hold rallies in Marathi.
A major chunk of Marathi speakers in Mumbai hail from the Konkan, with whom Rane shares a bond. They have a significant presence in 100 wards out of the total 227. While Nirupam can fetch votes of North Indian migrants, the anger of the two Marathi leaders – Kamat and Rane – will cost Congress dear.
Infighting Hits Campaigning
The Congress is currently up against an aggressive BJP and an angry Shiv Sena. To make matters worse, the AIMIM and the SP are also vying for the Muslim votes. Despite the tough competition, the Congress has failed to play the role of an effective opposition in the BMC. Despite people complaining of potholes and rampant corruption, it could not take on the ruling alliance.
The Congress, in fact, gave away the opposition's mantle to the BJP during the ongoing campaign. Even the hoardings for the polls were put up weeks after other parties.
The Indian National Congress was born in Mumbai in 1885. The objective was to unite Indians and obtain a greater voice in governance. After 127 years, the party needs to unite its warring groups if it has to have a say in the governance of the city of its birth.