Urmila Matondkar, Kripashankar Quit: Has Cong Given Up On Mumbai?
The Congress party in Mumbai suffered a few shocks this Tuesday, if that’s still possible. In quick succession, two high-profile members resigned from the party – Urmila Matondkar, actor and party candidate in the recent Lok Sabha election ended her five-month stay; Kripashankar Singh, former MLA, minister in the state cabinet and party loyalist who consistently travelled to New Delhi every year to wish Sonia Gandhi on her birthday on 9 December.
In Indapur, near Pune, Harshvardhan Patil, former minister in the state cabinet and counted as the face of the youth not long ago, bid the party goodbye. He joined the BJP on Wednesday.
Coming days before the Maharashtra Assembly election’s announcement, and when the BJP and Shiv Sena are on a spree to fill up their carts with imports from the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the resignations do not bode well for the Congress.
The NCP does not boast of having a robust presence in Mumbai at any time in its 20-year history, but the Congress has had deep bonds and respectable electoral presence in Mumbai, where it was founded 134 years ago.
A Dispirited Maharashtra Congress Lacks Common Purpose
Mumbai elects 36 of the 288 legislators in the Assembly. In the 1999 election held within months of Sharad Pawar quitting with a sizeable cohort of workers to form the NCP, the Congress managed to win 12 of the then 34 seats. The tally rose to 15 five years later, and 17 in the 2009 Assembly. In the 2014 election, held in the after-glow of Narendra Modi’s stunning victory in the Lok Sabha, the Congress and the NCP contested separately; the Congress shrunk to five seats, the NCP could not win a single one.
In these 20 years, the BJP won eight seats (1999), five (2004 and 2009), and eventually 15 in 2014. This tally was a whisker ahead of its long-time ally Shiv Sena, with whom it had snapped ties on the eve of the election. The Sena managed 14. Its claim to represent Mumbai was a wee bit dented.
In the years since, the Congress has been lackadaisical and dispirited, and has come across as a scattered unit without a sense of common purpose. Its leaders have appeared sub-regional to an extent that those from south Mumbai rarely, if at all, moved around in the suburbs, and those from the suburbs further demarcated support bases on community or caste lines. The Congress has been functioning like a patriarch whose best days are behind him and whose past laurels are of little use in today’s environment. Its continuing debacle in the city of Mumbai is mirrored in the resignations of Matondkar and Singh, and a handful of others who quit in recent weeks.
Urmila Matondkar’s Exit: Did Congress Miss Out On An Asset?
An A-list Bollywood actor for years, it’s often overlooked that Matondkar comes from a well-grounded, middle-class, left of centre political family. She was persuaded on the eve of the LS election to take the plunge, when most senior leaders had informally backed off from joining the fight with the BJP’s redoubtable Gopal Shetty for the Mumbai North seat. She said her progression into Congress politics was a ‘natural extension’ of her political ideology, generated some enthusiasm on the ground, and fought the good losing battle, even braving the personal attack for marrying a Kashmiri Muslim.
Did the Congress exhibit its worst side? Indeed, some on the ground did not cooperate or actively worked against Matondkar. The then Mumbai Congress chief Milind Deora communicated his support, but that was it. His predecessor Sanjay Nirupam moved a bit on the ground, but the lack of enthusiasm showed. In her statement on Tuesday, Matondkar said she was quitting over “petty in-house politics” and commented on the party leadership’s failure to put the house in order after the LS debacle, including inaction against those involved in it.
Given her connect with people, comparatively better understanding of politics than most film stars, ability to switch to “Marathi mulgi” (Marathi daughter/girl) image, and glide between Hindi-Marathi-English as needed, she could well have been an asset to the party if it knew how to retain her. Urmila Matondkar had, after all, joined it at a downtime, and knew there would be no fruits of power to pick. But who would decide that she could be an asset and make the space for her and give her a role?
Kripashankar Singh’s Exit Reveals Maharashtra Congress’s Bare Reality
The leadership of the Congress in Mumbai has been virtually split down the middle for years. It took three months now to appoint a replacement for Deora who resigned immediately after the LS debacle. Eknath Gaikwad, the acting president, the old-world grass-roots leader from Dharavi and former MP, is hardly the sort who inspires a new generation, or connects with a fast-transforming city of stark contrasts. He is gamely trying to hold a crumbling house together, but his skill sets do not quite match the job profile.
It’s in Kripashankar Singh’s resignation drama that the innards of the party lie bare.
Once a machine operator who claimed to have also hawked vegetables on the streets of Bombay, this migrant from Jaunpur worked and networked to become a legislator in the Maharashtra Assembly, a junior minister in Congress-led government, and the Mumbai Congress chief, till his star was eclipsed by corruption scandals and disproportionate assets (DA) cases. Singh also claimed to represent – and not wholly wrongly either – that his was the voice of the UP-Bihar migrant in Mumbai who were on the ‘hate lists’ of the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
Eventually, the Congress imported the Sena’s Sanjay Nirupam, of Bihari origin, and invested in his ability for street-fighting and pugnacious attitude, to stem the rising tide of the BJP – the party of natural choice for many Hindu migrants from UP and Bihar – and the two Senas. The scandals, DA cases and Nirupam’s rise marginalised Singh politically, though he moved from a modest Mumbai middle-class flat to owning a floor in a suburban building, to settling down in the city’s toniest suburb. His son, a commercial pilot and investor, made good too. Singh has been seen with BJP’s top brass in recent months. The writing was on the wall.
Did Singh Really Quit Over Cong’s Stance on Article 370 Being Abrogated?
However, the manner of Singh’s resignation speaks volumes. On Tuesday, he was in New Delhi along with a battery of senior leaders from the city to participate in the Congress screening committee meetings for the Assembly election. The Congress plans to contest 29 of the 36 seats; the NCP will fight on seven. The shortlisted names were apparently discussed, all Mumbai leaders had their say, and the follow-up meeting was scheduled for the next day. Singh stepped out, complained that he was not allowed to speak on the Narendra Modi government’s reading down of Article 370 in that meeting, and cited it as his reason to resign from the party.
Why was he in that meeting, why did the screening committee head, Jyotiraditya Scindia, welcome his inputs? Was the party unaware or merely uncaring? The incumbent chief Gaikwad shrugged off the entire episode. When MLA Kalidas Kolambkar had quit to join the BJP, there was no party chief in Mumbai to even give a reaction to the media. Other MLAs are in the queue too. The Congress’s national spokesperson based in Mumbai, Priyanka Chaturvedi, resigned to join the Shiv Sena earlier this year. Meanwhile, the NCP’s Mumbai unit chief Sachin Ahir quit to join the Sena.
Congress Has Lost Touch With Fast-Changing Mumbai
In private conversations, Mumbai’s Congress leaders speak of “an internal crisis” brewing for years, which was exacerbated by the debacles in 2014 and 2019 LS elections – in which the party did not win any of the six seats in the city – and the subsequent leadership vacuum left by Rahul Gandhi’s resignation from the party president’s post. Neither Gandhi nor senior national leaders made their presence felt in the city in the 2019 LS campaign.
It’s almost as if the party has given up on Mumbai — ceding ground in the ‘90s to the Shiv Sena, and more recently to the BJP.
There is hardly any doubt that the Congress has lost most of its connect with a rapidly-transforming Mumbai. The city’s demographics, dominant professions, rhythms, composition of middle-classes, their expectations have been in the grip of major transformations in the last decade. The Congress has been unable or unwilling to keep pace. Its messaging is uninspiring or non-existent in the face of a permanently primed-up communications machinery of the BJP and Sena.
Some of this may have to do with the internal structure in which the city unit president is an island in himself with direct access to the party president, and does not need to work in tandem with state leaders. It worked well when the party was powerful. In the last few years, this has meant an isolation and lack of intellectual-political inputs.
Some of this obviously has to do with the general drift in the party at the top to an extent that most Congress workers – the few who still visit neighbourhood party offices – do not know what the party stands for or cannot articulate it. Besides, its resources are clearly not plentiful any more.
Mumbai’s Congress leaders are not looking forward to the next six weeks. Has the Congress in Mumbai imploded? Well, its current state matches the definition of an implosion.
(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based independent journalist, editor and chronicler, has reported on politics, terror attacks, gender and development for nearly three decades. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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