Why Congress is facing a crisis in the very city

of its birth, Mumbai

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 11:21am, 9 July, 2019

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The Maharastra Congress unit is imploding and is both leaderless and rudderless.

At a time when it faces a leadership vacuum and the prospect of its government in Karnataka collapsing, the Indian National Congress is facing a crisis in the very city of its birth, Mumbai.

A 134 years after it was founded here, the Congress unit is imploding and is both, leaderless and rudderless. A day after its city chief, Milind Deora, appointed only in March this year, resigned in order to play a ‘national role,’ the party’s city unit is caught in a public free-for-all.

Former city chief Sanjay Nirupam slammed Deora’s resignation and called it a ‘ladder’ for his political growth; on Monday, he told Newslaundry that the former Union minister was using the Congress party as a ‘personal fiefdom.’ Deora released a statement on Monday, asking supporters to ignore “unpleasant and unwarranted commentary from certain quarters.”

With less than 100 days to go before Maharashtra goes to polls, the infighting has now thrown in serious doubt its ability to offer a fight to the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance in Mumbai, which has 36 crucial Assembly seats on grab. The public bickering, leaders admit, has thrown light on the near-derelict state of the party’s organisation in the city of its birth. Making it worse is that the Congress is headless at the state-level, with Maharashtra chief Ashok Chavan resigning last week.

In contrast, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are already fine-tuning their poll strategies and kicking off campaigns. Both have announced separate tours by their top leaders across the state, even as they reaffirm their commitment to fighting together.

Old affliction, fresh impetus

Factionalism is barely a recent phenomenon in the Mumbai Congress unit. The unit has produced some big leaders for the party in the past, most of whom have been each other’s rivals. “There are reasons for this—the city has been one of our major fund mobilisation centres. Naturally, the person who heads the unit gains immense clout among the business community,” explains a former Congress legislator from Mumbai.

In this rush to gain power and prominence, rivalries have traditionally festered among city Congress leaders.

What has now changed, though, is the party being out of power at all levels, an arrangement that, many insiders admit in half-jest, the party is not used to.

The latest instance of infighting has its most recent backstory from March this year, when the Congress leadership shunted Nirupam out, after several city Congress leaders, led by Deora, mounted pressure on the eve of the Lok Sabha polls. Till a few years ago, the party considered the city its stronghold—in 2009, it bagged all six seats, in 2004, it won five. But this time, the infighting cast a shadow and cost it dearly—of the six Lok Sabha seats, the party and its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), failed to wrest even one.

Nirupam, speaking to Newslaundry, says his sacking was a result of an ‘orchestrated campaign.’

“As a city chief, I had conducted several protests on various issues, including four protests on the Rafale issue. The ruling parties had a problem with that and so did Anil Ambani. All of them conducted a campaign against me and made Deora the campaign’s mascot.”

But leaders who are neither aligned to Deora, nor Nirupam, dismiss this and instead point to Nirupam’s origins—a Shiv Sena leader and editor of its Hindi daily, Dopahar ka Saamna. “The truth is, he has always been seen as an outsider in the party. Congress activists did not accept him and he, in turn, did not trust them. So, he brought in his own people and side-lined other, senior Congress leaders,” says a former party general secretary, who was close to late Union Minister Gurudas Kamat.

Some Congress leaders have accused Nirupam of focussing solely on bagging the North Indian vote and, in the process, reduced the city Congress’ identity to a party of North Indians. Many also point to the Congress’ poor showing in the 2017 elections to Mumbai’s civic body, led by Nirupam, which saw Congress losing 22 seats and ending with 30 seats in the 227-member house.

Dejected by Deora

These were some reasons why many believed that Deora’s reign as a city chief would revive the party’s fortunes in Mumbai. Many, close to Deora, had pitched him to be a leader who could ‘unify’ the faction-ridden city unit.

Bhai Jagtap, a Congress legislator, who took on Nirupam for his remarks on Deora, says Deora had brought different factions along. “He was uniting different leaders and taking them along, something that Nirupam could not do. That is Deora’s major strength,” he says.

However, Deora’s sudden resignation has dampened the hopes of many in the city Congress who now believe that nothing can prevent the Congress from being wiped out in the upcoming state polls. Congress leader and Lok Sabha contestant from Mumbai Urmila Matondkar tweeted that she was “disappointed” with Deora’s resignation since he was a “ray of hope” for the party in Mumbai.

Many Congress leaders are dismayed at Deora’s indication that he was quitting for a bigger national role. A Congress leader, who is an aspirant in the upcoming polls, says the resignation was poorly timed. “At this point, we needed Deora to strengthen the party here, rather than hankering for a bigger post. The organisation is in a shambles—there is no clarity on our alliances, neither on the candidates. Yet, sadly, each leader is pursuing their own aspirations.”

Nirupam says that Deora was shying away from doing the groundwork. “This party is not anyone’s fiefdom for them to ask for a post and quit whenever they wish. People cannot run away when there is time to work. Nobody is calling them to Delhi,” he told Newslaundry, referring to Deora’s statement that he was going to work at ‘stabilising’ the party.

While Deora refused to comment despite repeated requests, a close aide rubbished Nirupam’s allegations. “Nirupam must remember that Deora is resigning on moral grounds, in solidarity with Rahu Gandhi’s resignation. By offering himself for a national role, Deora isn’t being greedy. He’s going there to help in reviving the party.”

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