Mumbai: Who are the north Indian leaders in Mumbai currently, is the million-dollar question for most north Indians in the metropolis. If you pose this query to the Congress and its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), they will cite the names of Arif Naseem Khan (Congress) and Nawab Malik (NCP). Both have limited influence though, confined to the assembly constituencies where they are contesting from.
Ask the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling outfit which is believed to draw its strength from the north Indian vote bank. “We have Vidya Thakur (minister of state), Ramesh Thakur (MLA and former Congressman), Amarjeet Mishra (vice-chairman of the Maharashtra Film Stage & Cultural Development Corporation) and Sanjay Upadhyay (vice-president of the Maharashtra Housing Development Corporation),” insists Prem Shukla, the BJP’s national spokesperson. All of them have been around for many years and active in their respective areas, but none of them have a pan-Mumbai impact, as far as electoral politics is concerned, observers say. Besides, the individuality of the leaders does not matter much in the cadre-based BJP.
Things were different until a few years ago, when natives of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had tall figures like the late Ram Manohar Tripathi, Ramesh Dubey, Chandrakant Tripathi, Kripa Shankar Singh, Arif Naseem Khan, Sanjay Nirupam (all from the Congress), Nawab Malik (NCP) and Abu Azmi (Samajwadi Party)aggressively championing their cause. That was when the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray was seeking to establish himself as the championof the ‘Marathi Manoos’ after drifting away from the Shiv Sena. He would ridicule Chhath Puja (a festival after Diwali) as 'political tamasha' and a 'show of arrogance' by North Indians. The MNS opposition to the festival swiftly transformed to an 'anti-outsider' agenda, with migrants accused of taking away jobs from Maharashtrians in Mumbai. North Indian politics peaked in India’s commercial capital at the same time. The tussle took an ugly turn in 2008, when MNS men resorted to violent attacks on North Indians taking central services exams, taxi and autorickshaw drivers and even attacked street vendors. These incidents scared the community.
The people of UP and Bihar have been the backbone of the metropolis, supplying milk, newspapers and vegetables and providing autorickshaw and taxi services. Many of them, including those employed in the private sector, such as the textile mills of Bhiwandi, fled to their hometowns, apprehending a threat to their lives. The Shiv Sena too had resorted to similar propaganda against north Indians for years, to win over the Marathi community.It softened its stand later, around 2004, after the realisation that Marathi votes alone wouldn’t help fulfil its ambitions. To counter the Thackerays and give a voice to the community, north Indian leaders were skilfully promoted by their respective parties. They played a crucial role in shaping north Indian politics in the cosmopolitan city. After all, the community comprised a significant vote bank. Some like Sanjay Nirupam (Shiv Sena, now the Congress) and Abu Azmi, acquired national stature with their entry in Parliament. However, with the decline of the Congress and the NCP and the rise of saffron parties after 2014, the north Indian leadership of Mumbai gradually went into a decline.
Internal party politics and personal rivalry decimated them further, say insiders. Kripashankar Singh (who quit the Congress last month) and Nirupam were sidelined in the Congress, while Arif Naseem Khan is now being limited to his constituency (Chandivli). Ramesh Thakur crossed over to the BJP. Abu Azmi, whose Samajwadi Party had 28 corporators in Mumbai and half-a-dozen MLAs in the Maharashtra assembly at one point, also lost influence after the party’s downfall at the national level and in its home state, Uttar Pradesh.
Though the Thackeray cousins have lately toned down their rhetoric for political reasons, a large portion of the community continues to nurture fears of being considered 'outsiders'. Many migrants continue to live in squalor, earning less than minimum wages. Since they live far away from home, their land is often grabbed by the mafia there. The absence of a pro-active political leader both in Mumbai, as well as in their hometown, is painful for the community. Yet, their woes and pain will hardly be reflected in the upcoming October 21 assembly poll, mainly because the north Indian voters have been largely supporting the party that is strong at the Centre, be it the BJP or the Congress. This time, the BJP is at the Centre, hence they will extend their support to the saffron alliance in Maharashtra,say observers.
Besides, things have taken a 180-degree turn since the last decade. The Shiv Sena has embraced the Ram temple issue to woo the north Indians. The MNS has lost ground. This has led to a change of heart among the north Indians too.They now choose saffron leaders over north Indian ones. For instance, the Shiv Sena’s Gajanan Kirtikar won the Mumbai Northwest Lok Sabha seat, defeating the Congress’s Nirupam in May. The constituency has a mixed demographic, ranging from slum dwellers to film personalities to the middle class. Among the over 18 lakh registered voters, only six lakh are Maharashtrians.
(Kanchan Srivastava is a freelance journalist)