Riding high on its victory in the Punjab Assembly elections, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will look to make a splash with its debut in the upcoming corporation election in Mumbai. This will also help establish itself as a national party.
The decision to contest the BMC election, the richest civic body in the country, was taken by AAP early last year — a decision whose physical manifestation was fortified by the party setting up a swanky new office in Mumbai’s Fort area, in close proximity to the BMC headquarters itself.
“The opening of our South Mumbai office is a part of our larger campaign to reach out to Mumbai voters and establish a physical presence across prominent locations in the city,” said Preeti Sharma Menon, AAP’s Mumbai-in-charge at the time. “We welcome Mumbaikars from all walks of life to join the Aam Aadmi Party, be members of our organization, and utilize AAP as a vehicle for the social change that Mumbai needs.”
Today, the party’s Mumbai leaders say their cadre find themselves rejuvenated and optimistic ahead of the corporation election next month, where it will be pitted against traditional political bigwigs such as the Shiv Sena, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian National Congress (INC), and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), who have dominated their respective spots in Mumbai’s corporation for the last three decades.
Speaking with The Federal, Menon, who is also a national executive member of the party, says that Mumbai is the “next logical place” after Delhi for AAP. “Both cities are similar: they are essentially the two capital cities of India where people of all classes and communities reside. Mumbai is the next natural place for the Aam Aadmi Party.”
“Our win in Punjab has motivated the AAP cadre in Mumbai ahead of the BMC election,” she said. “Ever since, there have been so many new people approaching us every day to join and volunteer for the party. Even the surge we saw in our victory rally was amazing…all of this has been really overwhelming and the citizens themselves are feeling buoyant. I think they (people) are going to see AAP now being accepted as a national party throughout the country.”
Banking on Delhi model
Despite its high morale post the Punjab election results, making a dent in the local body election in Mumbai will not be without a struggle.
AAP Mumbai’s Working President Reuben Mascarenhas (34) is aware of this but is confident that the party’s young cadre, and the strategy of replicating the “Delhi model of governance” will work in catching the eye of Mumbai’s voters.
“We have evolved as an organization since India Against Corruption (IAC) in 2011,” he said, speaking with The Federal. “The party was registered in 2013 and the only election we contested back then was the 2014 Lok Sabha election subsequent to which we have not contested other elections because at the time, our focus was on Delhi. Now that we have a model of governance in Delhi and have been able to win the election there thrice…we have a playbook to defeat the BJP. It is only now that we (as an organization) have decided to contest local body elections in all states. This will be the first time that AAP will be contesting the local body election in Mumbai. It is our debut in the BMC.”
Mascarenhas recalled that Mumbai has contributed to AAP as much as Delhi during its anti-corruption movement.
“Mumbai is also a cradle of activism. Mumbai did as much work as Delhi, in terms of the scale of mass mobilizations or public demonstrations, during the IAC movement. Currently, there is no precedent of how a national party should be built post the independence movement. We are essentially the first such attempt. We have to build the party brick by brick and get people on the ground,” he said.
“Right now, AAP has about 15,000 workers in Mumbai, out of which 2,500 are active party volunteers. We have been able to set up around 80 ward-level teams across the city and this number is going up quickly,” he said, but had a note of caution, saying elections were different ballgame compared to a protest movement.
“Having said that, we are still a work-in-progress as far as Mumbai is concerned—but we have a much better organization right now than we did ten years ago. There is a difference between a people’s movement (IAC) and a political party (AAP); the latter has to mobilize voters and ensure that they vote during elections. This is something that the AAP in Mumbai is currently working on.”
Taking on Shiv Sena
Mascarenhas was, however, confident of AAP winning at the BMC polls.
“We are a young people’s party. AAP Mumbai is growing organically; it is not as visible as it should be but you will something spectacular happening at the grassroots level in the coming months. The AAP workers in Mumbai feel that it’s only a matter of time before we actually end up forming the government in Mumbai at the BMC level.”
Apart from highlighting the civic failures by the current Sena-dominated BMC, AAP’s strategy in Mumbai also revolves around giving young faces a chance to contest the upcoming corporation election.
“We have decided that the majority of people contesting the BMC election will be young because these (young) candidates must be given an opportunity,” he said. “Different political parties have different definitions of what a young candidate is…some even push the age limit to 55-60 years of age. But we are not going to play such games. We are going to give young people the opportunity to contest.”
Mascarenhas also believes that it is a “long-standing myth” that the BMC is “dominated” by the Shiv Sena. The party currently holds a majority with 84 seats in the corporation, followed by its ex-alliance partner and now arch-nemesis in the state, the BJP, which has 82 seats.
Citing a praja.org report, he says that what people tend to forget is that Mumbai has underperforming municipal councillors marked in red.
“Most of them have become collection agents,” he said. “Any Mumbaikar, no matter which department of the BMC they visited, would have experienced corruption in some form or the other. It has become a way of life—and of governance—in Mumbai. The BMC has been unable to construct roads without potholes; one monsoon shower results in heavy traffic jams and accidents. Almost 10 species of fish have become extinct and the entire coastal ecosystem has gone for a toss. There is a scam under every stone in the BMC. You just need to lift the nearest stone to find it.”
He also pointed to the irony of Congress sitting in the opposition in BMC and in the ruling coalition in the state.
“Who is in the Opposition in the BMC? It is Congress i.e. the same party that runs the state along with the Shiv Sena and NCP. So technically, there is no actual Opposition in the BMC.”
Menon strongly felt if the numbers are broken down and looked at closely, there exists a definite space for the AAP to occupy in Mumbai’s political spectrum.
“Mumbai has around one crore voting population. Last BMC election, the Shiv Sena received around 14.4 lakh votes. They (Sena) have a strong vote share and a loyal vote bank but one must look at this number in a way where almost 85 lakh voters did not vote for them. These voters can be developed as voters for AAP. The potential is huge. There is enough space for other parties…but the real challenge is whether we can convince the voters that an alternative is available.”
Fight on environment turf
The AAP’s gameplan of presenting young candidates to contest the BMC election next month, clubbed with its pro-environment stance and its “young cadre” card, seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to Yuva Sena chief Aaditya Thackeray’s strategy of attracting young voters by initiatives such as tactical urbanism that revolves around reclaiming open spaces.
Thackeray, who is the state environment minister, has worked hard at developing an environmentally conscious image over the years, which helped dent the Aarey Metro car shed fiasco during the last Shiv Sena-BJP tenure in the state.
“I always prefer a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” ssaid ys Menon. “If somebody is a known wolf and they are anti-environment, then you can go all out and attack them. But Aaditya’s brand of pro-environment politics is even more dangerous. At one time he talks about saving the environment, and at the same time, goes on to bring penguins into the Mumbai zoo. He wanted to build a 200-acre car shed in the Aarey forest. He claims to be a paryavaran premi (environment lover) but also goes about sanctioning the construction of a cycle track near Vihar lake, which is the nesting ground of crocodiles. But the worst of it all is the coastal road—it is bleeding our city dry. I think Aaditya’s brand of politics is even more dangerous since he pretends to be conscious about the environment, but at the same time, is doing irreparable damage to Mumbai’s environment.”
Last month, the BMC allocated a whopping ₹3,200 crore (out of ₹45,949 crore) out of its 2022-23 budget for the Coastal Road project. When asked if Thackeray’s measures of revamping and reclaiming open spaces have worked in his favour, Mascarenhas said: “The people watching TV and newspapers, for them, Aaditya Thackeray might be a Sena leader…but for most people on the ground, their experience with the Sena comes from their corrupt corporator, which is a lived reality. Whatever he (Aaditya) might say or do, at the end of the day, Mumbaikars have to deal with a local corrupt Shiv Sena structure of the same shakha pramukhs. After the Aarey Metro car shed incident, people know the difference between what is packaged as PR and what is actually delivered on the ground. With the Sena, all that people have experienced is shoddy work and rampant corruption. I don’t think the young people in Mumbai are going to fall prey to it once again.”
No Punjab effect in Mumbai: Sena
Speaking with The Federal, senior Shiv Sena politician and leader of the House (in BMC) Vishakha Raut said he doesn’t think the AAP will be able to make a dent in its maiden BMC election. Nor will a “Punjab effect” or “Kejriwal effect” happen in Mumbai, she asserted.
“The story of Punjab is completely different than that of Mumbai. There is a different perspective on why the people of Punjab elected him (Kejriwal). They (people) didn’t want the Congress or the BJP, hence the only option they were left with was AAP and decided to give them a chance,” Raut said.
She further said that politics in Punjab play out differently. “Mumbai is the birthplace of the Shiv Sena. Whatever may be the situation in the country, as far as BMC is concerned, the people will always want Shiv Sena to be there,” she added.
When asked about the AAP’s effect on Mumbaikars — especially the young voters — versus that of Yuva Sena Chief Aaditya Thackeray’s, Raut said: “Aaditya Thackeray has the young brigade with him. He handles issues of college students, like those related to fee hikes, etc. He also knows the BMC like the palm of his hand. Along with being the environment minister, keeps a tap on the BMC. He has improved the education system in BMC-run schools; like public schools in Delhi, we have also started public schools in Mumbai. He also works for causes such as solar energy and undertakes climate projects…”
“As far as Punjab is concerned, the people will realise sooner or later what their mistake was,” she said. “Let the AAP function for a bit in Punjab and watch the situation play out.”