Is AAP trying to (re)cycle its way into Mumbai politics?

With little but growing presence in Maharashtra capital, the party has come out all guns blazing against Environment minister Aaditya Thackeray over the construction of a cycling track around Powai lake

Maharashtra Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray, along with civic officials, had visited the proposed site for the 10.2 km long “eco-friendly” cycling track in June earlier this year, reiterating that the natural biodiversity of all the flora and fauna around the Powai lake would be retained. Pic: Twitter

The ongoing protests around Powai lake in Mumbai bear similar imagery to the “Save Aarey” movement of 2019. Then, a plethora of green voices had come together to stop 2,600 trees from being felled for the Metro 3 car shed project, citing environmental concerns. Aarey Colony, apart from being one of the only green covers in an overly-populated Mumbai city, is also home to the leopard, the protesters had then argued.

This time, environmentalists, social activists, and residents of Powai have banded together to voice their collective dissent against the ongoing construction of a cycling track along Powai and Vihar lakes, home to the Indian Marsh crocodile.

There is one voice though that seems to be talking over the others. It is that of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Last Tuesday, AAP members and volunteers gathered at Deer Park, adjacent to Powai lake, sporting placards and banners that read “AAP opposes the cycle track project around Powai-Vihar Lakes” and “Stop destroying the Powai Lake ecosystem.”

The party has launched a scathing all-out attack on Maharashtra Environment and Tourism Minister Aaditya Thackeray, calling him “childish” for “converting Mumbai into his personal playground.” “When he wants penguins, he gets penguins; when he wants a zoo in the middle of Aarey, he gets a zoo; and now he wants a cycle track around the fragile area between Powai and Vihar Lakes…”, stated a press release issued by AAP.

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Thackeray, along with civic officials, had visited the proposed site for the 10.2 km long “eco-friendly” cycling track in June earlier this year, reiterating that the natural biodiversity of all the flora and fauna around the lake would be retained.

Once the “Save Aarey” movement gathered momentum, overzealous political parties rallied behind genuinely concerned environmentalists and citizens; this included the Shiv Sena, NCP, Congress, MNS, Samajwadi Party, and AAP. The latter held dharnas, staged multiple demonstrations, and even held a jansabha with the residents of Vanichapada, one of 27 Adivasi padas living in Aarey Forest.

“Aarey is a prime issue for AAP Maharashtra,” the party had said in a Facebook post on September 10, 2019. The BJP had then maintained its stance that the car shed would be beneficial for the city. After all, the Metro 3 car shed project had been sanctioned under the previous BJP-Sena coalition government led by then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.

Current state politics seems to be preventing the NCP and Congress from voicing any sort of dissent against Aaditya’s proposed cycling track, at least for the time being. AAP seems to have identified this as a moment to strike. As they say, ‘strike while the iron is hot’. The party oddly finds itself on the same side as the BJP as far as the cycling track project is concerned. Manoj Kotak, the BJP MP from Mumbai North, on October 7, met with Brihan Mumbai Mumbai Corporation (BMC) Chief Iqbal Chahal and demanded scrapping of the cycling track — an approach very different from the brazen and provocative statements made by local AAP leaders who seem hellbent on grabbing more headlines than the environmentalists and citizens.

With civic elections likely to be held in February next year, and AAP’s announcement that it would contest all 227 seats, the Arvind Kejriwal-led party seems to have realized that Aaditya’s cycling track may very well be the trump card it needs to boost its chances in Mumbai’s civic polls next year. Despite making big noise over the Metro 3 car shed project in September 2019, the party failed to open its account in the assembly elections held the very next month, with most of its candidates losing their deposits in all 24 seats that AAP had contested.

Preeti Sharma Menon, AAP’s national executive member, had then said that the party did not “expect to win at this stage” and that they were gearing up for the upcoming zilla parishad and municipal elections.

Taking up the Powai lake issue and giving it a political twist four months before the election to the richest municipal body of the country—one that is traditionally occupied by Thackeray’s Shiv Sena—could help bring AAP into the eye line of the average voter in Mumbai. The party has bounced back from its lackluster defeat in the 2019 assembly election and Menon’s plan of establishing a strong foothold in Maharashtra’s rural politics seems to have worked out as planned: AAP won a total of 70 gram panchayat seats across 13 districts in January this year, defeating traditionally strong parties such as Shiv Sena, NCP, and Congress. It had contested 300 seats across 13 districts and won 145 on its own. This is a huge comeback when compared with AAP’s abysmal performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when the party contested all 48 seats. Then, AAP had boasted of several top leaders in Maharashtra such as Medha Patkar, Mayank Gandhi, Anjali Damania and Menon herself. However, 47 of their candidates lost their deposits, and the leadership in Delhi consequently denied permission to the party’s Maharashtra unit to contest the next state assembly polls. Its leaders ended up quitting the party for various reasons, Kejriwal dissolved all of AAP’s Maharashtra units on October 2, 2015, and AAP fell into a silent slumber and on autopilot mode in Maharashtra—up until its success in the 2021 village polls.

Also read: Aaditya Thackeray’s Powai Lake cycle track has fired up environmentalists

AAP has always had its eyes on BMC. The party’s tagline read “Surat today, Mumbai tomorrow” as they celebrated winning 27 seats in their debut at the Surat Municipal Corporation election in March this year. Menon, who is also in-charge of the upcoming BMC campaign, had said that Mumbai and Gujarat share similar work cultures and civic issues and that Mumbaikars too, were looking for an alternative. She promised to expose the Sena and bring AAP’s brand of politics to Mumbai’s slums. However, unlike its traditional opponents, the party lacks a prominent face in Mumbai’s political fray. This, as well as going up against the BJP’s “Mission Mumbai” to win the civic body election, will not be an easy task. All of this, while trying to carve out a space for itself up in the municipal body, where it will fight traditional state heavyweights such as the Sena, NCP, and Congress.

This is where the cycling track at Powai Lake comes into play. Doubling down on the issue and going all guns blazing against the Shiv Sena, which forms a part of the ruling state government along with the NCP and Congress, seems to make sense at a time when AAP is riding the wave in its favor after its recent victory in the municipal polls of a neighboring state. In August this year, AAP also inaugurated its new party office located in posh South Bombay where all major political parties have their offices. And with civic polls due, the timing of the party’s public attack on the Shiv Sena — centered around the brewing protests at Powai Lake—couldn’t have come at a better time.

Last but not least, the party’s involvement in the early stages of what could turn out to be another potential Aarey-like situation bears similar imagery (in the minds of voters) to the role it played during the “Save Aarey” movement—and that could count as something that establishes it as a party that has environmental concerns as its top agenda.

Tabrez Ali Sayed, a member of the “Save Aarey” group who is active in Powai as well, said that it is good that political parties are raising the issue. Sayed, however, said he was confident that the movement would stay alive even without politics, just like it had during the Aarey protests movement. “Our motto is the same: Jhanda neeche, mudda upar (Flag down, issue up),” he said.

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