Even as Bandra West, with a sizeable Catholic population, has traditionally been Congress’s safest seat in Mumbai, the party’s grip on its vote bank here may be loosening with electors having already ousted Priya Dutt in the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year. Months later, there remains a strong anti-incumbency staring at Congress MLA Baba Siddique, who has represented this Assembly constituency for 15 years now.
The traditional voter base of the Congress, Catholics from upscale Bandra neighbourhoods, residents of gaothans as well as Muslims are now vocal in their opposition to proliferation of slums in the area. Their grouses are centred around the several botched-up slum rehabilitation schemes in the area, rampant illegal construction and encroachment of open spaces. The other problem for Bandra residents is the multiple night clubs lining up the quaint narrow bylanes of this “queen of the suburbs”, with their high-spirited patrons and loud music running into the wee hours.
Siddique is pitted against BJP’s Ashish Shelar, his party’s city unit chief who lost in 2009 by a slim margin of 1,691 votes to the former. Also in the fray are local Koli leader Vilas Chawri of the Shiv Sena. In the Lok Sabha elections this year, BJP candidate Poonam Mahajan was leading in this constiuency by 27,000 votes, something Siddique will no doubt be thinking about as he starts his campaign.
“We thought he was one of our own, but he duped us during redevelopment of our buildings. Now, thanks to his greed for more space, fire brigade cannot enter the lanes beside our building Jamatejamuria near Reclamation and our mosque area has been reduced. We are wary of the BJP, but Shelar has not troubled us in any way and we too want development. Either we don’t vote at all or we vote for Shelar,” says Adbul Taleem, resident of Ketaki marg near reclamation.
While the Koli Christians are in favour of Shane Cardoz, an Independent from the East Indian community, Catholics and citizen groups are also looking for a change. “Siddique has been our MLA for 15 years during which grotesque mutli-storey buildings have come up in erstwhile gaothans. Unchecked growth of slums in the past 10-15 years has also led to increase in crime in the area. Open spaces are being recklessly encroached upon by hoteliers and slums in the reclamation area from where Siddique gets his maximum votes and hawkers block most of Hill road,” says Anil Joseph, chairman of Perry Road Residents’ Association.
Siddique, however, says his lower victory margin in the last election was due to the inclusion of new wards in his constituency, which were a Sena stronghold. “People voted for BJP in May but inflation is still high and black money has not come back. They will not be fooled again, as is evident from the bypolls. Ashish has been riding on Sena’s back, but he is not my competition. My fight is with Chawri, who is a local influential Koli,” Siddique says.
Dismissing allegations of his links with the builder lobby, Siddique says, “Everyone got houses and these are complaints made by extortionists who want more from builders. If you check Assembly debate records, you will find me seeking action against errant architects and builders. The so-called activists are not voices of Bandra, but voices of the media planted against me. I have worked hard and used my MLA funds effectively.”
Bandra West has seen its number of voters go up by 21,082 since the recent Lok Sabha elections, mainly in the pockets around Reclamation, as pointed out by Shelar during his padyatra on Wednesday. This was the same region where Shelar lost his lead in 2009.
“Siddique is not accessible. He has a corrupt image and hasn’t addressed people’s concerns. He is only interested in his own building proposals. His lowering victory margins speak for themselves. I’m against illegal structures and activities. My work and utilisation of MLC funds and personal rapport with the constituency is going to win me the seat,” says Shelar.