Lok sabha Polls: The worker and the manager

In the slums of Mumbai North East, Medha Patkar is almost deified.

Mumbai | Updated: April 6, 2014 9:54:40 am

They represent two extremes — Meera Sanyal, the former bank CEO from South Mumbai’s toniest area, and Medha Patkar, the social activist of many a people’s movement from a one-bedroom house in Chembur. Now both have entered the electoral fray on AAP tickets. SHALINI NAIR trails them and tracks their style of campaigning.

Medha Patkar 

Mumbai North East

Born to social worker Indu and trade unionist Vasant Khanolkar, Patkar did an MA in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She was doing her PhD at TISS when she left midway to spearhead the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which she founded in 1989 to protest against the construction of dams along the Narmada river. Today, she is the national convener of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), a group of 250 mass-based movements. She married Praveen Patkar, a professor at TISS. They are separated.

It’s a small, quiet campaign unlike the high-decibel politics of her party. Travelling in an open jeep and waving to passers-by in Mulund, with only one vehicle of Aam Aadmi Party workers trailing her, Medha Patkar does the routine campaign expected of any politician before the general elections. Except that she is not your regular politician. A fact that’s hard to miss, as 59-year-old Patkar, AAP’s candidate for Mumbai North East, which goes to the polls on April 24, makes it quite clear. At one of the gatherings in Mulund, she reads out an extract from a speech made by freedom fighter Bhagat Singh: “Revolution does not necessarily involve sanguinary strife, nor is there any place in it for individual vendetta. It is not the cult of the bomb and the pistol. By ‘revolution’, we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must change.”

Such speeches are meant to underline that Patkar, the national convener of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), who has spent her life advocating the rights of the poor, is still more a revolutionary activist than a savvy politician. As the day gets sunnier and hotter, Patkar refuses to drink the packaged drinking water passed around at intervals, instead gulping down tap water from tumblers offered by hawkers or slum dwellers. She also prefers not to wear the AAP topi, unlike other party workers, offering only “I just feel awkward” as the reason. As she gets off her jeep to address voters in different parts of Mulund, she doesn’t appeal for votes for her or her party either. Instead, she tells people, “Iss baar soch kar vote dena (Please think before you vote this time)”.

An ardent supporter of Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement since its inception, Patkar joined AAP only after the Delhi polls. After months of deliberation, in measured words, she announced NAPM’s “support” for the party. This was followed by another round of listless waiting by her fellow activists before she finally decided to contest the polls. “There is no point holding on to one’s ideological position rigidly if it cannot get translated into action. I am not doing this for the sake of power but to establish a link between people’s politics and electoral politics,” says Patkar.

Her manner may be that of a reluctant politician, but the party believes Patkar is their best bet in Mumbai as well as Maharashtra.

In Mankhurd, a pocket teeming with unauthorised slums and resettlement colonies, Patkar is deified. Several women, who have never heard of AAP, pour out of their homes to listen to “Medha tai” talk about how, during the last elections, five lakh women of the constituency did not even care to cast their vote. “We have always voted for the Congress-NCP. They have given us nothing but false assurances,” says one Nasrin Bano, a resident of Mankhurd’s Mandala slum, where 3,200 families have been living since their shanties were levelled as part of a demolition drive by the Vilasrao Deshmukh government in 2003, that rendered three lakh families homeless. It was on Patkar’s intervention that Congress chief Sonia Gandhi forced the demolitions to a halt.

For the last six years, Mandala residents, led by Patkar, have been trying in vain to get the state government to rebuild their homes under the Centre’s Rajiv Awas Yojana. They hope that if Patkar wins, their wait will come to an end. “Medha tai was very reluctant to contest elections. We had to carry out mass signature campaigns in all the slums in order to convince her so that we could have a voice in Parliament,” says Bano.

The strong support in Mankhurd will help Patkar. This was the place that handed a victory — though by a margin of only 2,933 votes — to Mumbai North East’s sitting MP, Sanjay Dina Patil of the NCP, in the 2009 elections.

Mumbai North East has six Assembly constituencies — Ghatokpar East, Ghatkopar West, Mulund, Vikhroli, Bhandup and Mankhurd. While the MNS led in Ghatkopar West, Vikhroli and Bhandup, and the BJP in Ghatkopar East and Mulund, the Congress-NCP won because of their lead in Mankhurd.

If the slums are Patkar’s bastion, the Gujarati-dominated areas of Ghatkopar and Mulund are impenetrable fortresses where her main contender, BJP candidate and former MP Kirit Somaiya, holds sway. Somaiya has taken up issues pertaining to middle-class residents of this area, such as a dispute over the land where their buildings stand and frequent load-shedding. He has also built a reputation for targeting the Congress-NCP government through RTI exposes or litigations. His chances have been boosted by the MNS not fielding any candidate from this seat.

But more than electoral atmospherics, it’s Patkar’s own profile that works against her among the Gujaratis of her constituency. Her spearheading of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which brought her in direct confrontation with the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat, has come to haunt her in Ghatkopar.

As she goes there to campaign, a group of women accuses her of having been an impediment in Gujarat’s development for more than a decade. She reasons with them that the Gujarat government has not utilised even 20 per cent of the dam waters for the state’s development, but they are unconvinced.

Patkar, though, refuses to compromise on her lifelong campaign for those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam for the sake of electoral gains. “People just get carried away at the thought of having a Gujarati prime minister. They fail to realise that the dam has done little to alleviate issues pertaining to lack of irrigation, nor have the benefits reached the drought-prone areas of Kutch,” she says.

In the upper middle-class residential colonies of Model Town, Mulund, too, Patkar’s impassioned speeches strike a discordant note — whether she is chiding the Congress and BJP for giving tickets to tainted politicians such as Ashok Chavan and B S Yeddyurappa, highlighting her organisation’s role in exposing housing scams such as those of Adarsh society, Lavasa city and Hiranandani complex, or offering solutions for urban displacement and inequalities. A few residents who trickle out of their bungalows want their MP candidate to talk about more immediate concerns, much like what they expect from their corporator or MLA. “Corruption is a larger issue but we want to know what our elected representative can do to address the problem of terrible roads in our area,” says local resident Pradeep Gupta after listening keenly to Patkar’s speech.

Her campaign managers and foot soldiers are mostly activists who have been leading movements for tribals, Dalits, peasants, urban poor and the rural displaced. Like Patkar, they have put their individual agitations on hold for a month, and are working out of her first-floor, one-bedroom home in Chembur, where she spent her childhood. Now converted into an office, its walls are plastered with graphs, data, phone numbers and her campaign schedule.

Her campaign managers say they don’t have enough resources to put up posters of Patkar on buses or at railway stations. “We have a core team of 200 and several others on ground. These include farmers from Gujarat, those associated with the anti-Coca Cola agitation from Kerala, NREGA activists from Bihar, and several other activists from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi,” says Mukta Srivastava, a Mumbai-based right to food activist who has been campaigning for Patkar 24×7.

How does Patkar feel about several corporate heads joining AAP, considering she once took up the cudgels against the Enron power project in Maharashtra and the Posco steel plant in Orissa? “We have been questioning illegalities not only in the corporate sector but also within the bureaucracy. That is why several corporate heads have joined AAP,” she justifies.

But she does feel that AAP’s policies fall short of “amply addressing the concerns of workers without social security”, as well as on matters of urban displacement and the right to food. About the conflicting voices within the party over issues such as FDI, reservations and Kashmir, she says, “Be it Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan or Yogendra Yadav, all of them have the ability to deal with differences within the party.”

However, not all her supporters have made their peace with AAP’s lack of ideological positioning. “It is a party that has been put together in a hurry. We are here only to extensively campaign for Patkar and not to endorse the party. After the elections, it is back to our grassroots movements,” says a close confidante.


‘We’re campaigning in slums as that is where the numbers are’

Meera Sanyal
Mumbai South

Born to late Admiral G M Hiranandani, a Karachi-born Sindhi who went on to serve as the vice-chief of the Naval Staff, and Susheel Hiranandani, Sanyal did her MBA from INSEAD, France, and an Executive MBA from Harvard Business School. She has spent 30 years in banking — having worked with Grindlays Bank, Lazards and RBS India. Sanyal headed a microfinance programme for women in rural India. She is a member of FICCI’s National Executive and Inclusive Governance Councils. She is married to Ashish Sanyal, who runs a retail consultancy.

Faces peer out of windows and balconies of the many dilapidated buildings in Dongri, a low-income Muslim-dominated neighbourhood, often the background for Bollywood biopics of underworld dons. Residents look down from their homes at a cotton sari-clad woman, with a sling bag and a topi on her head, followed by an all-male entourage, as she walks with folded hands through the narrow alleys, occasionally stopping to listen to residents complain about lack of water, toilets, schools and jobs, and promising to solve their problems. She makes no emotional speeches, and only asks residents to bless her and support her so that she could bring swaraj to them, help protect their public spaces, improve public transport, create affordable housing and promote women’s safety.

Meera Sanyal, the Aam Aadmi Party candidate from Mumbai South, is on her maiden visit to the Dongri area as part of her campaign and plans to come more often. The 52-year-old has made similar visits to the fishermen colony in Worli and the slum sprawls lining the Arabian Sea at the southernmost tip of Mumbai in Colaba. Like Dongri, both areas grapple with poor civic amenities. There’s another commonality among them — they are Congress strongholds, and largely contributed to sitting MP Milind Deora’s victory margin of over a lakh votes in the last general election. The Harvard Business School alumnus and former CEO and chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland knows that she must make inroads into these pockets if she has to do well on polling day, April 24.

But this is also the constituency that houses the country’s costliest apartments. The tony areas of Cuffe Parade, Malabar Hill, Napean Sea Road, Breach Candy, Worli Sea Face and Colaba, where Sanyal herself lives, are home to the financial capital’s industrialists and businessmen.

If Sanyal is focusing on the low-income parts — through road rallies and euphemistically named “safai yatras” in slums, old tenanted settlements and local trains — there is a reason. In the 2009 elections, only 40 per cent of Mumbai South voters turned out to vote — one of the lowest polling percentages in the country — thanks largely to the poor show in its upmarket areas. “We have been campaigning extensively in the slums as that is where the numbers are,” Sanyal says.

Sanyal has learnt her lesson after the drubbing she got in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls — securing only 1 per cent of the total vote — as an Independent candidate from the same seat. That 26/11 made her quit her job as the India head of ABN-AMRO Bank (which later merged with RBS) to contest the polls had given her enough media coverage. But then she got her campaign wrong. “In 2009, she focused on areas she was familiar with,” says Ashish Sanyal, her husband, who has taken a break from his retail consultancy to manage her campaign.

Now she is mostly reaching out to these “familiar” areas through social media. She has held three Google Hangouts so far: one had her fielding questions on foreign policy, including issues such as terrorism, fuel imports and trade; another had her explaining AAP’s economic policy; and in the third, she talked of her own campaign. She regularly holds “question hour” on Twitter, where she has over 30,000 followers.

In the plusher localities, she also holds ‘water with Meera sessions’ or swaraj bhaitaks where, over a glass of water in someone’s apartment, groups of residents share their issues with her. These meetings and her interactions with the business community are not open to media scrutiny. During Arvind Kejriwal’s recent visit to Mumbai, the only closed-door event in his itinerary was a meeting arranged by Sanyal in her constituency with business heads and industrialists.

However, her YouTube video ‘Vote for change, Vote for Meera Sanyal’ shows her only visiting slums, lower-middle-class neighbourhoods and marketplaces. The string of pearls, which she usually wears as part of her corporate attire, can be seen around her neck only on Google Hangouts or at meetings with industry leaders. In her visit to the slums, the pearls make way for a simple black string.

In the Navy Nagar area of Colaba, her family’s military background helps her bond with the residents. Sanyal’s father, late Admiral G M Hiranandani, a Karachi-born Sindhi, had gone on to serve as the vice-chief of Naval Staff and the official historian of the Indian Navy.

Sanyal brings her corporate experience to her campaign. She has separate teams handling well-demarcated areas such as policy, communications, press, social media campaign, operations and IT, fundraising, legal, accounting and campaign management. A total of 20 people work out of a 1,000-sq-foot office in the commercial Everest building in upmarket Tardeo, South Mumbai, and about 600 volunteers are spread out in the constituency.

Like most AAP candidates, she doesn’t have any paid advertisement. Her campaign is mostly through placards, flyers, and a fancy campaign van with her picture on it that trails her wherever she goes. AAP’s group of 11 guitarists and street performers from Delhi often accompanies her on her visits.

Clearly, Sanyal is more prepared for the 2014 election than she was for 2009. “Since we now have the backing of a party, we have some 5,000 workers on the ground, instead of 500 last time, and began campaigning 60 days ahead of the vote, instead of 30,” says Ashish Sanyal.

But the competition is tougher too. In addition to Deora, the Shiv Sena and the MNS too have put up formidable contenders from the seat. The Shiv Sena’s Arvind Sawant, a former MLC and trade union leader, and MNS MLA Bala Nandgaonkar will vie for the working-class Marathi vote in the mill land belt, which, after the 2009 delimitation exercise, got included in Mumbai South.

And then there’s the plunge from euphoria to scepticism about AAP. Aslam Malkani, a Dongri resident who has been keenly following Sanyal’s campaign, says, “For the last 10 years, Congress corporators, MLAs and MPs have done nothing about the filthy lanes here. I wanted to vote for someone refreshingly new, but after the Delhi fiasco, I have changed my mind about AAP. Sadly, the community will again vote en masse for the Congress.”

A member of Sanyal’s campaign team admits that the AAP government’s resignation from Delhi after 49 days in power has not only disenchanted voters like Aslam, but has also hit the fund flow to the campaign, specially from NRIs.

There are also signs of the obvious contradictions between Sanyal’s and AAP’s stance on policies. She supports FDI, which her party opposes, and she is against reservation, which her party favours. Recently, Sanyal’s tweets during a 2012 visit to Gujarat, in which she had praised the Modi government for the state’s good roads, investment climate, IT hubs, public transport and communal harmony, had resurfaced, embarrassing her and the party at a time when Kejriwal was ripping apart the Gujarat development model.

But Sanyal, part of AAP’s seven-member National Committee on Economic Policy, downplays the dissonance. “I have learnt from my corporate life that there should be as much diversity around the decision-making table as possible. Else, what you have is a single viewpoint, which, with the complexities we have in India, is a very dangerous thing,” she says.

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