Former Mumbai Congress chief Milind Deora speaks to Eeshanpriya MS on his reasons for opposing the delimitation of electoral wards conducted by the Shiv Sena-controlled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the prospects of his party in the upcoming civic body elections, and the future of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance.
As an MVA partner, did the Congress feel the pressure to accept BMC’s delimitation at that time?
As the delimitation process began, it was becoming very clear by February that Shiv Sena was gerrymandering and manipulating the ward boundaries. Some people in Sena who I know were candid in private about it. When delimitation would happen in the past, there was a methodology. For example, the South Mumbai Parliamentary constituency during the delimitation of 2008-2009, when the boundary moved up from Tardeo-Mahalaxmi to Worli-Haji Ali. You took the line as is and shift it up to add more voters. This time, we started to see a lot of creative cutting and constituencies starting to look odd geographically. When you zoom into a ward, we all know by now which area is a Congress stronghold, or a Sena stronghold and it became evident that the wards were being manipulated brazenly. The party raised objections at different stages and at different forums, expressing its opposition.
I had tweeted even before Eknath Shinde and other Sena MLAs left for Surat and Guwahati that we must oppose and nullify BMC’s delimitation. If MVA was still in power, I would have continued to raise the issue. My stand has been consistent. If Uddhav Thackeray was the CM, I would have met him and told him that his party has gerrymandered the ward boundaries in an undemocratic manner.
Where does the party’s relationship with Sena stand?
Regarding delimitation, Congress raised objections even as part of MVA. My stand was very clear, and I had discussed this with people in Delhi while we were supporting the government. I was clearly told that the Congress has no intention of destabilising the coalition but that we should not sacrifice the party for our partners’ interest. In fact, I was told very clearly from senior leaders in the party that we have to be very careful before entering into alliances. This [delimitation] was a classic case of a coalition partner taking advantage of our support.
Many Congress leaders raised objections till the last day of the MVA government when two cities were renamed. The onus was on them [Shiv Sena] to take the Congress and the NCP along. The reality is they didn’t take us along. I think Shiv Sena felt that since they are the larger party, they can choose to stray from MVA’s common minimum agenda, and do what they want. They often made statements that were provocative or polarising and against the alliance’s coalition dharma.
What do recent political events mean for MVA?
When the coalition was formed, it was based on a common minimum agenda. Everyone knew this was not a pre-poll alliance. It was an alliance only to keep BJP out of power. There were concerns as to how it would function in the months and years to come.
But it worked well and was stable, until recently. The government fell not because we withdrew support. It happened because of Shiv Sena’s internal politics.
Congress should not endlessly prop up the Shiv Sena if it hurts our interests.
My personal stand on this issue is that we have to fight for our space. I can’t predict whether the MVA will fight elections together in future but there could be coordination and cooperation on issues of national importance. Sena may also have to move in a very different ideological direction given the pressures they are facing.
My personal opinion is the Congress can’t base its strategy on what will happen to MVA or what is going on within Sena.
How is the Congress changing in Mumbai and Maharashtra post- MVA?
It was seeming likely that the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena would fight the BMC elections together. Congress aligning with Sena hadn’t been finalised. As a result, Congress was not attacking Sena’s pathetic record of ruling BMC for 25 years and that was upsetting Congress workers.
There was also a concern within our party about some of our voters shifting to Sena. Sena was and is aspiring to become the principal alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra. Congress leaders and workers were concerned about our role as the principal opposition to the BJP and didn’t want to hand over that task on a platter to Sena.
The way ward delimitation happened, it had triggered Congress corporators and workers. Now, workers feel that we have found our voice prior to the BMC elections. We need to sustain that momentum. There is also the larger issue of how the Congress should navigate nationally with coalition partners. Even though there is an alliance, it does not mean we should relinquish our space.
What is the party’s strategy for BMC elections?
The Congress must grab the opportunity to become the main opposition to BMC. If Sena’s corporators join Eknath Shinde tomorrow, they will still play the anti-incumbency card, but they cannot suddenly absolve themselves of what has happened in the last few years, and neither can the BJP, for that matter.
Is the Congress facing a crisis of dwindling leadership in Mumbai?
I don’t think there is a crisis there. Mumbai Congress went to court on the issue of delimitation. After the rollback of delimitation, Congress workers and leaders have found their voice and won’t hesitate to expose Sena in BMC.
There have been speculations that senior Maharashtra Congress leaders are growing closer to BJP. How much of that is true?
I don’t pay any mind to speculations and conjecture. There is an expiry date to speculation.
Your views on allegations of central agencies being used as political tools?
Clearly, India is witnessing agency overreach. The level of misuse is very high. The solution is to eliminate discretion and political involvement when it comes to agencies like ED, IT, CBI and even state police. As a nation, we must debate how we can build institutional capacity to prevent these agencies from being misused for political gains, regardless of which party is in power.