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Mumbai Congress president Ashok (Bhai) Jagtap: ‘We can’t afford our voter base to shrink’

Newly-appointed Mumbai Congress president Ashok (Bhai) Jagtap speaks to The Indian Express on the plans to go solo in BMC polls, the 'Mazhi Mumbai, Mazhi Congress' campaign, factionalism within the party and the promise of free water to slums.

Written by Sandeep A Ashar | Mumbai |
Updated: January 18, 2021 12:43:45 pm
Mumbai congress, Mumbai congress President, Ashok Jagtap, Ashok Jagtap interview, indian express newsAshok (Bhai) Jagtap Mumbai Congress President.

Newly-appointed Mumbai Congress president Ashok (Bhai) Jagtap speaks to The Indian Express on the plans to go solo in BMC polls, the ‘Mazhi Mumbai, Mazhi Congress’ campaign, factionalism within the party and the promise of free water to slums.

You have announced a plan to go solo in BMC polls. Is it feasible?

Even when the Congress was in power with the NCP in the state, we fought the Mumbai civic elections independently. Congress has mostly fought alone (in Mumbai). So, this isn’t new for us. We have presence in all the 227 wards and are capable of fighting on all seats.

But your performance has been sliding. In the 2017 polls, you won just 31 seats.

I agree that our performance in the last elections was below par. We won just 31 seats. But then we were placed second in 33 wards. This makes it 64 seats. Then there were those where we came a close third. We could have fared much better, but there was a Modi wave in the country then. Things are different now.

We have been out of power in BMC for 28 years, but it is also a fact that we had 80-plus seats at one point. We have workers in every ward. We have to do justice with the party structure and cadre.

So the announcement to go solo is not mere posturing for a better bargain with Shiv Sena as some believe?

We are firm that we should contest alone and have already conveyed this to our leadership.

Congress has just launched the ‘Mazhi Mumbai, Mazhi Congress’ initiative. This is a 100-day campaign. What will it be like?

Under ‘Majhi Mumbai, Mazhi Congress’, we will hold district sammelans and padyatras. The idea is to reach out to people and our own workers and understand the issues faced by them as well as spread awareness about party initiatives. As per the 100-day plan, we will first be announcing organisational restructuring. The first district sammelan was held in north Mumbai on January 16. Five more (one each in all Lok Sabha constituencies) will be held before January 31. We will launch padyatras in various wards from February. We are also launching the ‘Congress Aaplya Daari’ campaign where party ministers will hold janata darbars in various Lok Sabha constituencies to resolve grievances of the people.

Your first pre-election poll plank is a freebie – promise of free water to all slum households. How do you justify it?

In Mumbai, every second resident is a slum dweller. The Congress has always strived for their welfare. A Congress-led government had announced slum regularisation till January 1, 2000. We want this cut-off to be extended to rehabilitate more slum dwellers. But while the regularisation is an ongoing process, our demand is that water should be given free-of-cost to all slum households. The BMC is already obligated to give water supply to pre-2000 hutments. But lakhs of new slum homes have come up since. In the absence of legalised water supply, such households are exploited by the nexus of civic officials and the tanker mafia. We must break this nexus.

Slum regularisation issues resurfaces every election season. Cut-off deadlines have been extended, FSI incentives showered on slum dwellers. But slum-free Mumbai still remains a pipe dream. Your views?

The Slum Rehabilitation Scheme was the best opportunity to make the city slum-free but unfortunately, it has fared miserably. We demand a review of regulations and government slum rehabilitation. There is a need to give more FSI to accommodate more families.

How do you plan to tackle factionalism within the Congress?

I and (working president) Charan Singh Sapra have met all senior party leaders from Mumbai and they have promised us all support. All of us will work together. Congress is just like a big family.

Are you concerned that your alliance with Shiv Sena (in the state) will hurt your support base among north Indian Hindu migrants, which has already substantially shifted to the BJP.

This is a concern. We need to study it closely. We can’t afford our own voter base to shrink. But then BJP was also in an alliance with Shiv Sena for a long time. All I am saying is that there are other reasons also for the need to connect better with north Indian voters.

Mumbai’s Guardian Minister Aslam Shaikh has triggered a debate by opining that a vast city like Mumbai should be divided into two civic commissionerates. What is the party’s stand?

I spoke to the minister. He has said that his demand was for the sake of people’s convenience. As far as the party goes, we feel there is no need for two commissioners or commissionerates. The current commissioner (Iqbal Singh Chahal) has done commendable work during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Are you satisfied with Shiv Sena’s functioning in BMC?

We are a Opposition party in the BMC. It is we who have been raising issues, not BJP. We will continue to raise them with the same force. I can tell you that there won’t be any compromise on issues that matter to Mumbaikars.

Is GharWapsi of former Congress leaders just a slogan or is there a plan?

Not just former MLAs, we are getting in touch with workers, leaders and corporators who have shifted to other parties. We are in touch with many and will try our best to bring them back.

Congress failed to strengthen the organisation in Mumbai when the going was good. Who is to blame?

I won’t blame anyone. Ups and downs are a part of every party’s journey. The party leadership (in Mumbai) even at that time had tried its very best. It is just that the kind of extreme polarisation we have observed in the last few years was not evident before. We must win the confidence of people and workers once again.

Mumbai Regional Congress Committee is an independent unit within the party. But for the first time, there is a state party representative appointed to oversee affairs. Your views?

In the past, an MRCC representative would be appointed to coordinate between the two units. But even the latest appointment in no way impinges the independent functioning of the Mumbai Congress. The city’s parliamentary board is still headed by the MRCC chief.

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