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A new Sena emerges to challenge the old

Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Bombay

Manoj Dubey, a young commerce graduate, has been trying hard to get a job. Registered with the employment exchange for three years, he says he did not receive one interview call from a "decent" company. Desperate, he went to the infamous Dagdi Chawl where gangster/politician Arun Gawli holds court and distributes forms for unemployed people from Maharashtra, promising them a permanent job.

"I am fed up of doing temporary jobs which pay me only Rs 2,000 per month," says Manoj. "I heard that 'Daddy' (as Gawli is addressed by his followers) has found jobs for more than 1,000 people. I am hopeful that I too will get a job after I fill up this form," he says.

Manoj is not unique. Like him, hundreds of youth turn up every day at Dagdi Chawl in central Bombay, in the hope of getting a decent job.

Gawli, who is also called 'Bhai', launched his party, the Akhil Bharatiya Sena on January 11 last year. Today, he is emerging as a strong force and a challenge to the original sons-of-the-soil party, the Shiv Sena, in its home base Bombay.

He has managed a string of victories, the latest occurring when his union, the Akhil Bharatiya Kamgar Sena, replaced the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena (the Shiv Sena union) in the Oberoi Hotels. His union has already taken over at the Tata Cancer Hospital and is making inroads among the workers of Reliance, National Rayon, and government organisations like SICOM and IRCON, all of which had unions affiliated to the Sena or Dr Datta Samant.

Akhil Bharatiya Sena general secretary Jitendra Dabholkar, a former union leader in the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena, says, "Since the Shiv Sena came to power, they have done little. So many factories have closed down. The Sena government is hand in glove with the management, and that is why workers and the youth are fed up with their party and joining our party."

Within a year of its existence, the ABS has registered nearly 350,000 members in Maharashtra, with another 50,000 in the union. And copying the Shiv Sena, who have set up 221 shakhas (branches) in Bombay, the ABS too set up its own shakhas to solve local problems.

A sizeable number of Maharashtrians are reportedly fed up with the double standards adopted by the Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party after it formed the government. Today, Gawli appears as a messiah to them. At least 2,000 people visit his chawl-turned-fortress to complain about their problems, despite having to go through an elaborate security check.

One indication that many of the old-time Shiv Sena cadres are unhappy with Bal Thackeray is the fact that half of the ABS shakha pramukhs (branch heads) are former Shiv Sena members.

Ironically, there were rumours earlier that Gawli was close to the Shiv Sena, which were further fuelled when Thackeray, at a public meeting a few years ago, had declared: "If the Congress has Dawood Ibrahim with them, we have Arun Gawli with us."

Gawli's party contested 40 seats in the last Bombay municipal election, but did not win a single seat. Dabholkar has the reasons. "One was that 'Daddy' was in jail at that time. Also, we had very little time to register ourselves. And most of the people then thought that we were a part of the Sena. However, we stood second in 10 seats, which we feel is an achievement."

Shiv Sena leaders dismiss Gawli as a non-entity in politics. They feel he has entered politics just to hide his criminal activities, an allegation which Gawli denies completely.

A Shiv Sena spokesman, a senior party leader, was furious when this correspondent asked for an appointment to speak about Gawli: "If you want to meet me, you can come and talk on any subject. (But) I don't want to waste my time by speaking about Gawli. He is a non-entity in politics. And don't give him unnecessary publicity," he said.

Echoing him was Madhukar Sarpotdar, Shiv Sena member of Parliament and Bharatiya Kamgar Sena chief. "Gawli is using his underworld connection to enter the unions. He took over the Oberoi union by threatening the workers. He has no knowledge about the laws concerning industrial disputes and labour. It is amazing that he is still controlling the union," he said.

Gawli was recently arrested by the Bombay police on charges of masterminding an attack on a journalist when she had visited Dagdi Chawl, a charge which he denies. The ABS had called for a Bombay bandh, (general strike) after Gawli's arrest, but it failed to evoke a good response.

Says K H Dastoor, secretary general, Association of Chemical Engineering Workers Association, affiliated to the Congress party, "The fact that the bandh flopped proved that Gawli has no hold in the city."

Adds Sarpotdar, "Like Datta Samant, he too will fade. I think the media is paying too much attention to him."

Dabholkar dismisses the charges, pointing out that a long innings has still to be played. "The fact that today local Maharashtrians are joining us in big numbers proves that we are emerging as an alternative force," he says. "The Sena is admitting industrialists like Praful Patel into its fold and ignoring local Maharashtrians, which has upset them. Moreover, today, Bal Thackeray, his son Uddhav and nephew Raj are busy organising Michael Jackson and Lata Mangeshkar shows instead of doing some constructive work."

Every week, newspapers are filled with reports about attacks on Gawli's party members. Gawli suspects the police, with the state government's help, is trying to kill him. One of his close associates, Ramdas Ambolkar, head of the ABS Bombay unit, was shot dead by unknown assailants at his home on Sunday, August 10.

Gawli (see interview) claims he was never involved in underworld activities and was a social worker all his life. He says he was framed falsely by the Bombay police.

"The alliance government with the help of the police is trying to suppress my party workers by all means and finish my political career," he says.

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