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'When you come back after 5 years, this is how everything will still be'

Last updated on: April 24, 2014 13:37 IST

'We are judged on paani, bijli, sadak'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

For those who struggle with the realities of life every day, elections are not about scams. Or corruption. Or two power centres. They are not about the dreams of a greater, grander, India.

Rediff.com's Savera R Someshwar reports on the battle in the Mumbai North Central constituency, where some of India's biggest movie stars live next to slum dwellers.

Elections are about the little things. Electricity. Running water. Sanitation. Roads. Ration cards. A source of livelihood. Access to education. A pucca home. And, today, inflation.

They are about the right to lead life with dignity.

For those who struggle with these realities every day, elections are not about scams. Or corruption. Or two power centres. They are not about the dreams of a greater, grander, India.

In the sprawling Mumbai North Central constituency, film stars live next to slum-dwellers. Small businesses, blue collar workers and office-goers brush against each other on the way to work and back. Traditional families mingle with modern-minded youngsters on the same roads.

It can easily be dissected on religious, religious, regional and linguistic lines.

If Bandra and Juhu bask the warm breeze from the Arabian Sea, the slums in Kurla and Golibar gasp for a breath of fresh air.

The lack of infrastructure is a common plaint, as is the struggle to stretch the rupee.

The constituency is a Congress stronghold, and many believe incumbent Priya Dutt is set for her third term.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's Poonam Mahajan hopes Narendra Modi magic will work for her. The Samajwadi Party's Abu Farhan Azmi is also in the race.

All three may have underestimated the anger of the people.

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Do catch up on our Special Coverage of Election 2014


Image: Congress candidate Priya Dutt on the campaign trail.
Photographs: Arun Patil

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'When you come back after five years for the next election, this is how everything will still be'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

There's a rage building.

It rises upon itself, higher and higher -- its angry fingers reaching out to consume whatever lies in its path -- till, nowhere to go, it collapses helplessly on itself.

"Yes, we are angry," says 40-year-old Nasreen Alam. "But of what use is it? Kuch badlega? Gusse se toh pet nahin bharta. Mehengai jaan nichod rahi hain. Is se koi zindagi kahega? Jeena kahega? (Will anything change? Anger will not feed a hungry stomach. Price rise is bleeding us dry. Will anyone call this a life?)"

She gestures helplessly at her surroundings, where the gutters overflow, where garbage sprawls in every direction, where tiny ramshackle shops struggle cheek-by-jowl to survive.

Narrow, broken paths that boldly call themselves roads wind about. There is a stench in the air -- a stench that refuses to disperse in the slight breeze. It coats your skin, your hair, your nostrils, your clothes in a way that you think will never disappear.

Small houses, with just a room or two and barely any ventilation, have been built higgledy-piggeldy over each other over the decades, grabbing every available inch of what once used to be a hill, till it looks like they are fighting to reach the fresh air and the unfettered sky.

"This," she says, waving about her again, "is the way we live. When you come back after five years for the next election, this is exactly how everything will still be."

Three of Maharashtra's richest candidates are contesting Election 2014 from Mumbai North Central, a constituency that primarily been a Congress bastion.

The BJP's Poonam Mahajan is worth approximately Rs 108 crore (Rs 1.08 billion), as compared to the Rs 24 crore (Rs 240 million) she was worth in 2009.

Incumbent MP Priya Dutt is worth a comparatively modest (again, approximately) Rs 64.2 crore (Rs 642 million), as against the Rs 37 crore (Rs 370 million) she was worth during the last election.

The Samajwadi Party's Abu Farhan Azmi, who is married to former actress Ayesha Takia and is making his electoral debut a few months after he became a father, is close behind with approximately Rs 64 crore (Rs 640 million).

If the voters in Quresh Nagar, Kurla East, which is part of the sprawling Mumbai North Central constituency, were aware of this, they would probably blow a gasket or two.

Instead, this Muslim-dominated area, which supports the Congress, has welcomed its sitting MP Priya Dutt with showers of red rose petals, smiles and warm hugs.

"She has spent Rs 2 crores (Rs 20 million) here to improve the gutters, but is there a difference?" asks 29-year-old Muzaffar Hussain as he gestures at the stinking sewers. Echoing Nasreen, he says, "If you come here 10 years later, it will be the same."

He points at two men who are making a desultory attempt to unblock the gutters. The slime-coated garbage they have pulled out lies next to the gutter will soon find its way back in; the dirty water will stagnate and Rs 2 crores will literally, once again will have gone down the nallah.

Dutt, meanwhile, ignores the humidity to climb the rude steps that lead up the hill between the tenements, waving, smiling, exhorting her constituents to vote. As she energetically pounds ahead, little groups of her supporters fall behind, felled by the sweltering heat that has swathed Mumbai.

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Image: Quresh Nagar, part of the Mumbai North Central constituency.
Photographs: Savera R Someshwar/ Rediff.com

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'We buy tomatoes worth Rs 5, coriander worth Rs 2 and put together a meal'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

Nearby, in a tiny dispensary, Shama Khan, mother of four, waits to see the doctor, her youngest born in tow. She has just moved from Quresh Nagar to nearby Umarwadi. No one from her family, except her eldest daughter, will vote this election. "Baki sab logon ko card hi nahin mila (The rest of us have not got our voter's card)," she says, even though they have tried three times.

Does she see any benefit in voting? "Kuch bhi nahin (Nothing at all)," she says. "The price of everything has gone up so much ki roz ka guzara mushkil ho gaya hai (it is difficult to eke out a daily existence)."

Another burqa-clad patient -- she won't give her name -- joins in. "We step down every day, buy tomatoes worth Rs 5, kothmir (coriander) worth Rs 2 and put together a meal."

Shama (she has requested her name be changed because her family would not like her speaking to the media) sighs in sympathy. "A truck full of rice just came to our area and those who had the slips got the rice from the ration shop. The second truck is supposed to come soon and the slips have been, but after the elections who knows if it will come at all!"

Her jewellery has been mortgaged with the local moneylender for the last one year. "Earlier, we earned less, but the money was more than enough. Now, zakaat (charity) is so difficult. We have to donate according the value of the gold we own. As the price of gold increased, so did the amount we have to donate."

The anonymous burqa-clad woman is also bereft of any jewellery. Her ornaments too are with the moneylender. "We have to do zakaat even if our ornaments are not with us," she says. "We also have to at least donate two-and-a-half kilos of wheat per person in the family. Earlier, it came to Rs 25 a head. Now, one kilo of wheat costs Rs 25."

A walk through a narrow, crowded lane reflects what they say. The tomatoes are tiny and yellow, the coriander limp, the vegetables of poor quality. There is just one fruit cart selling oranges whose skin is spotted with brown patches.

In the aptly named Kasai Nagar there are nearly as many butcher shops as there are vegetable vendors, but the customers are sparse. The rising inflation has resulted in non-vegetarian food being drastically slashed from the daily menu.

Priya Dutt accepts that galloping inflation has impacted both her and the Congress. Though she is contesting from what is considered a safe Congress seat -- her father Sunil Dutt represented this constituency five times (it was then known as Mumbai North West). Priya herself has represented it twice (she won the by-poll after her father's death with a massive margin of over 300,000 votes and retained Mumbai North Central, where she contested from after delimitation, by over 174,000 votes) -- the people's anger is evident.

"There is just so much an MP can do," she sighs. "There is so much that is not in our control. There are many reasons behind inflation, including global factors, but when we ask people for votes, they judge on paani, bijli, sadak (water, electricity, roads) and now, inflation. Can you blame them?"

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Image: Priya Dutt stops for a much-needed glass of water.
Photographs: Satish Bodas/ Rediff.com

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'The Congress has not done anything. Look at the way everything has become so expensive'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

Many kilometres across, at Khairani Road, near the Saki Naka post office in Andheri East, 45-year-old Rekha Dutt Bhalerao sits by the roadside, behind a makeshift nimbu paani (lime juice) stall.

Every summer, for the last five years, the mother of four has stepped out of her home to add to her husband's income. Dutt Bhalerao works with the BrihanMumbai Electric Supply and Transport company, so they have the benefit of company quarters, a tiny room where the family of six live.

Traditional Congress supporters, the couple have not decided whom they are going to vote for this year, though it will probably be the Congress.

"We have not decided whom to vote," says Santosh Manohar Rasam, a supervisor at Cambata Aviation. "Election ke baad Priya toh yahan chehera nahin dikhati... Poochon kisi se bhi, aayi hain kya phichle paach saal mein ek baar bhi aayi hain kya? (Priya does not show her face after the elections. Ask anyone her if they have seen her in the last five years)."

Meanwhile, the future for the Bhaleraos looks grim. After Dutt Bhalerao's retirement, they will be forced to return to their village. "Ek ladki ki toh shaadi ho gayi, par baki ko toh settle hona hain (One daughter is married, but their two sons and one daughter are yet to be settled)," the say parents helplessly.

"The Congress has not done anything. Look at the way everything has become so expensive," says Rekha fiercely, as she expertly squeezes half a lime into a glass, dashes in salt and sugar, and tops it with water for a thirsty customer.

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Image: Priya Dutt campaigns in Saki Naka.
Photographs: Satish Bodas/ Rediff.com

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'Politics should not enter the mosque'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

In Santa Cruz -- like in most of the other assembly seats in this constituency, the rich and the poor live side by side, but lead completely different lives -- Suhas Jadhav believes elections are a five-yearly tamasha that has to be endured.

"Look at how the traffic is jammed because of her rally," he says. Jadhav, who runs a cold storage store in Rizvi Nagar, where slums have been replaced by compact high-rises. "And this road? The water will be waist high here during the rains because there is no drainage. They seem to have forgotten about that during the redevelopment. We have such a terrible mosquito menace."

He is not really concerned about who comes to power. Like many others, he is more worried about galloping inflation. "The purchasing power has reduced and that has hurt retailers like us very badly."

He is not sure if he is going to vote. "What does it matter? Whoever comes to power, the public is still in the same place. Inflation is only going to increase."

A few yards away, a group of women sipping 'cutting chai' at a temporary, plastic-sheet roofed shed-like structure, roundly curse Dutt. "They () demolished our homes 15 years ago and promised us homes in these building, but nothing has happened. And she won't help," they accuse their MP.

As they point towards the temporary structures they have been living in for the last 15 years, a man putters by on a bike. "He has pull (influence), so he got five rooms. We don't have the benefit of one house."

Dutt, the women feel, is not concerned about them. "Her father was a good man, but she... All these politicians and builders, they all make money and run. We are left behind to survive in these terrible conditions."

Asif Lakha, who owns a popular birthday party accessories shop in Santa Cruz, is sure the Congress will be back. "The younger generation likes the Congress. Rahul Gandhi comes with a different thought and even if there is corruption, it will be of a different kind. Modi has the wrong attitude."

While his entire family will vote for the Congress -- "Our ladies are not interested in politics, they will vote where I tell them to vote" -- he is unhappy about Muslim clerics who are asking the community to support the Congress.

"Politics should not enter the mosque," he says.

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Image: Suhas Jadhav, a retailer in Santa Cruz, hopes inflation will be controlled.
Photographs: Savera R Someshwar/ Rediff.com

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'We will vote for Congress, but the BJP will win'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

In well-to-do Powai, with its wide roads and gentle lakeside breeze, Priya Dutt is addressing a meeting at a local restaurant.

A generous banquet lies ready in chafing dishes, waiting to be consumed accompanied by the genteel clink of cutlery against crockery, possibly accompanied by slightly heated political discourse.

Naseem Khan, an MLA, makes a quick speech, followed by a quicker one by Dutt. People stroll onto the stage to praise the MP and MLA. Dutt seems assured of her votes here.

"We are just here extending our support," say Lubaina and Liyakatally Colombowala, owners of an export house. "We will vote for the Congress, but it's the BJP who is going to win. There is absolutely no contest."

Amrik Singh Bhatia, who own a realty consultant firm, is clear that though the Congress damaged its chances with an ineffective prime minister and non-cooperative allies, it still stands a chance in this race. "Two power centres never work," he says firmly, "and it's time the Congress realises that."

He dismisses both the Modi Wave -- "I have friends in the interiors in many areas and, believe me, there is no such thing!" -- and the Aam Aadmi Party -- "I have friends there" -- as media creations.

"India is looking for a change, but we are going to vote for the candidate, the people who help us. Khan has done good work here and Priya's father had helped us a lot. He was a good guy," Bhatia says. "Our vote will go to Priya."

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Image: Lubaina and Liyakatally Colombowala will vote for Priya Dutt, but believe it is no contest and the BJP will triumph.
Photographs: Savera R Someshwar/ Rediff.com

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'Today, he is showing himself to be a good man, but it will be a different story after he comes to power'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

There are others who will vote for Priya Dutt -- not because they are happy with what she has done -- but because they dread the thought of Narendra Modi as prime minister.

Ismail Qureshi runs a tailoring shop in Kasaiwada, Quresh Nagar. "The Congress should and must win. At least, jaan-maal ka toh nuksaan nahin hoga (at least our lives and livelihood will be safe). Yes, there is inflation and people are angry. Lekin rozi-roti toh chalti hain na? (We can at least earn a living). The Congress is good; they don't have any religious bias. Modi aya toh (If Modi comes) Muslims will suffer. He will not allow them to earn their rozi-roti. Danga fasad kara dega (there will be riots."

Muslims I spoke to in Santa Cruz, Powai, Saki Naka and Kurla are clearly wary of Modi; many say they feared for their safety if he won the election. This, they say, is the reason they would vote for the Congress.

"Everyone knows what he has done," says a man who only agreed to be identified as Khan. "Can anyone change so much? Abhi toh apne aap to accha dikha raha hain, lekin power aane ke baad nazaara kuch kuch aur hi hoga. (Today, he is showing himself to be a good man, but it will be a different story after he comes to power)."

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Image: Ismail Qureshi believes the Muslims will suffer under Modi.
Photographs: Satish Bodas/ Rediff.com

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'There are enough temples and mosques in India, but not enough unity'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

Not everyone agrees.

Rajiv and Meenal Shah, a couple who live in Santa Cruz, believe this is Modi's time, Modi's year. "NaMo must win this time. He is the best guy," they say. "We know what he has done in Gujarat and we know what we suffer in Mumbai. There are more scams in Maharashtra than in Gujarat. There have been no riots in Gujarat for the last 10 years. The Muslims there are happy with him."

The couple, who are socially active, says all their friends support Modi. "We want better infrastructure for the taxes we are paying. We want better roads, continuous water supply. The supersonic real estate prices have to brought under control. We want inflation to be brought under control," says Rajiv.

They refuse to buy into the argument that Modi makes a certain section of Indian society nervous. "Modi is secular," insists Meenal.

"Actually, I don't care if he is secular or not," adds Rajiv. "Secularism is a word brought out during elections to scare people."

Meenal injects, irritated. "This is India. One country. Can we please stop talking about religion and caste and region?"

Many kilometres away, Muzaffar Hussain agrees. But he does not buy into the Modi campaign. The 29 year old, who works at a mall, says, "The Congress is better than the BJP. If Modi comes, he will cause fights."

Pointing to Ramkaran, the cobbler who is mending his little daughter's sandals, he says, "He and I have been friends for years. How does it matter that he is a Hindu and I am Muslim? There are enough temples in India for Hindus to pray in, enough mosques for Muslims to offer namaaz. But there is not enough unity in our country."


Image: Muzaffar Hussain, left, believes the Congress will be better for India than the BJP.
Photographs: Savera R Someshwar/ Rediff.com

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