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Meet Maharashtra's richest politician ever!

February 20, 2017 07:00 IST

What's common between Parag Shah and Prakash Gamre, Mumbaikars who are contesting the election to the richest municipal corporation in India?
Nothing, except they form two extreme ends of the same spectrum, and both are contesting their first-ever election!
Shah, the richest candidate ever to contest any election in Maharashtra, and Gamre, with a zero bank balance, share the same dream of serving the ordinary Mumbaikar.
Rediff.com's Prasanna D Zore meets the two candidates to find how they have been going about winning their wards.

Parag Shah, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from Ghatkopar's ward number 132, with his son Manan and daughter-in-law Dhruvi

Parag Shah, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from Ghatkopar's ward number 132, with his son Manan and daughter-in-law Dhruvi.
Shah is the managing director, Man Infraconstruction -- a Rs 970 crore BSE listed company. Manan is the executive director. Photographs: Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com

Parag Shah, 48, is contesting this election from ward 132, a Bharatiya Janata Party bastion for 20 years.

A first-timer in politics, Shah was invited by the BJP and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to contest this municipal election from Ghatkopar East, a northeast Mumbai suburb.

Maharashtra Housing Minister Prakash Mehta has won the election to the Maharashtra legislative assembly from this predominantly Gujarati constituency since 1990.

Shah is making news because he declared that he and his family are worth Rs 690 crore in his election affidavit submitted to the Election Commission, a mandatory procedure for all those contesting elections in India.

The promoter and majority owner of Man Infraconstruction, which is into infrastructure and real estate development and listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange, Shah's company commands a market capitalisation of Rs 970 crore.

One misses the flamboyance usually associated with Mumbai's real estate developers when one meets Shah at his election campaign office near his home in Ghatkopar's Garodia Nagar.

"Looking at my track record and philanthropic social work, I was invited by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and the BJP to contest this election," Shah, dressed in a spotless white kurta-pyjama, says.

"I was never interested in politics, but I am a great follower of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I honoured the request from the CM," Shah adds about his decision to dive deep into politics.

Ask what he is promising his electorate, and Shah says, "As of now I have not promised a single thing to my constituents. I do not believe in giving promises; I believe in commitment. My work will speak for me. I don't believe in empty promises. People of Ghatkopar know me and my work for the last 15 years," Shah says.

Shah is contesting the election with a singular focus: Make Ghatkopar corruption free. He wants his ward to be a role model for Mumbai to emulate.

"We will definitely clean the corrupt politicians in Ghatkopar. The BJP has zero tolerance for corruption. We will also perform and develop Mumbai," the politician in Shah declares.

Shah may be a political greenhorn, but is not short of tact when you ask him if the split between the BJP and the Shiv Sena, will impact his election campaign or if the vote split will harm the prospects of the two partners who had been together since 1985.

"Ward 132 has always been a BJP bastion, so the party doesn't require an alliance to win from this seat," says Shah. "This is not a Shiv Sena influenced ward."

Ask if the predominant Gujarati character of his ward is the reason for his confidence, and Shah says, "I don't believe in Gujarati voters, Maharashtrians voters. I am a Mumbaikar and am asking for votes from Mumbaikars for the betterment of my ward."

"Everybody for me is a Mumbaikar, but they will vote only for performance. Everyone in India has showered its faith in the BJP and this elections will be no different. Our MLA and state Housing Minister Prakash Mehta has performed in this constituency and we will win this election."

"The split in the alliance will ultimately benefit the BJP," he adds. "We will gain from the split."

"In the 2012 BMC elections we contested 70 seats and won 35. This time we are contesting all the 227 seats, so our margin of victory and the number of seats will surely be much higher because the people are seeing the performance of the state and central governments."

"I believe in winning," he says. "The margin is not important for me. I am sure I will win. I don't want to win to defeat somebody. I am here to win and work for the people of this ward."

"Being the richest candidate in Maharashtra ever, let alone the BMC, makes no difference to me," Shah says.

"I always knew I was worth Rs 690 crore. This is new for the people and the media, not for me. People should not see my personal wealth or balance sheet to vote for me. They should look at the work I have done for the people of Ghatkopar. That is my strength," he adds.

The Rs 690 crore wealth, he points out, is between his wife, him and his HUF (Hindu Undivided family).

The attention that he is getting because of his wealth rankles Shah.

"The balance sheet of my philanthropic and social work is far bigger than my financial balance sheet," he says.

"I would request my voters and the media to focus on the former and not just my personal wealth. But that's the sad part of our society. Everybody wants to interview Paragbhai because of his Rs 690 crore wealth," he says.

"If anyone had written about my philanthropic work, then there would not have been such a big rush for my interviews. Sadly, philanthropic and social work doesn't make news these days," he adds.

"After seeing my balance sheet people are telling me I could have become a Rajya Sabha member or member of the Maharashtra legislative council. But if you keep aside my balance sheet, then on what basis can you say that I could have become a member of the Rajya Sabha?"

"You believe that just because I am a rich man I could have got a Rajya Sabha seat and won it. But I want to prove that I like to work at the grassroots and establish my position. I don't want to become a Rajya Sabha member by giving big donations to political parties."

"Isn't that some kind of indirect corruption which we all seem to have accepted now? If a person wants to work for the people, he can work at any level. You don't have to be an MP or MLA to do that."

A staunch disciple of the Jain sadhu Namra Muni, life has changed for Shah after joining politics.

"It has become hectic. It will be more so after winning the election. I will be happy because I chose to contest the elections and become a corporator to work for the people."

Just like the man, his election campaign trail is not flamboyant either. No large cavalcades or sychophants follow Shah when he is out campaigning in the ward.

"I wake up at 6.30 am and by 7 I start my campaign by meeting joggers in gardens and later go door-to-door canvassing. In the afternoon we meet to strategise, meet my workers, boost their confidence. Evenings are again spent campaigning door-to-door. After 8 pm we meet people by visiting their residential societies," says Shah.

"There is only one message we are spreading in our campaign," he says. "Ghatkopar will become corruption- and Congress-free in the next five years. We will make ward 132 in Ghatkopar a role model for the entire country."

***

Prakash Gamre, with a zero bank balance, is contesting the election from ward 82, backed financially with friends and family.

IMAGE: Prakash Gamre, with a zero bank balance, is contesting the election from ward 82, backed financially with friends and family.

Prakash Gamre, 26, is the other end of the 2,275-strong colourful canvas -- in which Parag Shah is right at the top -- that will finally be painted with 227 colours when results to the BMC elections are declared on February 23.

Contesting the election on a People's Republican Party (Jogendra Kawade) and a zero bank balance, Gamre, who shares a 120 sq ft self-contained room with a family of 12 -- Gamre, his parents, four brothers, their wives and a brother's son -- is a resident of Marol Pipeline and will contest his first election from ward 82 in Mumbai's northwest suburbs.

Except for a Honda CB Unicorn, which was bought three years ago when the times were good for him, Gamre owns no asset. The house in which the family stays belong to his father.

Gamre's ward and Shah's ward are separated by just 6 kilometres or 28 minutes by road travel, but the gap between their financial worth is infinite.

"I have spent Rs 20,000 on my campaign so far," Gamre says, when I met him on February 16, a day before meeting Shah.

Shah, on the other hand, had spent between Rs 200,000 and Rs 250,000 on his campaign since the day he was nominated as the BJP candidate from ward 132.

"My friends and family are the biggest contributors of my election fund," says Gamre as he sips tea at a restaurant in Bandra, northwest Mumbai.

Gamre was in Bandra to be present at the B Petit Urdu School where election officials were sealing electronic voting machines that day.

Gamre, who had no employment for almost a year before he jumped headlong into this election, was a real estate broker and labour contractor.

"I fell upon bad times since the beginning of 2016 as there was no work," says this Class 10 contestant, who with just 12 friends campaigns in his ward.

"I know other contestants have huge crowds during their campaign trail. But I also know that most of these people are paid supporters and not genuine," says Gamre who is contesting these election against candidates whose political and financial clout he can never match.

Speaking about his ward's electoral arithmetic, Gamre, a scheduled caste, says his ward's population mix is skewed in favour of no particular religion, caste or candidate.

"I can win this election not because there are 2,500 scheduled caste votes in this ward, but because there are 15 candidates contesting from my ward and a division of votes could work in my favour," he says.

Gamre campaigns only after his friends return from work every evening. "I have no choice, but to go campaigning in the evening when my friends are around," he says.

In the daytime, Gamre completes tasks like visiting the municipal corporation headquarters to submit his daily expenses for the previous day (mandatory for all candidates; only people like Gamre who do not have the resources to send their workers to do these tasks visit the BMC on their own).

After meeting me, his next stop was the BMC headquarters to submit his expenses for February 15.

It is only after 7 pm, when he has about a dozen people to accompany him, that Gamre reaches out to his constituents on foot.

"The people's response is good," he says. "They eagerly come forward with their problems. I don't promise anything, but listen to them patiently," he says.

Whenever Gamre and his friends find some time and a room, they huddle to plan the next evening's action plan.

"My home is too small," says Gamre,"and with eight to nine people always around it is too difficult to come together and have a heart-to-heart talk with my team."

Prasanna D Zore / Rediff.com in Mumbai