He is a labour union leader with declared assets running into crores, has landed property in Dubai, and stays next to Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan in the tony, upmarket suburb of Bandra in Mumbai.
Now, as the new president of the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee (MRCC), Ashok aka ‘Bhai’ Jagtap is the man tasked with reviving the Congress in the city, and lead it in the crucial elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in early 2022.
Jagtap takes over from former Lok Sabha MP Eknath Gaikwad, who was the acting president of the MRCC, after former union minister Milind Deora stepped down from the position.
The Mumbai unit of the Congress that has been handed down to Jagtap is a pale shadow of its former self in the city where it was born as the Indian National Congress in 1885.
Once led by stalwarts and senior leaders like SK Patil, Barrister Rajni Patel, Murli Deora and Gurudas Kamat, the Mumbai Congress has seen massive defections from its ranks. In the 2019 assembly elections, it could get just four MLAs elected from the 36 constituencies in the island city and the suburbs. This is a far cry from a decade ago, when the party had 17 MLAs in Mumbai. Despite these reverses, the city unit is a faction-ridden one.
The Congress has lost much of its base among the North Indians, who once voted for it with their feet, to the BJP. Though communities do not vote as monolithic blocs, the Maharashtrians are seen as standing firmly with the Shiv Sena, with sections of the upper castes and classes supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The mercantile classes like Gujaratis, Marwaris and Jains are seen as being core voters of the BJP.
In case of a Shiv Sena versus BJP contest, the narrative and battle are being polarised around the issue of linguistic pride and identity, leading to Marathi versus non-Marathi consolidation, and affecting the Congress and other parties.
In this scenario, the Congress largely has its support among the Muslims and Dalits to fall back on. However, the presence of players like Samajwadi Party (SP), and the new enfant terrible on the block, the Owaisi-led All India Majlis E Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) means that some of these voters may drift elsewhere.
Significantly, three of the four Congress legislators from Mumbai, namely Aslam Shaikh (Malad-West), Amin Patel (Mumbaidevi), Zeeshan Shaikh (Vandre East) are Muslims, while one — Varsha Gaikwad (Dharavi) is a Buddhist Dalit.
In 2019, Jagtap, who is in his second term as a member of legislative council (MLC), himself lost the state assembly elections from Colaba in Mumbai to Rahul Narvekar of the BJP. In 2004, Jagtap was elected as the MLA from the Khetwadi constituency in Mumbai after losing the assembly polls in 1999 from the Mandangad-Dapoli seat in Ratnagiri district, where his family hails from.
Under these circumstances, the choice of Jagtap, a Maharashtrian, has led to a whispering campaign by some aggrieved leaders who question why the Congress did not choose a Hindi-speaking North Indian, Muslim or Dalit for the post. “Bhai chahiye, Bhaiyya nahi” or the Congress wants Bhai (Jagtap), and not a Bhaiyya (as North Indians are referred to in Mumbai), is the lament by those claiming that political representation for the Hindi-speakers is one way for the Congress to rejuvenate itself in Mumbai.
Already, the desertions of North Indian leaders like Kripashanker Singh, Rajhans Singh and Ramesh Singh Thakur, has affected the Congress. Some senior leaders who are not active in the party are said to be eager to jump ship. There are others who claim that choosing a Muslim — no leader from the minority community has headed the Congress in Mumbai in the recent past — can cement its base among those voters and keep parties like the AIMIM at bay.
North Indian leaders point out that unlike Maharashtrians, especially those from the toiling classes, who are seen as being staunch supporters of the Shiv Sena, the loyalties of the Hindi-speakers cannot be taken for granted. In 2004 and 2009, the community, which has significant political clout in and around Mumbai, went with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), but switched sides to the BJP in 2014 and 2019.
Now, with Congress being part of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) regime, some overtures to this linguistic cohort could have led to them returning to the party fold, goes the argument.
The MRCC reshuffle has seen some contenders for the top post being accommodated in various capacities. This includes Charan Singh Sapra, who is Sikh, as the working president, followed by former minister Mohammed Arif ‘Nasim’ Khan as the campaign committee chief. However, there are fears if the saying about too many cooks spoiling the broth may eventually come true.
But, despite this, the Congress seems to be banking on Jagtap’s labour union leader background to ensure mobilisation for the party. He is also said to be backed by powerful Congress ministers in the state.
There may have been another reason for Jagtap’s elevation as the Mumbai Congress chief.
Jagtap is associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Maratha Mahasangh (ABMM), which has a strong presence in the dominant Maratha community. The ABMM played a role in founding the Akhil Bharatiya Kamgar Karmachari Mahasangh (ABKKM), a labour union which is controlled by Jagtap.
The Marathas are restive due to the reservations for the community in jobs and education being caught in a legal tangle. By appointing a Maratha as a Mumbai Congress chief, the Congress may have sent out a message to this section. Though the politics in Mumbai is polarized on grounds of language and religion, the role of caste in deciding voting patterns cannot be ignored.
But, as the man in the saddle, Jagtap will have to take on a dilemma confronting the party—that of whether the Congress should contest the BMC polls as part of the MVA with the Shiv Sena and NCP, or go it alone.
The Shiv Sena has made the right noises for the MVA to contest alone and take on the BJP, and the NCP too is said to be eager for an alliance. However, the Congress leadership seems to be speaking in different voices, with state Congress chief and revenue minister Balasaheb Thorat eager for an alliance, and Jagtap advocating the go-it-alone line.
There are fears that the Congress may lose out on the consolidation of the MVA’s combined vote if it fights alone in Mumbai. However, in case it does, the sharing of seats between the three parties will be a difficult proposition.
Moreover, if it contests as part of the MVA, its opponents like the AIMIM may charge it with colluding with the Shiv Sena for power while pointing to the latter’s role in the 1992-93 communal riots, which scarred the city’s psyche. This may affect the voting patterns of the Muslim community.
The Congress last controlled the BMC between 1992 and 1997, after which it has been relegated to the opposition benches in Asia’s richest civic body.
Now, it has just 31 corporators in the BMC. The decline of the Congress has been accompanied by the parallel growth of the BJP in the civic body. In 2017, the BJP secured 82 seats in the BMC, just two short of the Shiv Sena’s tally. This time, BJP leaders say, they are determined to wrest the BMC from the Shiv Sena, which has been controlling it between 1985-1992 and then for five uninterrupted terms since 1997. This control over the civic body has helped the Shiv Sena foster its “reward economy” that ensures its grip over the city.
As senior leaders concede, if not return to its halcyon days, the Congress needs to improve its position in the BMC to ensure its revival in Mumbai. Or else, they fear, the party may be relegated to the position of an also-ran.