Poll candidates, irrespective of party affiliation, and unfazed by demonetisation, are gearing up to play the money card as the BMC election campaign draws to a close on Sunday. The Mumbai civic polls are scheduled for February 21.
Campaign managers of all parties are busy drawing up strategies to woo voters with moolah, trying to tap the right ‘source’ at the grass-root level to, as a senior Congress activist from Vile Parle said, “do the needful” in the final phase of electioneering.
The ruling parties have been “doing the needful” in a big way, say party detractors and poll analysts.
“Money is the ‘atma’ (soul) of every election. Without ‘atma’ you can’t meet the ‘paramatma’ (voters). But, no one wants to talk openly about money,” said a Congress veteran. It was Raj Thackeray who kick-started the money debate by accusing the BJP of distributing Rs one crore each to its candidates. “How come the BJP is flush with money in times of notebandi? What is the source of this money?” asked the MNS president at a party jamboree in Vikroli recently.
Thackeray offered a simple arithmetic to drive home his point that the BMC election has become a splendidly diabolical money game because of BJP-Sena’s poll extravaganza. “There are 227 municipal wards and the EC has extended its cap on poll expenditure for municipal corporation elections from Rs 5 lakhs to Rs 10 lakh for every candidate. If one presumes that there are seven candidates in each ward then one understands the magnitude of the cash transaction which has been taking place over the last two weeks,” he pointed out, adding, “This clearly means that unaccounted money is still in circulation contrary to the Prime Minister’s claim. Then where was the need for demonetisation?”
BJP MLA Parag Alavani is quick to rebut Thackeray’s charge. “We haven’t received any money from the party. We want votes, and not notes–and votes we will get in abundance. Our detractors are spreading canards about us as they know that the BJP is growing in Mumbai,” said Alavani. Jyoti, Parag’s wife, is the BJP candidate from a Parle pocketborough. “But, signs of the city BJP’s munificence can be seen everywhere, massive hoardings of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis are plastered at almost every nook and corner. Their social networking media cell is busy 24X7 manufacturing new episodes. Plus, there is a harvest of newspaper ads,” said a Shiv Sena functionary. The Sena too is no less, retorted a city BJP office-bearer. “The Sena hoardings are ample in number and a special supplement, called ‘Mee Mumbaikar’, was issued recently along with leading dailies,” he pointed out. A senior Mumbai Congress functionary claimed that this time around, his party hasn’t earmarked funds for candidates.
How will hard cash circulate in the coming days is the million-dollar question. Inquiries revealed that sports and cultural mandals will act as a conduit in the big-time cash game. A certain amount is given to three or four top mandals in the neighbourhood to be distributed among residents in the ward. Cheque payments are a deterrent for obvious reasons.
Candidates have to pull every string to keep the poll pot boiling, say veterans. “We borrow from friends and relatives for a short period, or take loan. Also, a candidate can accept donations, within the prescribed limit, from friends and relatives. For instance, my 50 friends can give me Rs 20,000 each by cheque. If I don’t have a band of generous friends then, well, I have no business to contest elections,” said an MNS worker.
Prosperous highrise residents too have begun to seek favours from politicians, in most cases in suburban Mumbai, the key demand is replacing tiles in the apartment’s sprawling compound. Politicians of every hue have close links with ganpati-ganesh mandals or youth bodies which boast of such quaint names as ‘New Sai Mitra Mandal’ and ‘Jai Shivba Kreeda Mandal’.
According to reports, there are over 15,000 mandals in the island city alone, most of them are under Sena’s control. This explains the Sena’s upper hand in civic politics, said observers. The MNS, BJP, and Congress too have their share of following among mandals. However, the MNS lacks funds to keep the mandals on its side.
The powerful builder-developer lobby continues to be the principal source of funding for civic elections, it is learnt. A ‘sitting’ corporator or former MLA in the poll fray has greater advantage to tap a local builder’s coffers, fattened by profits from the Slum Rehabilitation Authority projects, than a debutante greenhorn in the poll arena.
Little wonder, then that all parties have shown a marked preference for veterans over newcomers across Mumbai–Vishakha Raut (Shiv Sena), Prabhakar Shinde and Atul Shah (both BJP), Sheetal Mhatre (Congress) and Dilip Lande (MNS).
Money rears its head at every nook and corner during electioneering. A former Sena corporator, who belongs to a suburban ward from where his son is contesting on a BJP ticket, was non-plussed when a 500-strong team of women activists arrived in the party office, carrying placards and flags.