Samajwadi Party (SP) MLA from Bhiwandi East and two-time Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Corporator Rais Sheikh elaborates on where his party stands in the present political situation in Maharashtra, his experience working with the Thackerays and the future of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance.
Q) The SP is part of the MVA alliance. Can you elaborate a bit on the present political situation in the state and where your party stands at this point of time?
Ans) The country has two clear ideological divides. One is Hindutva where the core belief is to create a Hindu Rashtra. The other side is the liberal India which believes in the idea of the Indian constitution. The Samajwadi Party is definitely on the latter side vis a vis the Shiv Sena. Being part of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government has been a difficult journey for us. While there was an ideological divide amongst the parties, the Common Minimum Program (CMP) that was drafted was meant to ensure we meet on common ground. While the CMP was well thought out, it was quickly forgotten and that is where the problem started. Every MLA who was not a minister was sidelined. There was political interference in every constituency. In my constituency, the Chief Minister started giving funds on request letters from MLAs who had lost. At the grassroots, almost everyone was complaining. If they say that this present situation has been precipitated by the fear of ED (Enforcement Directorate) or due to Hindutva, they are daydreaming. There was clear discontent amongst MLAs who were not accepting the leadership of Uddhav Thackeray. On top of this, we had Aaditya Thackeray who never met anyone.
Q) Do you think the moderate face of Hindutva projected by Uddhav Thackeray became a liability for the Shiv Sena?
Ans) That is the core of the problem — the transition from a Hindutva party to designing your own Hindutva within the family. The Shiv Sena has a peculiar DNA. Uddhavji was trying to portray that my Hindutva is different from yours. Then Aaditya was creating a big deviation where he was moving towards more of an AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) kind of ideology, trying to get religion-neutral votes. This conflict within the family was dividing the Sena itself.
Q) How do you analyze the functioning of Uddhav and Aaditya Thackeray?
Ans) Uddhavji would think that people will tolerate anything just because he was a Thackeray, which led to him taking others lightly. When I met for Rajya Sabha voting, there was no serious negotiation. When I asked others around him why they didn’t tell him about these issues, they would say you cannot tell critical things to the Thackerays; you can only reply to their questions and you cannot advise them. You can have a conversation with Sharad Pawar, you can fight with Ajit Pawar but you cannot tell the Thackerays anything. With them, it is just one-way communication. With Aaditya, you can talk to him about nice things like what is happening in Davos. But if you tell him that there is garbage strewn around in BDD chawl and something needs to be done, he would get uncomfortable. I had a conversation with him where I told him that his politics was 10 years ahead of time and that these issues will not get votes. He told me somebody should think beyond only votes. I, however, told him that this is not the time. But then he starts ignoring you and stops talking to you.
Q) What future do you see of the MVA?
Ans) The Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the SP who are committed to secularism will stay together. I am not saying that the state of Maharashtra has accepted Hindutva; it is the MLAs who have accepted it. Maharashtra is a progressive and socialist state and there is a place for secular politics. As far as the Sena is concerned, it is not as if the whole Shiv Sena has gone with Shinde. Only the powerful people have left and we must remember that powerful people keep changing. Even today, Shiv Sena has a large grassroot support.
Q) Amid complaints over how the CM was not accessible and development funds were not allocated appropriately, as an ally of the MVA, how receptive was the CM toward smaller parties like you? Were your demands from when you joined the alliance fulfilled? What was his approach to issues like Muslim reservation?
Ans) He was consciously ignoring us. He always felt that any discussion or statement on minorities will alienate his Hindutva votes. There were, however, two very distinct phases in his style of functioning. Soon after he took over, he was very receptive. After CAA-NRC was brought in, we had a debate over it. He comforted me. There was communication and we had the satisfaction that we had a CM who was willing to listen and felt he was a person you can work with. During Covid, however, we lost him completely. We would meet in assembly, he would ignore everybody. He was just making guest appearances.
Q) You have seen the functioning of MMRDA and BMC very closely. Did you feel at any point that Eknath Shinde was continuously being sidelined and if yes, in what ways?
Ans) It was happening every time. If Eknath Shinde is the minister for Urban Development and MMRDA is functioning under him, why should Aaditya go and chair its meetings? He was behaving like a prince passing instructions “isko itna fund dena hai, usko utna”. Either your father should make you the party chief or you wait for your opportunity. So, every bureaucrat was really confused with each day.
Q) The Maharashtra unit of the SP is identified by many as a Muslim party. There is this perception that many so-called Muslim parties eventually end up being consciously or unconsciously the B team of the BJP by splitting the secular vote. How do you respond to that?
Ans) I compromised and became part of the MVA, and contested only three seats. On one of these seats, we had a sitting MLA, in the other two, we were the number two party. I have curtailed my party for the larger secular interest. I did not say I want to fight on several seats like AIMIM did last time in Maharashtra. Second point is my track record, I win seats consistently. I am not like AIMIM, which wins once in Byculla and next time from Dhule. There is a huge difference between AIMIM and us. For the last 25 years, we have been doing stable consistent politics. Our public representatives have consistently won. We have compromised for the larger interest to ensure the Congress or the NCP do not lose because of us.
Q) You know how the BMC functions and how the contractor lobbies operate. So, do you see any hope for Mumbai’s roads which develop potholes and get flooded every year?
Ans) The BMC is a 125-year-old organization and we are still depending on a certain handful of contractors to do most of the works. Aaditya (Thackeray) who is a minister could have intervened and changed it. I remember as a child, BMC’s own employees would be used for road construction and surfacing work. This work was cheap and durable. The Shiv Sena has complicated this process by giving out contracts. The rate of road contract is Rs 14,000 per sq meter in our city while the same work was once done by us for as low as Rs 2,800. The Sena has created a cruel financial model in the city. We have to take the focus off contractors. We have a force of 1.25 lakh people working for BMC, which needs to be used effectively.
Q) Are you in favor of the BMC being split for better administration?
Ans) BMC has a beautiful way of decentralising — we already have administrative wards, we have departments, additional municipal commissioners. I am not in favor of breaking up the BMC. The administrative wards need to be reorganised, I would say. It needs to be made more efficient.