Mumbai: At the entrance of the dusty road that led to the Kartikeya School in Kurla West, was a thin contingent of security men and women. The road, made of cement blocks, looked brand new. It was early evening, and the air was dense with diesel fumes, high levels of traffic noise and the oppressive, wet heat that so characterizes a Mumbai summer.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
It was an important day for Priya Dutt, the Lok Sabha Congress candidate from the Mumbai North Central parliamentary constituency. Kurla West is a medium-sized part of it. Next to Kartikeya School, Dutt was going to address a gathering, along with Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar. This was going to be Pawar’s first ever public support of the Dutt family—a dramatic gesture, and a calculated one. “It is really difficult to imagine Sharad Pawar coming to Kurla,” said a party worker.
The metal detectors were yet to be installed when Dutt arrived, accompanied by a small entourage of party workers. She wore a creased cotton kurta with a white churidar and bulky sports shoes. It was the second last day of her campaigning, and the fatigue showed. Soon after she walked up to the makeshift podium and sat next to a senior party member, another local partyman, Captain Malik, grabbed the microphone and sang an ode to Sonia Gandhi. Local MLAs and corporators came on stage one after another, and flayed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in speeches and shayiri (Urdu verses). This is a predominantly Muslim area and most speeches harped on the sorry plight of Indian Muslims, the outrage over Muslims being identified with terrorists and how Dutt, their representative, stood for harmony among religions.
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Dutt sat unruffled. She either smiled and waved to residents of the surrounding housing societies who had huddled together on terraces to watch her speak, or tried to make eye contact with people she had spotted in the crowd. She occasionally let out a chuckle or two, listening to the verbose eulogies and histrionics in Urdu and Hindi.
At first glance at her workplace, the constituency that her father Sunil Dutt nurtured, Dutt comes across as a rather reluctant politician. Her body language is very subtle, her oratorical skills are little to speak of, and amid the MLAs and corporators, she is oddly out of place. Dutt welcomed Pawar and his daughter Supriya Sule on stage with enthusiasm, and posed for the press. She delivered a brief, pointed speech in which she expressed her gratitude to Pawar, talked about her father’s commitment to social work and a simple appeal to voters to vote for the Congress. Pawar, in his speech, said twice, “Priya hamari ghar ki beti hai (She is family).”
This election is the crucial one for Dutt. In 2005, when she defeated Madhukar Sarpotdar of the Shiv Sena, she was just Sunil Dutt’s daughter. Her father had been nursing this constituency, which happens to be the country’s largest constituency of slum dwellers (as of latest figures, 72% of the population here lives in slums) ever since the early 1990s. After his death, his followers had found a willing scion in his daughter. But how much has Dutt become a leader in her own right? The last three years should have been a test.
Now, say party members and analysts, there is some resentment among the six MLAs (from the NCP and the Congress) of the constituency. One of them, Haji Ibrahim Sheikh or “Bhaijaan”, a former NCP politician who has joined the Bahujan Samajwadi Party, is trying to split some Muslim votes from the Congress. Her other opponent is the BJP’s Mahesh Jethmalani, a lawyer who once represented her brother Sanjay Dutt.
But the consensus is, Dutt will sail through. “I have no doubt that she will walk over easily,” says Kumar Ketkar, editor of Loksatta, who has been mapping the Congress in the state for two decades. “She does not belong to Indian politics as such, as a national politician interested in the game. She has had no power struggles. I would qualify her as a socially connected person who can also relate to problems of the poor.”
But even unwittingly, Dutt’s importance in the Congress party has come to the fore in the run-up to this election. Sonia Gandhi’s support has been unequivocal from the beginning. Sheila Dikshit recently addressed a rally with Dutt in Mumbai. And last, but not least, is Pawar’s open support of Dutt at the meeting in Kurla West on 27 April. “Pawar obviously realizes that showing support to Priya will help him stake bigger claims at the Centre. He is a perennial game-player whose almost every move is calculated,” Ketkar adds. He says Pawar was a sworn enemy of Sunil Dutt. He was chief minister when Sanjay Dutt was arrested in 1993 and because of Sunil Dutt’s closeness to the Gandhi family, Sanjay Dutt received hostility from Pawar.
For the Congress, Sunil Dutt’s legacy can still hold a key vote bank together, helped by his daughter’s hands-on, affable way of doing politics.
Dutt’s political career began long before she was elected to the Lok Sabha. After she returned from her studies in New York, she dabbled in video and TV documentaries. “The TV world seemed too much of a rat race to me even then, so I went into social work. Even now I can’t deal with rat race,” she said in an interview on CNBC. It first became obvious that she was her father’s successor when she accompanied him on his Mahashanti Padyatra in 1987 from Mumbai to Amritsar. Her husband Owen Roncon says that in the past three years Dutt has learnt how things are broken in politics and how they can be fixed. “But the Priya Dutt brand is still her adaptability. Like her father, she can come down to people’s levels to understand their problems. At the same time, she has sophistication to relate to the urban and elite classes,” he says.
Environmentalist and journalist Darryl D’Monte, an eminent resident of Bandra, where Dutt also lives, says that her appeal cuts across Bandra’s varied demographic of Catholics, Maharashtrians, immigrants, and Muslims. Recently, both Jethmalani and Dutt addressed a Bandra citizens’ forum in Bandra. “Jethmalani was a lawyer, a glib talker. He didn’t particularly know much about the constituency. Priya came across as straightforward, sincere, and a woman of few words.” According to him, she has the whole-hearted support of the Catholic population because of her “secular outlook”. In the entire constituency, Christians make up 3% of the population, Muslims 19%, Hindi-speakers 19% and Maharashtrians 32%.
But it’s largely the legacy that is still Dutt’s trump card. Among all her supporters, nobody is sure what her concrete achievements have been. Has slum rehabilitation been accompanied by improvement in the quality of life? Have inroads of more immigrants to these rehabilitated areas been prevented? Is water still scarce in the slums of Jogeshwari? Do the Muslims of Behrampada feel safer? These are questions that Dutt will need to address if she wins. But when she reached out to her voters, her benevolent persona, a reflection of her father, perhaps won hearts.
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