Bhiwandi: If the Maharashtra assembly elections have come to be characterized by a fractured polity with the absence of any real issues as well as confusion caused by rebel factions, then Bhiwandi in Thane district is a classic case in point.
While the population is predominantly Muslim, multi-cornered contests may eat into the support base of key contestants.
According to the municipal corporation of Bhiwandi, the city has a population of around 1.2 million, of which about 70% consists of Muslims, most of whom are migrants from Uttar Pradesh (largely Azamgarh, Pratapgarh, Basti and Allahabad), Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, who come here to work in the powerloom industry.
Bhiwandi is the largest powerloom centre in the country, and contributes nearly 40% of the sector’s national production. According to powerloom owners, 90% of the workers are migrants.
The election in Bhiwandi—divided into two assembly constituencies, East and West—is not defined by issues such as poverty.
While “the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government did introduce several social and educational schemes to help the minorities and workers...the living conditions of the migrants here is pitiable and there is utter poverty”, said Ibrahim Mathai, vice-chairman of the state minorities commission.
Vote bank: A migrant powerloom worker at a unit in Bhiwandi. Migrant workers constitute a large part of the city’s electorate. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
The migrants have several problems such as poor housing, said Suresh Taware, the Congress party member of Parliament from Bhiwandi. “The powerlooms are also becoming old and now producing poor quality cloth.”
But the result will hinge on the spoiler effect of the rebel candidates. “The problem right now is the split fight, which is between the Congress, the Shiv Sena and rebels from some parties,” he said.
One of these rebels is Rashid Tahir, now the Samajwadi Party (SP) candidate from Bhiwandi West. The former Congress legislative assembly member switched allegiance because he wasn’t given a ticket, despite “80% of the people” in the constituency belonging to his community, he said.
“Nobody here except me has a base here,” he said, preferring to focus on his grievance rather than measures to help his constituents.
Bhiwandi may provide clues to the Muslim vote in the election, according to a Congress general secretary in Delhi.
According to the municipal corporation, while Bhiwandi East has 250,000 voters with 60% Muslims, Bhiwandi West has 265,000 voters with 65% belonging to the community.
Still, Bhiwandi East elected a Shiv Sena legislative assembly member, Yogesh Patil, in the last election. That was because SP leader Abu Azmi’s candidature split the Muslim vote.
“This time, however, a majority of Muslims will vote for the Congress since they feel it is the only secular party that can form the government,” Mathai said. The SP could still stir up passions and gain votes, he said.
The Muslim mandate may be fractured this time as well. While some areas in Bhiwandi East profess staunch support for Azmi, others back the Congress. “I am from Uttar Pradesh and my entire family has migrated here. We will vote for Abu Azmi,” said Mohammad Azad, who works at the Shizwan Compound loom. “We won’t let the Shiv Sena win. Do you think they can ever do anything for Muslims?”
Mohammad Ali, his colleague, echoes this stance. “Though the Congress did help in solving the power problem by privatizing it, we will vote for Azmi because he is a Muslim,” he said.
They are annoyed by the decision of the Congress to deny the ticket to Tahir and give it to Gurunath Janardan Tawareinstead.
At the Modern Textiles power loom a few metres away, the political dial swings the other way. “All of us are voting for Congress. They are the only ones who work for us,” said Jalaluddin, one of the workers at the loom.
The political orientation of the migrant workers can also be determined to a great extent by the affiliation of their loom owners. Several migrants don’t have their names registered in the voting list until their employer or a corporator gets it done for them, while asking them to vote for a certain candidate.
Meanwhile, the powerloom industry, which was plagued by electricity shortages, seems to be in better shape. With the privatization of power supply in January 2007, shortages and prolonged hours of load-shedding have declined.
“Earlier, there would be power cuts for 10-12 hours every day. However, after Torrent (Power Ltd) took over, it has come down to around three hours,” said Anil Phadtare, owner of the Anil Textiles powerloom.