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Poll date: 24 April

Mumbai NorthEast

Key candidates: Medha Patkar, AAP I Sanjay Dina Patil, NCP I Kirit Somaiya, BJP

The election symbol of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the broom, lends itself to all kinds of interpretations, but the cleaning implement has special significance in Govandi, one of the poorest localities in Mumbai, and a test case for Lok Sabha hopeful Medha Patkar’s transformation from activist to politician.

Patkar’s main rivals in the fight for the Mumbai Northeast constituency include sitting MP Sanjay Dina Patil from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Kirit Somaiya from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who lost the 2009 election by a small margin. Somaiya’s following is strongest in the middle-class sections of Mumbai Northeast, among the entrepreneurial and professional classes that form a significant chunk of the estimated 1.6 million voters here. For a national election, the issues in Mumbai Northeast, which includes Ghatkopar, Vikhroli and Bhandup, are global and hyper-local, a consequence of Narendra Modi’s astute campaigning that has bolstered Somaiya’s cause, and Patil’s perceived inability to deliver on his promises—poor quality of infrastructure and safety of women.

Patil and Somaiya represent different and overlapping aspirations. Patil will have to defend the slum vote from Patkar’s relentless campaigning, the Marathi vote from the Modi “wave", and the middle-class vote from disgruntlement over his perceived failures. Somaiya’s loss in 2009 was attributed to the fact that the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) split the vote and robbed him of his constituents, but the fact that the MNS is not contesting this time round gives Somaiya a boost. He senses a difference in the air, saying, “Until recently, the mood was negative but now, there is a positive mood towards change and progress."

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Patkar’s foot-soldiers at Govandi’s Shivaji Nagar locality are from the Andolan, which means two different things in any conversation about Patkar. There is the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, or Tiss, graduate has commandeered to protest the displacement caused by the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. There is the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, which tackles another kind of displacement, of slum populations in Mumbai.

Zubair Ansari, one of the volunteers in Govandi, enrolled with the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan two years ago. His demand, echoed later by Patkar in her speeches, is that the Rajiv Awas Yojana, a Central scheme aimed at providing affordable housing, be pursued in Maharashtra. “Tai (Patkar) had stayed away from politics, but we told her that we wanted change, not empty promises," Ansari says.

Patkar’s ranks are also swelled by members of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), an umbrella organization of grass-root groups from 22 states. Members of this coalition of socialists, leftists and Gandhians voted in January to decide whether Patkar should deploy her image as a clean, principled and indefatigable crusader of the rights of the dispossessed for AAP’s electoral gains. “Not all states agreed—Assam and Karnataka and half of West Bengal said we should not join AAP," Patkar says.

Suvarna Shinghade, a supporter from the Gautam Nagar slum near the Mumbai international airport, urges the crowd to back Patkar. “If Tai wins, we win," Shinghade says. “She is not working for power, but for the public. She is one of us."

Patkar arrives, dressed in her trademark crumpled cotton sari and clutching a diary overflowing with names and numbers. The 59-year-old tells the crowd about the repeated slum demolitions, the need to improve living conditions, and better working conditions for garbage workers. “If we don’t make an effort, there won’t be any change," she says.

This is a different avatar of Patkar—she is negotiating rather than demanding, less of an activist and more of a politician. The difference between her previous life and this one is the difference in the way movements and political parties approach issues, she says. “A movement has to have a conscientious collective leadership," she says. “Parties, on the other hand, need strong leadership."

It’s a fallacy to think that the poorer sections of Mumbai Northeast don’t have an electoral voice, says Amita Bhide, associate professor at Tiss and part of the M East Ward Social and Economic Transformation Programme. “There are several issues related to slum redevelopment in the constituency," she says. “One has seen a consistent failure of multiple kinds of welfare policies. Today, you are trying to homogenize the differences that exist across communities into one composite thing called the slum and impose the slum redevelopment model, but there is a contestation of all of this."

Patkar’s campaign is one of contestation, of claims by the sitting MP, and of the dreams of change and wealth being spun by the BJP. As she wraps up her speech, her followers march to the next venue, which is at the foot of the garbage mounds. Singers belt out songs by the revolutionary bard Gaddar, while activists of various hues, who have huddled under the AAP umbrella to support Patkar, sit on the floor of the stage. As the light fades, the heaps of trash play tricks on the eyes yet again, forming inverted V-shaped patterns on the horizon.

Follow our special coverage of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls on Flipboard.

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