Urmila gives Cong hope in BJP stronghold

Urmila Matondkar. PTI File photo

The Mumbai North Lok Sabha seat was one where the Congress was reportedly unable to zero in on a candidate to take on sitting MP Gopal Shetty, but the entry of actor Urmila Matondkar has now brought in more than a semblance of a contest.

It is among the BJP's strongest seats in the state, and Shetty, a former corporator and multiple-time MLA, had defeated former Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam in the 2014 general election by 4.46 lakh votes, among the widest margins in the country.

According to observers, the morale of Congress workers was down after Nirupam reportedly showed an unwillingness to contest from the constituency this time.

They add that Matondkar, who has surprised most with her articulateness while speaking on political issues, has now ensured that the BJP has a fight on hand and the contest is no longer a cakewalk.

While Mumbai North was among the largest Lok Sabha constituencies in the country, behind Outer Delhi and Thane, the delimitation exercise in 2008 shrunk it.

While areas beyond Dahisar have been included in the Palghar seat, newer assembly segments like Magathane, Charkop, Kandivali (east) and Malad (west) have been carved out of the growing suburbs of Malad and Kandivali and included in the Mumbai North seat.

A rising population, housing, healthcare and transportation remain key issues, as is the lack of basic facilities in several Adivasi settlements in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

Of the six assembly segments that make the seat, four — Dahisar, Borivali, Kandivali (east) and Charkop — are held by the BJP.

Magathane is with saffron ally Shiv Sena while Malad (west) is represented by Congress's Aslam Sheikh.

There are over 18 lakh voters and poll percentage in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was 53.07 per cent.

Speaking about her easy connect with the people, Matondkar said it came from the empathy and respect for those before whom she stands asking for votes.

"I am one of them and am asking them to make me their representative. If given a chance and if I can fulfil their expectations, which I am confident I will, I can be called a leader," she told PTI.

Despite observers saying that the Maharashtrian vote will be decisive, Matondkar claimed she is not playing the "Marathi card".

Kalu Bundhela, a Congress leader from Mumbai North said the party is banking on the "excess votes" that went to the BJP in 2014 due to the Narendra Modi wave.

"There is a traditional Congress base of 2.5 lakh votes. We should be able to increase the tally on Urmila's goodwill and the support of the MNS which is backing her candidature. Similarly, 1.15 lakh Muslims and Christians are likely to support her," Bundhela said.

"There are 6.5 lakh Maharashtrians and 5.5 lakh Gujarati-speaking people. If we get 7-8 per cent of their votes, it is a safe bet," he claimed.

Shetty's supporters, meanwhile, point out to his grassroots connect, and even rivals acknowledge his work in conserving open spaces and gardens in the Borivali area.

Shetty said he was confident of his work and added that electing actor Govinda, in the 2004 polls, was a "bad experience for the people".

He denied small traders, a staple of the BJP vote base, were upset with the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, adding that he had ensured people in his constituency got the benefits of Central schemes like Ujjwala Yojana and Ayushman Bharat.

Shetty said he had worked to improve facilities in suburban railway stations in his constituency since suburban train travel has always been an issue for people here.

He claimed the city's first air-conditioned local train started on Western Railway's network due to his efforts.

In 2014, Shetty polled 6.64 lakh votes against Nirupam's 2.17 lakh. Nirupam had managed to win in 2009 with a thin margin of 5,779 votes against five-time MP and senior BJP leader Ram Naik, mostly aided by 1.47 lakh votes polled by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena's Shirish Parkar.

Observers said the BJP has a strong network in the seat but it is to be seen how much the local Sena cadre pitch in as there is friction among the two allies on the ground.

The constituency votes on April 29.

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