What can Milind Deora really do? He faces a Hobson's choice

Damned if he quits the Congress, equally damned if he goes with Eknath Shinde, Deora may never make it to the Lok Sabha again—in 2024 or otherwise

This 2017 photo of Milind Deora (2nd L) on literally Rahul Gandhi's right hand, with then regional coordinators Gaurav Gogoi (L), Shashi Tharoor, Geeta Reddy & Salman Soz (L–R), spotlights the privilege he has lost (photo: National Herald archives)
This 2017 photo of Milind Deora (2nd L) on literally Rahul Gandhi's right hand, with then regional coordinators Gaurav Gogoi (L), Shashi Tharoor, Geeta Reddy & Salman Soz (L–R), spotlights the privilege he has lost (photo: National Herald archives)

Sujata Anandan

It cannot be easy being Milind Deora in the year 2024.

His father, Murli Deora,  was a blue-blooded Congressman; his mother, Hema Deora, is counted by Sonia Gandhi among her closest friends. He was given precedence over other equally committed Congress leaders essentially because of those two factors.

Congress leaders even denied a cabinet berth to former Bombay Congress president Gurudas Kamat because they wished not to hurt the Deoras in Mumbai.

Milind was made a minister of state in 2009 along with Kamat, who was far more experienced and senior. That caused a rift between him and his party leaders — Kamat remains the only person in India to have turned down a minister’s post over such a slight.

In the years in between 2014 and 2019, when Milind lost two consecutive elections from South Mumbai, he was still seen in proximity to Rahul Gandhi, traveling with him on tours to foreign universities and think tanks.

But he has been missing from the entourage in recent years, perhaps because the Congress was aware he was planning to jump ship.

Yet, since he didn’t, he was made joint treasurer of the AICC as recently as last month. Fund collecting was a role his father excelled in; Milind Deora too could have done a good job given his relations with prominent entrepreneurs in South Mumbai.

However, access to funds alone does not win an election—right?

Milind Deora’s peculiar problem, which no other Congressman or Shiv Sainik faces today, is that the South Mumbai seat is up for the  grabs by at least two parties in both the Maharashtra alliances.

It is currently represented by Arvind Sawant in the Lok Sabha. Sawant, who defeated Milind Deora in both 2014 and 2019.

Sawant was a minister in the Modi cabinet in November 2019 when Uddhav Thackeray split from the alliance with the BJP and joined the Maha Vikas Aghadi. At a word from Thackeray, Sawant gave up all the trappings of power and his office; within hours, he was at Uddhav Thackeray’s side in Mumbai. Thackeray even thanked him with folded hands, live on television, for his faith and trust in him. When the Shiv Sena properly split in 2022, Sawant still stood steadfastly by Thackeray, and nothing swayed him from his loyalty to his party. 

So Milind Deora’s fate in the Congress was sealed a long time ago with regard to his ambition to re-contest South Mumbai. For Uddhav Thackeray would never cede it to the Congress, and the latter too would not break the alliance—with the whole INDIA bloc (the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) at stake now—over the one seat.

Deora had once defeated the Shiv Sena’s sitting MP Mohan Rawle from South Mumbai in 2009; but there were some particular factors involved in that victory.

Earlier in 2004, Deora had won his Lok Sabha seat, defeating sitting BJP MP Jawantibehn Mehta, who had earlier defeated Murli Deora for the same seat in 1999!

The seat had, until 2004, swung each election between the Congress and the BJP because of its constituency profile.

It was the smallest Lok Sabha constituency in India, with the voters mostly being upper-crust Parsis and bureaucrats living in Cuffe Parade or Colaba, Muslims in the ghettos of Mohammad Ali Road and Bhendi Bazaar, and an overwhelming number of Gujaratis and entrepreneurs in Malabar Hill and Napean Sea Road. Victory depended on who could mobilise more of their voters.

Pre-2014 both the BJP and the Congress were evenly matched in this game.

However, with the delimitation of constituencies in 2008, South Central Mumbai—which has a huge population of former textile mill workers and lower-middle class Maharashtrians, generally voters of the Shiv Sena—was merged with South Mumbai, which now acquired a different profile.

Rawle lost the 2009 election because of the presence of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, whose candidate drew more than 1 lakh votes away from the Shiv Sena. But by 2014, Raj Thackeray’s party was greatly weakened and Narendra Modi’s charisma was high with both Gujaratis and Maharashtrians. The Congress’s loss from that seat was no surprise. The same conditions prevailed in 2019.

Congressmen in Mumbai are saddened on behalf of Murli Deora that his son is not as committed to the Congress as his father was; but they are less complimentary about the son, who they say ‘disappeared’ every five years, with no grassroots contact in between elections.

But each time, it seems, his proximity to the Gandhis won him a ticket— though they still lost the seat.

Now, with the INDIA bloc on track and the Congress deciding to contest only for 250-odd Lok Sabha seats, leaving allies to flaunt their strength in their own lairs, South Mumbai was always unlikely to be offered to Milind Deora. According to sources, South Mumbai does not figure in the eight seats out of 48 still up for discussion among the allies after last week’s meeting over seat sharing.

But while the Shiv Sena (UBT) will run Sawant again from South Mumbai, in the Maha Yuti alliance of the Eknath Shinde Shiv Sena, the BJP and the Ajit Pawar NCP, it is by no means certain who will get that seat — the BJP or Eknath Shinde.

There could be a quid pro quo, of course: the BJP wants the Kalyan seat too, which is currently represented by chief minister Shinde's son Shrikant Shinde, and they might give up that claim in return for South Mumbai. 

According to reliable sources, the BJP is keen to wrest South Mumbai back again—and now they have a better chance at bullying Shinde to cede ground than they would have had with Uddhav Thackeray.

The old South Mumbai voters would be evenly divided between Shiv Sena (UBT) and BJP, for Muslims and Parsis continue to be highly impressed and comforted by Thackeray’s conciliatory, non-combative Hindutva and the manner in which he took care of Covid victims during his tenure as chief minister.

All the major donors to the BJP coffers are old South Mumbai voters, however—and the BJP, according to sources, does not wish to empower Shinde more than is necessary.

“You wait and watch,” says one Shiv Sainik. “If Milind contests on the Shinde ticket, it’s the BJP which will manipulate his defeat. For they have little use for another of his profile. That is good news for us, so we should welcome his exit, not mourn it.”

Yes, Milind Deora is clearly between the devil and the deep black sea on this one.

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