Mumbai next?

Print edition : January 10, 2014

AAP workers from Mumbai on the eve of the birthday anniversary of Bhagat Singh, at Bijwasan in New Delhi on September 27. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

The Aam Aadmi Party in Mumbai is on a euphoric high with membership growing fast.

IN Mumbai where real estate is more precious than gold, it is perhaps a sign of deep faith and belief in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that its office space—a flat in the prime western suburb of Andheri—is rented to them for a sum of Re.1 a month.

The crowd in the small flat has thinned a bit since December 8, when the AAP’s success in Delhi was announced, but the phone continues to ring incessantly.

The Mumbai office receives about 450 calls every day, all answered by volunteers and interns. The office itself is, of course, staffed by aam aadmis. There is only one paid employee, the accountant. However, Preeti Sharma Menon, secretary of the Mumbai chapter of the party, admits that it is time to “build a team of paid staff” though she is emphatic that they should all have a sense of belonging to the party. “It’s not just a job,” she says. Other plans include starting a call centre and a helpline to field the hundreds of calls from citizens that range from offering help to requests to sort out problems. “We used to handle these calls between ourselves,” she says, referring to the six-member core team in Mumbai, “but that one helpline number we had is overburdened.”

The Mumbai office continues to receive a stream of visitors—all hopeful that they, as common people, may actually have a role to play in government. As Preeti Menon says, “People used to be cynical about politics. I myself was before I joined up. They would think that a party could never be a people’s movement, but we have proved all this wrong.”

The numbers bolster her claim. District offices across Maharashtra have asked 10,000 volunteer forms to be sent to them. Preeti Menon has given a print order for three and a half lakh forms. At a membership drive at Wardha held on a Sunday, 1,300 people signed up in a matter of a few hours. The party is averaging about 1,000 new members every day. Preeti Menon says they are not yet sure of the party’s strength in Maharashtra as they have not had time to collate the numbers, but she believes it to be around 25,000, of which about 5,000 are active members.

The profile of members is varied, and the party wants it to be that way. “We have everyone from autorickshawallas to Bollywood stars and CEOs,” says Preeti Menon. “All we ask is that members be non-criminal, non-corrupt and non-communal.” Among those who have formally joined up is Vijay Pandhare, the government engineer who exposed the irrigation scam in Maharashtra last year. He joined the AAP as soon as he retired from his job. Sameer Nair, former CEO of Star TV and now an entrepreneur, has taken over the party’s publicity. Ranvir Shorey, the actor and AAP member, helps the party with its strategy. “People want to help in any way they can, and we need all the help we can get,” says Preeti Menon.

With a shortage of funds, getting volunteers is all the more crucial. The AAP office is buzzing with interns. Currently, about 50 have signed up for a month. “Maharashtra has no funds,” says Preeti Menon, adding that the party’s Maharashtra office raised about Rs.5 crore for the Delhi election. They are back to seeking financial help again, and Preeti Menon is confident it will come. “We have people like Jamal Mecklai [CEO, Mecklai Financial Services] and others in the investment world,” she says. “We rarely accept cash; we prefer cheques. People also donate in kind: laptops, things for the office, etc.” All this support has persuaded the party to put up candidates for the State elections in 2014. The party has a well-structured organisation with a convener, secretary, treasurer and committee members. Apart from Mumbai, the AAP has a structured presence in 29 districts.

Euphoria aside, what needs to be remembered is that the AAP had an advantage in Delhi because it was born and grew there. Arvind Kejriwal, the party’s poster boy, had pitted himself against Sheila Dikshit in a David-and-Goliath fight that had the voter thrilled. Other AAP candidates in Delhi benefited from this sentiment. The party does not have that advantage in Mumbai. Its members here are determined but not charismatic.

If nothing, it is hoped that the entry of a fresh-faced party will at least enthuse the notoriously slack Mumbai voters to cast their votes in the elections next year.

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