Former Congress MP Priya Dutt was removed as AICC secretary last month, some 13 years after her debut in active politics.
Mumbai: In 2005, Congress leader Priya Dutt was fast-tracked into active politics. In her very first election, a bypoll for the Mumbai North West Parliamentary constituency, necessitated by her father Sunil Dutt’s sudden death, she gave the party some nervy moments.
Heavily pregnant, Dutt had to be rushed to the hospital for delivery in the run-up to the election, denting her campaign. Congress leaders were hopeful of sympathy votes but were also nervous about the tepid campaigning and the low voter turnout.
Dutt, however, trumped her Shiv Sena opponent by a margin fatter than her father’s, and Congress leaders knew that she was here to stay.
Thirteen years on, the very same leaders are not so sure.
Last week, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) removed Dutt, now 52, from the post of secretary, AICC, triggering all sorts of speculation in the Mumbai Congress ranks.
Some believe she may have herself hinted at leaving the post. Others said that she had been working less for the party and may have fallen out of favour with the high command, while some others even wondered if she was looking to jump ship.
“I am not sure what caused her to be relieved as AICC secretary, but she had anyway sort of withdrawn from active party affairs,” a senior leader from the Maharashtra Congress said. “I am not sure if she is even keen on fighting elections next year”.
Surendra Jondhale, a Mumbai-based political commentator, said there are many takers for Dutt’s seat. “She is currently a political recluse,” he said. “There are several ambitious leaders who are looking for a ticket from her constituency in the next election, and I can’t see her being a potential candidate unless there is no consensus within the party on whom to field.”
Dutt, who shared the letter she received from the AICC on Twitter, shrugged off the development, tweeting, “Want to clarify there is nothing to be upset about this letter, this is a process. I have been AICC secretary long enough, new and young people need to be brought into the organisation.”
Sounding almost prescient, she added, “If each one holds on to positions forever where will the other aspirants go.”
Dutt’s political journey
Although Dutt entered electoral politics only in 2005, she started working for the Congress much earlier, assisting her father.
She accompanied her father, an actor-turned-politician, on a long peace march from Mumbai to Amritsar in 1987 — 2,000 km trudged in over 78 days.
She headed his core team when he was a Union minister, reporting to him on the development in his ward — the Mumbai North West Parliamentary constituency.
Dutt, sister of actor Sanjay Dutt, is also known as an avid social worker and now steers the Sunil Dutt-founded Nargis Dutt Memorial Charitable Trust.
When she won her first election in 2005, Dutt defeated Shiv Sena’s Madhukar Sarpotdar by 1.71 lakh votes. In 2009, she widened her victory margin to 1.74 lakh, leaving behind the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Mahesh Jethmalani. This victory was from the Mumbai North Central constituency, under which many of her erstwhile constituencies now came post-delimitation.
By then, the Congress had begun counting the constituency as one of its safest seats under Priya Dutt.
“Some may have dismissed her first win as due to a sympathy wave after Dutt saab’s death, but the second was a much bigger one and she came into her own,” said a politician close to the Dutt family.
“But because the margin was so strong, she sort of took it for granted. She made some mistakes,” he added. “She did not meet people enough, did not go out in her ward enough and did not speak to the media enough”.
Sources said that ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, some in Dutt’s team had advised her to ramp up her efforts, bringing to her attention what seemed like the writing on the wall.
In 2009, the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) had finished third in her ward with 1.32 lakh votes, while the BJP was second with 1.44 lakh votes.
“We anyway had to deal with anti-incumbency and a ‘Modi wave’,” one of her team members for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls said. “Raj Thackeray was supporting the Congress and we should have had a strategy to ensure the 1.32 lakh MNS votes don’t end up going in BJP’s kitty. But this wasn’t taken very well”.
The constituency slipped from her hands and she lost by a whopping 1.86 lakh votes to BJP’s Poonam Mahajan, daughter of slain BJP leader Pramod Mahajan.
Civil society activists from her constituency say her involvement dropped several notches after she lost the 2014 polls but maintain that Dutt was much more approachable than their current MP.
Shyama Kulkarni, a civic activist from Dutt’s constituency, said, “In Priya’s case, you could meet her in her office, discuss issues and she was open to taking up any issue that we voiced. The current MP is not so approachable. “
Citing an example, Kulkarni added, “Priya helped us get an appointment with the then chief minister to discuss our demand for an underground metro in the suburbs. He said we will have an underground metro or no metro at all”.
“Now, however, the government has changed and there is an elevated metro being planned. Activists have been seeking an appointment with the current CM, but despite our MP and the CM being from the same party, they have not been able to get one.”
An unwilling player in Mumbai Congress’ factionalism
The Mumbai Congress leadership is fraught with factionalism and infighting but Dutt has consistently maintained that neither does she believe in this kind of politics nor does she belong to any camp.
Yet, she has had several differences with legislators from her own constituency. Dutt is said to have had a serious feud with former MLA Kripashankar Singh and Naseem Khan, who won the 2014 assembly poll from Mumbai’s Chandivali. During the 2012 civic election, there was open factionalism between the two groups over the nomination of candidates.
Last week, a few Congress leaders protested when Dutt’s name was casually thrown around as a potential candidate from the Mumbai North Central constituency for the 2019 elections.
A former MLA from Dutt’s constituency said that all Congress leaders considered Priya Dutt as their daughter or sister after Sunil Dutt’s death. They campaigned for her when she couldn’t because of her pregnancy and helped her in every possible way. “But over the years, we realised that her functioning was so different from Dutt saab’s that we started feeling distanced,” the ex-MLA said.
For instance, he added, when Sunil Dutt was the MP, every time any local work was being taken up using parliamentary funds, he would call the local MLA too for its inauguration. “She would hardly ever call us, so we started doing the same thing and somewhere a message went to the people that we are divided. She also had her own clique of Congress leaders whom she favoured.”
Party leaders also said that unlike Sunil Dutt, Priya kept herself restricted to her constituency. “Dutt saab was a national leader. He used to take up larger issues of human suffering. The rally to Amritsar is a testimony to that,” a former Mumbai Congress functionary said. “Priya Dutt stuck to her own constituency and as a result got mired in the local politics of it”.
But then, he added, it was inherently easier for Sunil Dutt. “He was already an icon with a larger-than-life image. Priya, on the other hand, is a dedicated social worker who prefers to remain silent and does not seek publicity”.