|Nitesh Rane at the vada pav outlet he inaugurated in Powai on Friday
Mumbai, July 1: Rather than the political pie, the next election in Mumbai will be fought over the political vada pav.
Congress leader Narayan Ranes son Nitesh today gave the March 2012 civic polls a mouth-watering kick-off by launching the first of a planned chain of Chhatrapati Vada Pav outlets. The burger-like vada pav is the citys favourite street snack, as the egg roll is Calcuttas.
Asked if this was the Congresss answer to the dozens of Shiv Vada Pav stalls the Shiv Sena has opened in Mumbai since November 2008, Nitesh laughed and told The Telegraph: You are free to interpret it like that.
From the brand name to the location, Niteshs motive of challenging and provoking the Sena is clear.
Not only does Chhatrapati refer to Maratha king Shivaji from whom the Sena derives its name, the Rane scions stall has come up bang opposite the Shiv Vada Pav outlet in Powais Nisarga Garden that Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray inaugurated last week.
Nitesh, who looks after the Congress labour unions run by industries minister Rane, said all his vada pav outlets would face those of the Sena, which plans 125 stalls of its own across the city.
The symbolism is hard to miss: the vada pav is steeped in the Senas history of son-of-the-soil politics.
Bal Thackeray had encouraged jobless Maharashtrians to set up vada pav stalls as a means of self-employment when he launched his campaign against south Indian migrants in the 1960s.
Easy to prepare and serve, the vegetarian fast food is a spicy patty of mashed potatoes (batata vada) sandwiched between two slices of a bun or pav, which is dipped in a batter of gram flour and deep-fried.
It is served with a chutney of red or green chilli and tamarind, or with fried chillies dipped in salt. The cheap and filling snack is available at every street corner round the year and can be had for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Nitesh, who launched his stall under the banner of his NGO, Swabhiman Sanghatana, said one of his goals was to highlight the way the Sena was flouting civic rules despite heading the corporation.
They have time and again retained power in the corporation, but have done little about Mumbais problems ó the shrinking open spaces, traffic congestion, drinking water shortage. It is in power, yet it is breaking all the rules, said the known Sena baiter, who accuses the rival party of trying to frame him in an attempt-to-murder case in which he faces a CBI probe.
Nitesh said the Sena stalls had not been approved by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Frying or cooking is not allowed on Mumbais streets according to a Supreme Court ruling. These Shiv Vada Pav stalls are violating the ban on stalls in open spaces like municipal gardens.
Told that even the Chhatrapati Vada Pav stall could be deemed illegal by that yardstick, he said: That is precisely the point. If the Shiv Sena-run corporation demolishes illegal stalls, it will have to demolish the Shiv Vada Pav stalls first.
The Sena reacted cautiously. Most of its leaders declined to comment, waiting for Bal Thackeray to respond first in party mouthpiece Saamna.
With the jobs for locals theme certain to be played up ahead of the civic polls, the Sena is billing its vada pav stalls as places where Maharashtrian youths can expect employment. The move is an attempt to counter Raj Thackerays Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which ran a campaign against north Indian migrants in 2008.
The Shiv Sena faces a stiff challenge from the MNS and the Rane-led Congress in its efforts to retain its nearly two-decade-old hold on the countrys richest corporation with a Rs 20,000-crore budget. The three-way fight has already hurt the Sena in the last Lok Sabha and Assembly polls and some recent civic elections. Facing a battle for survival next March, Bal Thackerays party has stitched an alliance with the Ramdas Athawale faction of the Republican Party of India.