As Mumbai voted to elect its representatives to the next Lok Sabha on April 29th, it was in a way the realisation of a three-decade long dream for the SP-BSP candidate in Mumbai’s north west constituency. Or almost. Two-time MLA in UP, Subhash Pasi has indeed made a long journey to finally arrive at this day.
A UP bhaiya, Pasi, 60, claims to represent the large number of his fellow bhaiyas, and Muslims and Dalits of this constituency. “They comprise about eight lakh of the 16 lakh voters,” said Pasi,
Pasi’s family arrived in Mumbai from UP in the early 1960s and both he and his brother grew up on the streets of Jogeshwari, a western Mumbai suburb. In 1989, Pasi joined the Congress as a local party worker, hoping to build his way up.
Around ten years ago, when politics around ‘sons of the soil’ was vociferous in Maharashtra, Pasi saw his chance and started to build a voter base among the beleaguered ‘bhaiyas’ in Mumbai.
Addressed as ‘bhaiya’ by UP wallahs, especially Muslims and Dalits who visit him, Pasi started by organising ‘meet and greet’ events in the form of Bhojpuri cultural festivals where well known Bollywood personalities like Manoj Tiwari or Ravi Kishan made special appearances. And to compete with the frenzy of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, he launched lavish chhath puja celebrations.
The cultural and religious programmes were, however, co-opted by Congress leaders like Sunil Dutt and later his daughter Priya Dutt as part of their campaign strategy. Pasi actively campaigned for them, consumed with the hope that one day, he too, would get to contest from Mumbai. “Despite working for Congress for over 25 years, from ward, block, district to city level, I never got a ticket in Mumbai,” said Pasi ruefully. “It’s because I am a Dalit”.
In 2007, however, top Congress leaders decided to make some room for him, but not in Mumbai. “They saw my rising popularity among those from UP in Mumbai and sent me to contest in the UP assembly elections,” said Pasi. The logic is questionable but regardless, Pasi contested and lost ‘respectfully’ to a BSP candidate. But by the time the 2012 elections came up, Pasi had quit Congress to join the Samajwadi Party. In 2012, as well as in the 2017 Assembly elections, he got elected from the Saidpur assembly seat in Ghazipur district on a Samajwadi Party ticket.
The 2007 elections, though a humbling start, became a turning point in his political career. Having returned to Mumbai post elections, Pasi got a call on the number that was printed on his visiting cards. A woman was on the line and asked him if he had won. He said no. Then she told him that she was desperate to see her son who had died and was in a Mumbai hospital. “I told her I will book her a ticket to come to Mumbai, but she asked, can’t you send my son to me? Then it hit me: What would the woman do here alone? So I arranged for the body to reach her village. By plane.”
It might have seemed like a natural, humane step at that moment, but the idea, in a way entrepreneurs would agree, had longevity. Soon after, he and his wife, Reena Pasi, launched Akshar Foundation, to return corpses of those who died in Mumbai—by plane and then by ambulance—back to their UP villages. “So far, we’ve sent back 970 bodies,” Pasi said.
The Ballot Ballet
Pasi has rarely been in the news but is nevertheless no stranger to controversy. In 2017, the Juhu police filed an FIR against him and his assistant for duping a police officer of Rs 22.90 lakh on the pretext of selling him an SRA room in Andheri. Pasi denied the allegations claiming “he had no involvement”.
Pasi’s story began in end 2013. He had earlier got involved with land deals at Mulgaon Dongri in Mumbai’s Andheri (East). In late 2013, the slum and chawl dwellers there had been told to expect an important visitor, which turned out to be Subhash Pasi. Pasi announced that the land they stood on had been sold—and bought. “But don’t worry,” said Subhash Pasi. “You will be rehabilitated and compensated.”
Sheeba Nair, a resident and former political activist, recalls that Pasi had introduced himself as the broker of the new owners—Housing Development Infrastructure Ltd (HDIL) and the Kanakia Group. Over the next two years, Pasi ensured that each chawl or hut that came in the way of Kanakia’s plan to construct buildings under Maharashtra’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) scheme was demolished and its residents rehabilitated and compensated.
“But the compensation was arbitrary as not all residents were living there legally,” Sheeba Nair said. “People whose huts had to be demolished were given a flat in the newly constructed SRA buildings (meant for families affected by the ongoing metro construction in Mumbai) but the compensation depended on who could be convinced into accepting how much.”
It also depended on how suave and persuasive Pasi was. “He was always smiling, polite, and never lost his temper,” Sheeba recalls. Pasi didn’t lose his temper even when Nair revealed that the man working with builders and evicting the chawl and hutment residents was a Samajwadi Party MLA from Saidpur in Uttar Pradesh.
When Sheeba wrote to Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party President, asking questions about why a UP MLA was spending his time in Mumbai’s slums, Pasi paid her a visit. Sheeba claimed that Pasi, polite as always, offered her a bribe and said, “Kyun tang kar rahi ho. Letter baazi kar rahi ho.” (Why are you causing trouble by writing letters?). “I refused the bribe but sold my chawl flat (which was legal) to the builder and moved out of Mumbai,” said Sheeba, who believes that “if not cheat, Pasi manipulated and coerced many people in Mulgaon Dongri into leaving their homes and didn’t pay them fair market rates.”
However, another resident Vandana Rajbhar thinks Pasi was benevolent. “I respect him,” said Vandana. “It was because of him that we were rehabilitated.” Vandana mentioned the work being done by Akshar Foundation to justify her view of Pasi.
For Pasi, this work was part of a larger political strategy. “Every fifth family in Mumbai is from UP”, Pasi said. It’s them – the auto rickshaw drivers and hawkers from his home state – that he wants to look after. “Every one of them knows me and when I help them, word reaches their villages,” said Pasi. It was this link between those who work in Mumbai but maintain strong connections with their villages that, according to Pasi, helped him win the UP assembly elections in 2012 and 2017.
But Pasi’s ambition was always to fight from Mumbai, which he finally achieved when the current BSP-SP coalition for the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections allowed him to contest in the city. Pitted against Shiv Sena’s Gajanan Kirtikar and Congress’ Sanjay Nirupam, Pasi thinks he has a fair shot given his standing among those who migrated from UP to Mumbai.
He certainly has the means to reach out to them. The builder association and his transport business, among others, have made Pasi a rich man. In his poll affidavit, he declared assets worth Rs 46 crores. But in his campaign stressed that he was like them, that he is their boy, someone who has risen from poverty.
“The boy who wasn’t allowed to become a corporator, is now standing for MP,” he told me triumphantly. What he’s offering voters is freebies in the form of laptops, solving traffic problems, and other general promises like introducing a housing scheme here and a pension scheme there.
He is quite clear, though, about what happens to his UP seat if he becomes an MP from Mumbai: “My son will take over.”