Birds of a feather

In the 1980s, Chhagan Bhujbal, the then Shiv Sena’s lone MLA in Maharashtra, coined a famous term that has stuck in the minds of many people of that time: ‘bhukhandache Shirkhand’. In other words, he was accusing then chief minister Sharad Pawar of licking up a lot of land (more than 200 plots in Bombay, in fact) that had been de-reserved by him for unknown reasons.

Those plots were meant for open spaces like parks, gardens and playgrounds, including some for schools, hospitals and other facilities. But for some mysterious reason, he thought it worthwhile to lift the reservations and release the land for other building activities. Bhujbal was banned from the House because he charged Pawar with ‘eating up the Shrikhand milked out of these bhukhands (plots)’.

Then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered an enquiry into the scam but no one could pin anything with regard to this on him, and no one has even to this day. In fact, Pawar is the one politician who has got away scot-free on everything, despite the common perception that all is not really clear and above board with regard to each and every pie (including cricket) that he might have his fingers in.

Now, some decades later, Bhujbal is under fire for appropriating another ‘bhukhand’ as are a galaxy of ministers, both Congress and NCP, in the Maharashtra cabinet, including former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. All, including then Revenue (and now Industries) Minister Narayan Rane are accused of allotting these plots to themselves under various schemes for trusts et al in their capacities as ministers heading those departments and then putting the land to different use – other than what was stated when the land was allotted at subsidised rates in the name of trusts and charity.

Deshmukh formally applied for changing the terms of use, Bhujbal simply kept his plots vacant and Rane went ahead and built commercial property, instead of charitable institutions, on his own.There are other ministers, too, named in a leaked CAG report and all have adopted the same tactics, perhaps learnt from the master of the game – Sharad Pawar.

Only, Pawar has been far cleverer than all of them put together. Over the years, I have seen that Pawar never appropriates anything to himself per se but has a battery of loyal supporters and acolytes who grow rich overnight with the benefit of his largesse. On their own, they might be unable to build even a single hut on any plot of land; with his help they are even able to deliver huge infrastrucuture. Lavasa city and the Bandra-Worli sea link are good examples. On the record, a legitimate and above-board business company might have built these units but the dream was always Sharad Pawar’s and the facilitation all his. It was not for nothing that he called upon Sonia Gandhi several months after she returned from surgery abroad to “ask after her health”. The coincidence that the environment ministry had just a few days before denied permissions to Lavasa to carry on building, perhaps, had nothing to do with it.

When the courts recently ordered cases against former Bombay Congress president Kripashankar Singh and out came tumbling a long list of prime properties he owned (while he himself lived in a comparatively modest one), all were frankly surprised and disbelieving in the beginning. Then a veteran journalist, a colleague from the Marathi press, told me, “He was such an awful fool to have left his wealth uncovered like that. Look at the other ministers – they always cover up by running a hotel or two or some business, factories or even schools and colleges. Any seemingly excess wealth can be offset against these businesses: they always state that their hotels are doing very well — or not, in case of income tax issues. They have themselves covered at all times.’’

But not quite, I should think. The CAG report is not yet official but if what it says is true, clearly, they have not yet mastered the game as Pawar has done. While they do own their businesses openly, they have not been careful like the Maratha warlord to cover up conflicts of interest.

It depends on how one wants to look at the issue – they are either more naive and honest or they are more corrupt and fools at the same time. But I am a complete cynic: when Bhujbal had spoken about Pawar’s shrikhand, his then party, the Shiv Sena, had never got a shot at government (though they had milked plenty from the Birhanmumbsi Municipal Corporation over the years). I recall a time when tongues in the Sena were set wagging over how Bal Thackeray had broken down his modest bungalow and built a huge four-storey property in its place (one floor for each of his three sons and one for himself). He had installed 27 split air-conditioners within that property and even built what I called a Diwan-e-aam (for common workers) and a Diwan-e-khaas (for special and VIP visitors), a waiting room and an audience room (or throne room, as it were, given the size of his chair), which even official ministers bungalows had not installed.

Thackeray, I was told, had then lambasted his ministers: “I have far less than what you have. What I have amassed will perhaps last me a life time. What you have will last generations. So just shut up!”

He might not have been very wrong: for I saw some Sena men go from being paanwalas to riding in the swankiest of sports cars, from once cooking on kerosene stoves to turning their noses up at diesel-driven cars and generally turn themselves out as what we called ‘LTMs’ – ‘locals turned mod’ or, in other words, the crass nouveau riche with no elegance or good taste at all.

The more intelligent of them, including those in the BJP like Gopinath Munde and Nitin Gadkari, acquired sugar factories (until then the exclusive turf of only Congressmen) and others became sleeping partners in various businesses for which they were the facilitators in government. When the government was about to declare Nagpur as a Boeing hub, given the centrality of the city (the zero mile of the country – equidistant from all the four corners of India — is slightly to the west end of Nagpur), politicians of all hues including the Congress, the NCP, the BJP and the Shiv Sena bought up all the farm land at throwaway prices around the Nagpur airport even before the policy went public. Farmers later screamed blue murder at how they had been diddled out of their dues but as far as I know nothing was done to compensate them for being the victims of fraud.

In the eyes of most people, it is opportunity that makes the thief – like when you are advised never to leave your gold or diamonds unattended on your dining table lest your very honest maid be tempted by that glitter. By now, I think, everyone, including on the right and the left (like the CPI(M) minister in Kerala who spent Rs 10,000 per invitation card at his daughter’s wedding and sent them out to nearly a lakh guests or more, calling them over for dinner) have had that opportunity.

Like they say, hamaam mein sab nange hain (everyone is naked in the bath) – and there is really nothing or no one to choose between the Left, the Right or even more particularly the Centre! They are all birds of a feather. And, in the end, they all flock together.

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