There was a time in the last decade of the 1990s when Bal Thackeray was ranting and screaming blue murder at the Atal Behari Vajpayee government at the Centre. Vajpayee had taken a bus to Lahore (and broght back some goats on it), had invited Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to Agra, had attempted to build bridges to the minority Muslim community and, at one time, even donned a typical green turban.
Chhagan Bhujbal, the rather pugnacious leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, first hit the limelight in 1985 when he attempted to stop Rajiv Gandhi from entering the city of his birth.
Bhujbal was then the Mayor of Bombay and belonged to the Shiv Sena. Rajiv had just been elected Prime Minister. The Congress was heading for its centenary in December that year and which better place to hold the celebrations in than the city of both his (Rajiv’s) and the Congress’s birth?
But Bhujbal was not having any of that. “What has the Prime Minister or his party done for the city?” Bhujbal queried. “Why should we allow the invasion of lakhs of Congress workers into the city only for them to leave behind a lot of dirt and mess?”
It seemed touch and go for a while and, in a way, that brought about the first major Central grant for infrastructure in the city – Rs 100 crore announced by Rajiv ahead of the centenary celebrations. That pacified the Shiv Sena and the Congress celebrations went ahead on schedule.
The next time Bhujbal made the headlines was a few months later during his continuing stint as Mayor when he “purified” the martyrs memorial at Flora Fountain (Hutatma Chowk) after Dalit groups had allegedly soiled it with their presence during a huge rally in support of the Maharashtra government’s publication of `Riddles of Hinduism’ from the collected works of Dr B R Ambedkar during the latter’s birth centenary. Bhujbal belongs to the Other Backward Classes and it came as a surprise to many that he should have used gallons of `holy water’ to purify the monument. But as he later told me, “I took the water from the Pyrkes restaurant (now defunct) nearby to clean up the mess. Now Pyrkes is an Irani restaurant, so if I was seeking to purify the memorial why should I be asking them for water? I would have brought it from Banaras. It was just a statement for public hygiene.”
Over the years he kept making the headlines — like being the first saffron leader, even ahead of any from the BJP, to publicly praise Nathuram Godse and call into question Mahatma Gandhi. But when I questioned him again he shrugged it off saying it was not his conviction. But that Shiv Sena leaders had to say such things that went against their grain to satisfy their supreme leader (Bal Thackeray).
Thackeray, at the time, was a formidable politician and ran terror through the masses of his supporters for even daring to defy him on any count. So Bhujbal was indeed brave to exit the Shiv Sena with a big bang in 1991. He had justification – the Sena was largely a party limited to Bombay and Bhujbal claimed that its leaders did not even know the roads leading out of the metropolis to other parts of Maharashtra until he built up the party to the grassroots in other cities. Even the Sena’s saffron standard was designed by him. “They did not even know how to cut the flag, they destroyed yards of saffron silk by just cutting triangles. I taught them the reverse cut that made the standard the Shiv Sena’s own.”
Moreover, the Shiv Sena was never able to win more than one seat in the Maharashtra assembly at a time upto the 1990s. Even while he was Mayor, Bhujbal was the lone member of the Shiv Sena in the assembly between 1985 and 1990. He again made the headlines when during an expose of then chief minister Sharad Pawar’s alleged involvement in a land dereservation scandal, he brought a banner into the House with a black band on his arm and tape across his mouth. The banner read simply,“Bhookhandache Shrikhand’’. Bhookhand, meaning plots of land. And by shrikhand he meant Pawar had swallowed up all those plots. He was thrown out of the House for that day.
So it was but natural that when the Shiv Sena, in alliance with the BJP, got 85 seats in 1990, Bhujbal should expect to be rewarded for keeping the Sena standard flying through those lonesome years and be named leader of the opposition. But, then, his arch rival Manohar Joshi, who had until then failed to win even a single grassroots election and been only a nominated member of the legislative council, arm twisted Thackeray into giving him that job. Bhujbal was pacified by Thackeray with the promise that the post of leader of the opposition would be rotated among many notables for five years – just as Thackeray had rotated the mayor’s office among various of his close supporters.
When Thackeray reneged on his promise, Bhujbal decided enough was enough and called it quits. But the Shiv Sena was a much feared wild animal in those days and Bhujbal’s decision was made at great risk to his life. He went underground and nothing Thackeray did – including post lookouts at all airports, railway stations and bus stops in Maharashtra – could smoke him out. Sharad Pawar offered him complete protection and days after Bhujbal defected to the Congress with his supporters during the winter session of the assembly in Nagpur, Bhujbal was sworn in as minister and safely ensconced behind a security wall.
Trouble came calling at his door a few years later when he lost the assembly election from his traditional Mazgaon constituency to the Shiv Sena in 1995 and was reduced to mere leader of the opposition in the legislative council, with a Sena government in Mantralaya. Thackeray decided to exact his revenge and sent his goons to allegedly kill Bhujbal. When the killers arrived, Bhujbal darted into a dark corner of his house and stood against the wall, trembling until the attackers left after breaking all the furniture and glass on failing to find him.
‘’Every morning that I leave home, I tell my wife be prepared for a strange knock on the door — I might return in a janaza (hearse) that evening. Today could be my last sunrise or sunset,’’ he said after the attack. “But now that I have survived, I know what I must do with my second birth.’’
And that was to demystify Bal Thackeray and expose him for the coward that he really was. Bhujbal revealed many inside stories to the public which showed Thackeray up to be essentially a bully with no courage to follow up on his diktats that could cause risk to his life or liberty. ‘’If I do not expose him, there will soon be temples to Bal Thackeray and it will be very difficult to combat the goondaism of the Shiv Sena,’’ he said. Today, the beginning of the downfall of the Shiv Sena can be traced to Bhujbal’s personalized campaign against Bal Thackeray.
Bhujbal’s entire political career, however, has been about hopeless options –: he always found himself between a rock and a very hard place. When Pawar split the Congress in 1999, he went into hiding for a few days to think out his options. He had been making an emotional pitch for Sonia Gandhi, painting her as a grieving widow raising her ‘kachcha bachchas’ (little kids) under trying circumstances and now Pawar wanted to split the Congress on the basis of her foreign origins. He thought it would ve immoral to attack Sonia Gandhi on these grounds and under her extreme circumstances.But he knew the local Congress leaders hated him for ursurping their positions of authority (like leader of the opposition and housing minister in the Pawar cabinet). He would once again be at risk from attacks by the Shiv Sena and may not get the protection that Pawar offered him. So he reluctantly sided with Pawar and even became the president of the Maharashtra unit of the NCP.
When the Congress and the NCP came together to form a government later that year, he ended up as deputy chief minister and home minister – the pinnacle of his success to date. At the time it suited Pawar to bestow such high office on Bhujbsl. He was OBC and not expected to get above his station in life. Moreover, Pawar feared other leaders in his own party, most of who were Maratha and could have used this dual authority to grow their own roots and entrench themselves in positions of power as Marathas have always been the ruling class of Maharashtra — most chief ministers have been from this community.
But Bhujbal became a very strong home minister nonetheless, so Pawar cut him down to size by taking away the home department from him the next time though reinstating him as deputy chief minister. Bhujbal now held the public works department – and he continued to hold it through his stints in government which , seemingly, has now got him into trouble.
Despite not belonging to the ruling class, Bhujbal began to appear larger than life and in subsequent years Pawar was left with no option but to put him down again and again in order to protect the turf for his own nephew Ajit Pawar. Although, in the meantime, Bhujbal made up with Thackeray, politics in Maharashra had changed beyond
recognition by then and he could not have rejoined the Shiv Sena or any other political party, including the Congress. With the NCP his only option, he swallowed his pride and accepted all his `demotions’ without protest. When in 2014 Pawar, facing a dearth of suitable candidates, decreed that all his ministers must contest the Lok Sabha polls, most Marathas defied Pawar and laughed in his face. Bhujbal was the only minister, apart from one other person, who meekly accepted . Of course, he lost the Lok Sabha seat from Nasik previously held by his nephew Sameer Bhujbal. The highlight of his campaign then was a ridicule of Narendra Modi’s exaggerated claims – imitating Modi’s nasal twang Bhujbal invoked the by now famous `mitron’ and informed them that in Gujarat you could even extract milk from not just the `bhains’ but also the bhainsa (male buffaloe), among other things. That video went viral during the polls and is not something Modi is likely to forget in a hurry.
Bhujbal did win back his own assembly seat in October that year but the writing was on the wall in capital letters, clear to him when the NCP announced that it would be supporting the BJP in Maharashtra. Modi had declared the NCP to be the “Naturally Corrupt Party’’ of India and the BJP cannot be seen as cohorting with corrupt politicians. The new Maharashtra government has already announced a series of investigations against ministers in the previous government and among them is Pawar’s nephew. It would be disastrous to the Pawar dynasty should that investigation go forward and Ajit be indicted. But the BJP will not be satisfied with no action at all on this front.
This is where Bhujbal now has to offer himself up once again as the sacrificial goat – he is enough of a big fish to satisfy both Modi and the BJP and make it look determined to root out corruption. Then he did make fun of Modi recently and of Pawar years ago and both do not forgive slights easily. If Ajit pawar’s case is lost amid the duly diverted attention, the BJP gets to keep its image intact and at the same time balance the Shiv Sena off against the NCP, given that Uddhav Thackeray too is proving to be a troublesome ally.
Now under investigation not just for his role in the scam relating to the new Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi but also various land deals over the years, Bhujbal, a vegetable vendor who rose to great heights and a multi million rupee fortune, may have nowhere to run. “Where will I go at this age and point in my career?’’ he had said when asked if he woud be rejoining the Shiv Sena. But he may have to tell his wife again to expect another strange knock at the door — this time from sleuths of the Anti Corruption Bureau, come to arrest him and throw him into the slammer.
It could be sometime before he could see a sunrise or a sunset again.
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