As the monsoon session of the Maharashtra assembly gets underway from Monday, and the combined opposition gheraoes the government over corruption in the state cabinet, I am reminded more and more of Animal Farm – nothing ever changes, only the characters do.
When the BJP first ascended to power in Maharashtra 18 months ago, they came with a promise of fresh hope and clean governance. Less than two years later, the party and the government lie battered with allegations of administrative improprieties and corruption – and not just against the ministers who were sworn into government in October 2014. At least four of the nine new ministers inducted into the state cabinet last week have criminal cases filed against them, at least one was arrested by the police and released on bail just days before he was picked as a minister by Uddhav Thackeray, president of the Shiv Sena which is an ally of the BJP in government.
Right from Day One, Fadnavis, with a personally clean image, has had a troubled existence in government. A greenhorn, who had never had the experience of governance unlike many ministers in his cabinet, he was resented by these veterans in the BJP for being in the right place at the right time. That gives me a sense of déjà vu. Prithviraj Chavan, his predecessor, had a clean image too. He was in the right place at the right time as well – in the good books of his party president Sonia Gandhi and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as was Fadnavis vis-à-vis Amit Shah and Narendra Modi. And he was resented by all veterans in the Congress and NCP for becoming chief minister, as was Fadnavis by seniors in the BJP. When Fadnavis became the state BJP president, it was a job none of these veterans in the BJP, now opposing him, wanted because at the time it did not look like the BJP would get even close to seizing power from the deeply entrenched Congress-NCP alliance in the state. Fadnavis, however, took the thankless job and took on the two ruling parties in right earnest, pointing out their various transgressions and constantly demanding the resignations and arrests of the corrupt in the government, including former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar.
But as senior journalist Sukrut Khandekar says, it took a decade or more for cases of corruption against the Congress and the NCP to come to the fore. The BJP has got caught in scam after scam in less than a year of its existence in government. Starting with Women and Child Welfare minister Pankaja Munde who was accused of violating all government norms in clearing tenders worth more than Rs 200 crore in just a day for the supply of chikkis to children in anganwadis for their mid-day meal — the chikkis turned out to be substandard and were supplied by the very same contractors who had been indicted during the previous regime for a similar transgression – to accusations against minister for education Vinod Tawde, who had not just lied on affidavit about his educational qualifications but actually involved in similarly tendering wrongly (for fire hydrants) and even a conflict of interest case wherein he was on the board of the company (Tarun Bharat) whose director he appointed to a government committee. The list has been long. “If you look closely at least ten ministers before the expansion had scam allegations against them,” Nawab Malik, the chief spokesperson of the NCP told me. “Now there are four more.”
Fadnavis who was earlier always on the ball, demanding the resignations of everybody in the government with allegations of scams emerging against them is now on the back foot, having no choice but to defend every minister in his cabinet, including Eknath Khadse who had to eventually resign when it became impossible to defend the conflict of interest that had emerged in a case of land grab against him when he was revenue minister. But as Khandekar points out, “Khadse till now does not have a police case registered against him. The new ministers do.”
Adds Malik, “During our regime, Fadnavis was in the forefront of demanding amendments to the Lokayukta act to arm that authority with powers equal to the police to arrest the corrupt. So why has he not brought in that amendment despite 18 months as head of the government? He knows the moment he does that half his cabinet would be behind bars. He cannot afford to acknowledge the corruption in his government.”
Among the new ministers inducted by Fadnavis, Ravindra Chavan had referred to Dalits as ‘pigs’ and has had several women’s groups register cases against him for the same. Sambhaji Patil Nilangekar, the estranged grandson of former chief minister Shivajirao Patil Nilangekar (who was with the Congress but his family defected to the BJP a few years ago) is considered close to Fadnavis and has been inducted into the cabinet as a Maratha who would ward off the challenge to Fadnavis from the current state BJP president Raosaheb Danve. Sambhaji, however, has cases registered against him for duping three banks of Rs 40 crore. Then, again, the grandson of former co-operative doyen Dadasaheb Rawal, Jaykumar Rawal, according to Malik, has cases filed against him for misappropriation and grabbing of government land. Gulabrao Patil, who is from the Shiv Sena, was also arrested days before his induction into the cabinet in a land grab case. Of the ministers inducted in 2014, Chandrashekhar Bawkule has a case of irregularities in the purchase of solar pumps, Girish Bapat has allegations of irregularities in the purchase of pulses (daal) for which he has been questioned by the Lokayukta, Ravindra Waikar is accused of indulging in irregularities in slum rehabilitation, Vishnu Savra is accused of irregularities in purchases of material supplies to Adivasi students, Girish Mahajan is accused in another land scam, Babanrao Lonikar is accused of filing a bogus election affidavit, Ranjit Patil is accused, again, of land grab.
Adding to the government’s woes the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court has just ruled against the award of tenders worth more than 6000 crore rupees for the provision of take home rations for children and lactating mothers awarded by Pankaja Munde’s child and women welfare department to dubious contractors.
Munde was also involved in a public spat with the chief minister when he took away the water resources department from her and allocated it to another minister Ram Shinde who has, equally publicly, refused to take charge until Pankaja willingly hands it over to him on her return from Singapore (she has returned now and Shinde has taken charge).
All this raises the question – is the BJP as clean as it projects itself and does Fadnavis really have the authority to command the respect of his cabinet? That was a question we were constantly asking of Prithviraj Chavan too.
At the tenth anniversary celebrations of his party, Raj Thackeray tried to gloss over his growing irrelevance in the nation’s polity by saying that everyone in the world – except perhaps Lata Mangeshkar – has been through bad patches and setbacks.
“Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee, greater leaders than me also had downfalls and went through bad patches,” so he was no exception.
While he is right about bad patches coming into the lives of almost all individuals or leaders, his is an exceptional case in the sense that he has brought about his own setback.
When, just before the Lok Sabha elections, Thackeray had a meeting with Nitin Gadkari and very few people noticed that at the time, Gadkari had had no locus standi to ask Raj to refrain from contesting against the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra.
That is an appeal that should have come from either Narendra Modi, who was then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate or at best from Rajnath Singh, the then BJP party president.
Gadkari had not been authorised by either and, indeed, he had not been overstepping his brief. He was actually meeting Raj merely to appeal to him to withdraw his agitation against the toll nakas in the state, which had been causing damage to a lot of vested interests including the Indian Roads Bureau and Gadkari even then had interests in the IRB.
Raj did halt the agitation but went ahead to contest the Lok Sabha polls against both the BJP and the Sena for that is a promise he had not made to Gadkari or any one else.
But the public perception that he was running with the hares and hunting with the hounds caused him lasting damage and he was unable to recover from that duplicitous image even during the assembly elections six months later.
Raj’s politics has always been reactionary, he derives his strengths from opposing various governments than from implementing or formulating policies of his own and that is something now even his supporters are able to see quite clearly. In the intervening period, he found little to oppose the new government’s policies unless it was to point out the flaws in the policy regarding smart cities but that hardly made for a street agitation.
Then he found a burning issue in the government’s decision to give 70,000 permits to new auto-rickshaws in Mumbai and decided that these will be reduced to cinders. But like the toll agitation, this was not so much about concern for the common people or even the Marathi-speaking people of the state as an opportunity to make good again. For those auto-rickshaws were all coming from the Bajaj factory in Pune and now Raj had someone to target.
Rahul Bajaj, however, has his measure and when he said, “We know where he is coming from and where to send him back.”
I knew the agitation would not last long. But even I was surprised at the speed with which Raj Thackeray withdrew this particular agitation. He modified his statement within just two days to say that no new auto-rickshaws were being seen on the streets and if the government was issuing these permits to old ones, those vehicles should be spared from burning.
There was, indeed, a clamour to slap sedition charges on Raj Thackeray for inciting violence but I do not believe that is what frightened or persuaded him to retreat.
I believe Rahul Bajaj knew exactly how to turn the screws on the MNS chief and I must doff my cap to the government – for all that the Congress was clamouring for his arrest, I am glad the state did not fall into that trap and turn him into a martyr.
The Congress, when in power, had been unable to take much action against him except after things went terribly out of hand. But, perhaps, with some good advice from Bajaj, this government did not even have to wait that long to defang this crouching tiger.
As a result, Raj Thackeray seems to have made himself even more of a laughing stock than he was before and many of his workers and supporters are sorely disappointed with him for not just withdrawing the agitation with lightning speed but for having started something, in the first place, that could only have ended up endangering their lives and liberties.
Raj Thackeray ought not to lose sight of two facts — he is no Bal Thackeray who could ask his Shiv Sainiks to jump from the 17th floor of a building for no good reason and they would do it for him eyes shut, no questions asked.
Secondly, no political party is ever built on blackmail, bargaining or setting one group of people against another. Bal Thackeray built the Shiv Sena on the plank of Mumbai for Maharashtrians. At the time, most Maharashtrians were a deprived lot and poor in their own city whereas the rich were almost always non-Maharashtrian and exploitative of the locals.
That is no longer true and the Maharashtrian youth is as aspirational as the rest of India.
They do not want to get stuck in jobs like auto-rickshaw drivers or peanut vendors. If he does not evolve a programme in keeping with the name of his party — navnirman – I am afraid, the temporary setback he talks about will become permanent and the downfall will be everlasting.
The actor Sanjay Dutt has familiarised all of India with a very evocative Bombay-specific word — maamu. No, that does not mean maternal uncle as people in the north might presume but making a fool of someone very adeptly as Dutt’s character did in the blockbuster film ‘Munnabhai, MBBS’.
Now I do think that Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has made a ‘maamu’ of Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray and might be laughing behind his sleeve. For, I refuse to believe that either Fadnavis, who is a lawyer, or officials of the government of Maharashtra did not know the law or even of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the turning of government bungalows into memorials for departed leaders.
But on November 17 this year, as the Shiv Sena was commemorating the third anniversary of Bal Thackeray’s passing, Fadnavis made a grand announcement that a memorial to Thackeray would come up at the Mayor’s bungalow adjunct to the beach at Shivaji Park. Now the Mayor’s bungalow is not private property and Thackeray had held no constitutional position in his lifetime ever to merit government property as a memorial. Even former president APJ Abdul Kalam’s retirement home in New Delhi could not be turned into his memorial precisely because the Supreme Court had decreed against such conversions of government bungalows into memorials.
So did Fadnavis not know all this or, if he did, why did he string Uddhav Thackeray along? I am inclined to think that Fadnavis was getting his back on the Shiv Sena, which has been proving a troublesome ally, constantly yapping at the BJP’s heels and that Fadnavis made the promise knowing full well nothing will come of it.
However, in the meantime, he could play the regretful ally who had tried and had been overruled by courts and procedures. It would help to cool the Shiv Sena down and the BJP could buy time until the crucial Bombay Municipal Corporation elections coming up in February 2017. I wonder how long it will take Uddhav to realise he had been had and resume hostilities with the BJP once more.
For it is not going to be easy to overcome the Supreme Court ruling and now even Raj Thackeray, Uddhav’s estranged cousin and his own brother Jaidev Thackeray have been growling about what they see as the Shiv Sena’s land-grabbing tactics.
Raj, in fact, has categorically said so soon after Fadnavis’s announcement but few have paid attention to Jaidev Thackeray — he asked why, when the Thackeray family has ample land and property across Bombay, do they not convert one of these into a memorial. Or if none of these suits, he said, the Shiv Sena owns enough money to buy a suitable property for a memorial.
But still the Shiv Sena has been after grabbing a corner of Shivaji Park for a memorial ever since Thackeray’s funeral was conducted there. But the Maharashtra government is itself in dispute with the Bombay high court about who owns Shivaji Park — the government or the citizenry — and has been steadily refusing the Shiv Sena on this count.
But the idea to turn the mayor’s bungalow into a memorial, to be fair, comes not from the Shiv Sena or the BJP but from Sharad Pawar — the original doyen of all land grabbers, if I might put it that way. Sometime in 2013, Pawar decided to intervene in the dispute between the then Congress-NCP government and the Shiv Sena to suggest that the mayor’s bungalow could be converted into a memorial.
At that time he was looking at anti-incumbency being faced by both the UPA government at the Centre in which he was a minister and the Congress-NCP government in the state, and was hoping the resolution of the memorial crisis would ingratiate Uddhav to him to such an extent that the Shiv Sena would extend support to his party in event of a hung assembly in Maharashtra, if not in Parliament at the centre.
But with then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan taking a tough stance, nothing came of it and the results to the Lok Sabha were such that Uddhav had no need to feel grateful to Pawar for anything.
Now Devendra Fadnavis seems to have taken a leaf out of Pawar’s book and is taking Uddhav Thackeray for a royal ride. How long before Uddhav catches on, one does not know but one thing is certain — the mayor’s bungalow will not be turned into a memorial anytime soon and certainly not for Bal Thackeray. How long the truce then lasts is a toss-up and a million dollar question that might have no answer.
With the Shiv Sena you never get what you see. Years ago, all of a sudden, they began to oppose Valentine’sday celebrations for no rhyme or reason. For years, celebrating couples were beaten up but, more importantly, shops displaying Valentine’s day cards were vandalised and what very few of us noticed was that their target was one particular card and gifts company which had popularised this festival in India.
It was years later that I realised what had been behind those demonstrations – and never as simple as it had seemed. When the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde’s relationship with a tamasha dancer had been exposed, Bal Thackeray had quipped `pyaar kiya toh darna kya!’ Then what had suddenly happened to this man who was not ashamed of declaring love, I wondered, for was he not, at the same time allowing his favourite daughter-in-law to hold Valentine’s dinners at her numerous restaurants across the city?
It was only when Thackeray’s son Uddhav had a major falling out with his sister-in-law Smita Thackeray (Balasaheb’s favourite ) that I got it from the horse’s mouth. It was all about money.
Smita Thackeray at the height of the Shiv Sena rule in Maharashtra had set up a foundation to support AIDS victims. One year she decided to organise a show by Bollywood artists which was sponsored by a leading card company. Bur as is the norm with the Shiv Sena, neither Smita nor Bal Thackeray felt it prudent to repay the company fpr expenses incurred or keep part of their deal for a share in the profits.
Next year, when Smita approached them again they refused, citing losses from the previous year and yet unpaid dues. By then word had spread among potential sponsors and no one came forward to lift the bill for the show by the Mukti Foundation (we don’t hear of the foundation any more). Thackeray tried everything to cajole, persuade or threaten the company but they did not budge. But then they had reckoned without the annual damage they would have to put up with as a consequence. However, they stoically bore the loss through the years – until Smita’s divorce with her husband came through and Uddhav and Raj then had no interest in pursuing an agitation that Thackeray had started in the name of his favourite daughter-in-law. Have people noticed that these celebrations are disturbed no longer and the only groups still taking it up are the fringe elements of the BJP like the Bajrang Sena’s support even their opposition is rather half-hearted and generally ignored by all concerned.
So when it comes to Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali I suspect I know what is afoot. I am convinced there is something similarly fishy in the background. For this is not the first time that the Sena and, in particular, Uddhav Thackeray has opposed his singing in Bombay – they had done the same several years ago and the excuse of him being afrom an enemy nation even then did not go down too well. Of course, Shiv Sainiks had once torn up the cricket pitch at the Wankhede stadium to prevent an India-Pakistan match in 1991 but that now is much water under the bridge. At the time they first targeted Ghulam Ali there were a lot of Pakistani actors in India working actively in Indian films as they are now, including on various television shows and it is doubtful if any Sena leaders even know who they are.
The one time that Pakistani artistes were targeted and thrown out of India for their country’s role in the 26/11 attacks was when Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena had rounded them up and put them on planes at the Bombay airport. But many of them are now back and India Pakistan matches too are being played without harassment. And, most importantly, a few months ago, Ghulam Ali had even sung bhajans at the Sankatmochan Mandir in Varanasi, Narendra Modi’s constituency.
So why not in Bombay? Cut to the Michael Jackson show of the mid-1990s. The Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray had similarly raised objections to the MJ show though they could not bring an enemy nation into the picture. Here they had sought to stop the organisers by raising the bogey of the corruption of Indian culture but then MJ paid a visit to Thackeray at Matoshree and flattered the Sena tiger by even using his personal toilet – Thackeray could not stop dining on that story for years. But, I suspect, the organisers also cut a deal with the Thackerays for all members of the family got prime seats at the show, never mind that Michael Jackson was corrupting Indian culture with his songs and dances that night.
But I have heard Ghulam Ali is uncompromising in these matters – he will not pee in other people’s toilet and he will notn cut a deal to entertain the audiences with his mellifluous music. That must bug the Thackerays because even Javed Miandad, former captain of the Pakistani cricket team and Dawood Ibrahim’s samadhi had paid a visit to Thackeray and smoothened his ruffled feathers. It must come as a shock to the Thackerays that there is someone not willing to kowtow to them (actually Shahrukh Khan was another but then he is Indian and he had the government backing him up all the way). So what better than to stall the show at the last minute – waiing for Ali to turn up and use the toilet at Matoshree. When that did not happen it was clear it would be a no show.
So this is no simple political play between two allies, considering chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had offered complete security to the show against its ally. It is much beyond petty power play and cuts closer to the bone in how the Shiv Sena has always conducted its business.
Sadly Bombay and Jagjit Singh – for the show was in his honour – is the loser.
This is not a plug for my year-old book, `Hindu Hriday Samrat: How the Shiv Sena changed Mumbai forever’. However, just two days before Yakub Memon’s hanging a literary agent mentioned to me how chilling he had found the chapter where I compared the stories of a Shiv Sainik who had participated in the 1992-93 Bombay riots and a young Muslim who had been caught in those riots and lost practically everything.
Then, on the day of Yakub’s hanging, my former editor called to ask me to find him a blast victim and a riot victim for a similar comparison of their stories for a popular television show. It was very easy to talk to survivors of the blasts who are only too willing to tell their tale – embittered or magnanimous in their suffering, they are not shackled by any concerns in recounting their stories.
But when I called Mansoor Ali Khan, the man mentioned in my book, I had to take a reality check. I had had to search long and hard while I was writing my book to find a riot victim who did not fit the typical mould of a ghettoised Muslim with a story that might be similar to that of many others of his or her kind. I was quite excited to discover Mansoor – he was not living in a ghetto at the time of the riots, he was studying at a prestigious south Bombay college, wanted to become a pilot in the Indian Air Force and was the captain of his club’s cricket team where all other members were Hindu.
The riots changed his life overnight – his family was lucky enough to escape with their lives in the nick of time. He went from being a fellow Indian to his cricket team to being just a Muslim and had to leave everything behind including his old life to find shelter in a Muslim ghetto. I was apprehensive about approaching him, wondering if he would agree to go on record but he had no qualms in inviting me to his home — he had moved from a mixed locality to an exclusively Muslim housing colony but everyone in his family, including his mother, were willing to tell me their story, hoping someone would hear their tale and offer them compensation that was long due and thus far not forthcoming.
So when I called him that evening, I thought he would be 0nly too willing to go on television and let the world know. But I was very wrong. Now he did not want to draw attention to himself. “When you came to my house and we spoke for hours together, India was a different country. There was hope and there was confidence – in the government and the people. We thought that sooner or later someone will cut through the red tape and hear us out. Now it is different. The country has changed. There is no one who will hear our voices. They will instead single us out and hound us to go to Pakistan.’’
“Oh, but they hound me too,” I protested.
“There is a difference,” he said. “And I don’t think I need to explain that to you, sister.”
Then he sent me a message in apology for turning down my request. I found it heart rending – main sirf ek baat kehna chahta hoon ke ALLAH (capitals his) jise log BHAGWAAN bhi kehte hain woh hamesha HAQ yaane SACH ke saath hota hai. Usko kisi daleel ya saboot ki zarurat nahin woh sab jaanta hai. God bless u, sister — ek baat aur, Hamare Hindustan ko kisi ki buri nazar lag gayi hai.
I was speechless and teary eyed for hours afterward.
It was the same story as I made call after call to locate riot victims for my former editor who might be willing to talk. At last I succeeded but even this survivor agreed to do the interview after a few caveats.
The experience has only confirmed my belief in the travesty of justice offered to riot victims, not by the courts but by successive governments and investigative agencies. I remember the officer in charge of investigating the Bombay riots was himself an accused and even then as a young reporter I knew the investigation would go no further. It is only the Srikrishna Commission which came as a safety valve for the affected victims to vent their feelings of injustice against the state and it was a great relief that Justice Srikrishna could nail the guilt of the perpetrator of the riots – Bal Thackeray. I have recounted the story of the journalist who mounted an unknowing sting on Thackeray during the riots at his home in Matoshree and brought to us how Thackeray provoked his Shiv Sainiks to burn Bombay and kill Muslims in large numbers from the safety of his home, and then later tried to shift the blame on then union defence minister Sharad Pawar. Had it not been for Yuvraj Mohite’s affidavit before the Srikrishna Commission, the truth would never have been known – and it is just as well that Mohite loved to tell the tale. For the Sena left no stone unturned to ferret him out from his hiding and kill him to prevent him from turning up in court.
But no government took action against Thackeray. The Srikrishna Commission was dismissed by Chief Minister Manohar Joshi when the Shiv Sena came to power in 1995 but was reinstated by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee during his thirteen day tenure in the hope that that would reduce the BJP’s untouchability, even as it was in search of allies to make up its numbers in parliament. Justice Srikrishna submitted the report to the Joshi government in 1998 and while it was not expected that that government would act against its own supremo, even the Congress and the NCP which came to power a year later did not think it worth taking action against the perpetrators of the riots.
Nine hundred people were killed in the riots (less than 300 in the blasts which were a retaliatian for the riots). Thousands of FIRs were launched yet only one man was ever punished – former Shiv Sena MP Madhukar Sarpotdar who got a year in jail for possessing arms and ammunitions in a notified area during the riots. For the same crime Sanjay Dutt has gone to jail for five years – where is the notion of justice for all and injustice to none enshrined in our Constitution?
I do not blame the Courts for any of this, the judges have done their jobs to the best of their capacity, But in this country now you are a terrorist if you are Muslim and a patriot if you are a Hindu committing the same acts of killing innocents and bombing mosques and shrines and trains and buses.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh is way off the mark when he complains that the UPA coined the term `Hindu terrorist’ and destroyed the reputation of the country. In fact, I believe the emergence of saffron terrorism, though not to be condoned was a great safety valve which came out of the blue to the rescue of the minorities who were otherwise all dismissed as terrorists, negating LK Advani’s earlier very arrogant statement – all Muslims may not be terrorists but why are all terrorists Muslims?
That no longer holds valid but now it is high time that the scale of justice are tilted to the balanced position once again from the heavy tilt in favour of rioters and home-grown terrorists from the majority community. A terrorist is a terrorist, a victim is a victim, his or her religion does not matter. What’s sauce for the goose should also be sauce for the gander. Otherwise people like Mansoor will suffer silently until the faultlines explode and all of us be imperilled by the lava of that volcano just waiting to burst sooner rather than later. We will all be scorched.
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.
….one might well ask. Does not a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Not when it comes to the Thackerays, however. They should actually spell their name as be T-h-a-k-r-e but then they will lose the unique colonial flavour to their name if they switched to the native spelling.
As the reconciliation talks between the Shiv Sena and the BJP got underway on Friday, my colleague Sayli Mankikar tweeted rather tongue-in-cheek – reporters hanging outside Matoshree with Odomos. Last time many of them had caught dengue! Read more
Years ago after a rather scintillating interview with Bal Thackeray, I thought I had a sort of `scoop’ of the century. The Shiv Sena was ruling Maharashtra in alliance with the BJP and the 13 day government of Atal Behari Vajpayee had just reinstated the Srikrishna commission probing the 1992-93 Bombay riots, which had earlier been dismissed by the state government. Thackeray was livid. He sent for me when I called him for a reaction – it was worth every minute spent at Matoshree to watch him letting off steam. I recorded the entire interview. Read more
After the BJP wins nearly a hundred seats in the Lok Sabha from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it seems a bit much for BJP leader Vijay Goel to threaten migrants from these states with deportation/prevention of free movement into Delhi – it reminds me of the time when Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray had made a similar statement soon after his party came to power in Maharashtra. Read more