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Chhagan Bhujbal & Maharashtra Sadan scam: How case changed from Cong-NCP to BJP-Sena govts

Scam pertains to NCP minister Chhagan Bhujbal & his relatives being accused of receiving kickbacks from firm that built Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi. They were all discharged Thursday. 

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Mumbai: On Thursday, a special court discharged Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, his son Pankaj, nephew Sameer and five others in the Maharashtra Sadan scam case.

In his first reaction to reporters after being discharged, Bhujbal, wearing a blue kurta with a maroon scarf around his neck that is quintessential to the state cabinet minister, said, “Satya pareshan ho sakta hain, lekin parajit nahi (The truth can be troubled, but not defeated).”

The entire case has, however, been a rollercoaster ride over the past decade, starting with allegations by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) and inaction by the then Congress-NCP state government between 2012 and 2014. 

This was followed by rapid progress in investigation after the Devendra Fadnavis-led government took over in 2014, which registered a case and filed a chargesheet, all of which led to Bhujbal spending two years behind bars.

The leader, who started his political career with the Shiv Sena, defected to the Congress and ultimately joined the NCP, got a discharge from the case at a time when the BJP is in the opposition and the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government is in power. The MVA government, in which Bhujbal is a cabinet minister, comprises the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress.

The Maharashtra Sadan case dates back to 2005 when the state government gave out a contract to build a new Maharashtra Sadan building in Delhi, allegedly without inviting tenders, to K.S. Chamankar Enterprises. Bhujbal was the state public works department minister and the public private partnership contract — which also included the construction of a new Regional Transport Office building in Andheri and a state guest house in Malabar Hill — fell under his ambit. According to the ACB, Bhujbal and the other accused favoured a firm without following procedure and earned kickbacks.

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BJP complained, ACB sought nod, Congress-NCP govt didn’t act

In July 2012, BJP leaders Devendra Fadnavis and Kirit Somaiya filed a complaint with the ACB against Chhagan Bhujbal, a minister in the then Congress-NCP state government, alleging graft in awarding a contract to construct the Maharashtra Sadan building in Delhi. 

The BJP leaders alleged that the contract was given without calling for a tender, and that the contractor further sub-contracted the work to another company, which the party said was a benami firm of Bhujbal’s. The BJP also said that the contract for furniture in the Maharashtra Sadan was allotted to a company that Bhujbal’s daughter-in-law owned.

Bhujbal denied the allegations, claiming what he said in the discharge petition — that the decision to award the contract for the construction of Maharashtra Sadan was not his own, but taken by the cabinet sub-committee for infrastructure, chaired by the chief minister. He also said that the ballooning project cost to Rs 152 crore from Rs 52 crore did not cause any losses to the state exchequer and that the minister had nothing to do with the sub-contracting of the work either.

In September 2012, the ACB sent a letter to the state home department, a portfolio then held by NCP’s R.R. Patil, seeking the state government’s permission to probe the allegations. The ACB needs the government’s nod for all investigations involving public servants. The Congress-NCP government, however, sat on the request.

The state home department gave a go ahead to the ACB to probe the case only in October 2014, a few days after the BJP had won with a whopping majority, but was yet to form the government. The BJP was short of the half-way mark, and NCP President Sharad Pawar had offered the party outside support to form the government. 

At that time, Maharashtra’s political circles were abuzz with a theory that the NCP might have offered its unconditional support to prevent inquiries against several of its leaders facing graft allegations. The BJP, however, was yet to respond and ultimately proved its strength with a voice vote in November 2014, and later got the Shiv Sena to ally with it.

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Probe, chargesheet, arrest & bail

After establishing himself firmly in the seat of power, one of the first things that then CM Fadnavis did in December 2014 was give a final clearance to the ACB to start a probe against Bhujbal in the Maharashtra Sadan case as well as inquiries against NCP leaders Ajit Pawar and Sunil Tatkare in the multi-crore irrigation scam.

In November 2019, when Ajit attempted to lead a breakaway NCP faction to form a government with Fadnavis, he momentarily lost favour with his uncle NCP President Sharad Pawar, but also got partial relief. In the 72 hours that the Fadnavis-Ajit Pawar government lasted, the ACB closed nine complaints over alleged irregularities in irrigation contracts.

Later, the ACB gave Ajit Pawar a clean chit in the probe into 12 irrigation projects in Vidarbha in less than a month after the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA came to power.

In Bhujbal’s case, soon after Fadnavis’ clearance for an ACB investigation, the Bombay High Court ordered a special inquiry team to probe the graft allegations against the former deputy CM while hearing a petition filed by activist Anjali Damania.

In 2015, the ACB registered its FIR in the case against Bhujbal and others, and filed a chargesheet the following year. The ACB searched 26 properties belonging to Bhujbal as part of the investigation, after which the Enforcement Directorate filed a case under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act against Bhujbal and his relatives in 2015 and a chargesheet in 2016. 

In March 2016, the ED summoned Bhujbal for questioning at its Mumbai office and after 10 hours of interrogation arrested him while the budget session of the state legislative assembly was underway. 

He got bail only in 2018 after two years in prison, when the maximum punishment for the sections that Bhujbal was charged under is seven years, according to bail argument of his lawyers in the Bombay High Court. Bhujbal went behind bars as a tall vociferous political leader known for his Louis Vuitton and Burberry mufflers. When he got out, he was frail and soft.

Closer to the 2019 state assembly election, when the BJP and Shiv Sena were still in an alliance and planned on contesting the upcoming polls jointly, there was speculation that a rattled Bhujbal may switch to the Shiv Sena. The leader, however, contested the election as an NCP candidate, winning the Yeola seat in the Nashik district for the fourth consecutive time.

Despite his discharge in the Maharashtra Sadan case, Bhujbal, who was once a vegetable vendor in Mumbai’s famous Crawford market, is still facing criminal charges for alleged irregularities in the construction of a library in Kalina and offences that the Enforcement Directorate has registered based on the ACB’s cases.

“The ED’s case is based on the premise that there were Rs 800 crore kickbacks from the Maharashtra Sadan case. That is how the case was built. But, whatever it is, it is okay, if some people decide to cause trouble … We will get justice today or tomorrow,” Bhujbal told reporters Thursday. 

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

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