Mumbai: For over a month, there has been speculation that senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Chhagan Bhujbal would return to his old party, the Shiv Sena.
Bhujbal, a former Maharashtra deputy chief minister, was once Bal Thackeray’s blue-eyed boy but fell out with his mentor and left the party. He had over the years earned a reputation of being a firebrand, aggressive politician, whether in power or in opposition, but since being released on bail in a money laundering case in 2017, he has adopted a more measured tone.
On Friday, Bhujbal sought to quell the rumours, insisting that he is not among the mass exodus of senior leaders from the Sharad Pawar-led NCP to the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.
“I am with the NCP,” Bhujbal, who attended the NCP’s core leaders’ meeting in Pune district, said. “The media started all this speculation about me. They need to disclose their sources for these stories. I am with Sharad Pawar saheb.”
And while he blamed the media for stirring up the controversy, political commentators say he is equally responsible for fanning it.
For one, said political analyst Pratap Asbe, Bhujbal let matters drift. “He did not strongly hit the field like NCP MP Amol Kolhe when the party started its campaign yatra that began in August,” said Asbe. “He denied the rumours but failed to aggressively dismiss them right at the outset. It seemed like he was sitting on the fence.”
And then there is the change in his political functioning since his arrest.
“The Bhujbal of today is hardly the Bhujbal of the yesteryears,” Asbe added. “If he wants, he can be an aggressive opposition leader even today. He just doesn’t seem to be making that choice.”
Moreover, Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray’s cryptic response to a question on Bhujbal and the strong public reaction from his party cadre have only strengthened speculation that the NCP leader could switch sides.
“All answers will come at the appropriate time,” Uddhav had said.
A month ago, Shiv Sena leaders also put up banners opposite Shiv Sena Bhawan, the party headquarters in Mumbai’s Dadar, protesting Bhujbal’s possible re-entry.
“Sahebana dilela traas Maharashtratil janata visru shakat nahi. Apan ahat tithech raha (The people of Maharashtra can never forget the trouble caused to Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray. You (Bhujbal) stay where you are),” the banner read.
New-found proximity to the Shiv Sena
Shiv Sena leaders said that over the years, Bhujbal, who shared a highly acrimonious relationship with the Thackeray family after walking out of the party in the 1990s, has made an effort to warm up to the next generation of the family.
“Bhujbal has met Uddhavji informally a couple of times over the last year. The meetings were cordial and he talked about how he will always have a nostalgic tie with the party,” a Sena leader, who did not wish to be named, said. “But there is a lot of anger amid Sainiks. Many senior leaders too are strictly opposed to his possible re-induction.”
In May last year, Bhujbal’s son, Pankaj Bhujbal, met Uddhav at his suburban residence, Matoshree, days after Bhujbal was granted bail in relation to the money laundering case.
In August the same year, Bhujbal and Uddhav met at a wedding and while no one could gather the details of the discussion, photos of the two leaders sitting at ease next to each other and politely conversing went viral on social media.
Bhujbal sitting on the fence between the saffron fold and the NCP is also being seen as a route to get the state government to tone down the inquiry against him in the money laundering case.
Blue-eyed boy turned arch-enemy of Thackerays
Bhujbal, who hails from Maharashtra’s Nashik district, is among the most prominent OBC leaders in the state.
He was working as a vegetable vendor in Mumbai’s landmark Crawford Market when he joined the Shiv Sena in the 1960s and steadily rose through the party’s ranks with his verbose, belligerent style. He became a Shiv Sena corporator in Mumbai in 1973, the Mumbai mayor in 1985 and subsequently the lone Shiv Sena legislator in the Maharashtra assembly.
His relations with the Shiv Sena began souring after 1990 when the party leadership decided to name senior leader Manohar Joshi as the leader of the 52-member legislative group, in effect bypassing him.
A sulking Bhujbal, who was once Bal Thackeray’s blue-eyed boy, further fell out of favour after he expressed his support to the Mandal Commission’s reservation policy, which the Sena founder had decided to oppose. He also continued to publicly criticise Joshi’s innings as an opposition leader, irking Thackeray. Ultimately, in December 1991, he walked out of the Shiv Sena with a group of supporters and joined the Congress under Sharad Pawar’s leadership.
“The Sena had been dealt a blow. One of its top-rung leaders, who enjoyed a mass base, had deserted it. Bhujbal justified his decision to say goodbye to the Sena thus: I have learnt from Manohar Joshi how to politely stab someone in the back,” author and senior journalist Vaibhav Purandare wrote in his book, Bal Thackeray and the Rise of the Shiv Sena.
According to Purandare, Bhujbal’s exit along with the Sena losing its leader of opposition post to the BJP had a very demoralising effect on the cadre and the party was almost being written off as a strapping political force.
Meanwhile, under Pawar’s wing, Bhujbal replicated his rise in the NCP, eventually serving as the Maharashtra deputy CM in 2000. He also gained notoriety for being the man who got Thackeray arrested in relation to a case against the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamana regarding the 1992-93 riots. While it was just a technical arrest and Thackeray was soon set free, Bhujbal had done what no one had dared to do.
It is this “trouble to saheb” that Shiv Sena leaders say they will never forget.
The Bhujbal of today
Throughout his years of political flexing, Bhujbal had acquired properties in Mumbai and Nashik and established the Maharashtra Educational Trust, which has courted controversies.
Bhujbal’s troubles first began in the mid-2000s when his name got embroiled in the Telgi stamp paper scam, resulting in him losing his deputy CM post. But he emerged out of it unharmed and when the Congress-NCP returned to power, he became deputy CM once again, and subsequently, the state public works department minister. It was this stint of Bhujbal’s that got him into trouble and shaved several inches of his tall political stature.
The usually confident, invincible Bhujbal, known to wear expensive Louis Vuitton and Burberry mufflers as he took on whoever was opposite him in the house, was put behind bars in 2016 after the Devendra Fadnavis-led government took over. Bhujbal is facing money laundering charges and allegations of receiving kickbacks for government contracts, including the one for the Rs 870-crore Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi.
The Bhujbal who got out on bail in 2017 was much different — frail, weak and largely silent. It is something that he continues to be even today.