Mumbai: In October 2009, when Pratap Baburao Sarnaik went to file his nomination as a Shiv Sena candidate for the Ovala Majiwada assembly seat, he chose to travel in an auto-rickshaw as opposed to the Toyota Land Cruiser that he usually commuted in.
He was not even in the passenger seat but behind the wheel, emphasising his modest beginnings as an auto-rickshaw driver in Dombivli from 1984 to 1989 and the rags-to-riches story of a ‘Marathi manoos’.
Today, the 56-year-old Sarnaik is an influential politician, a three-time MLA, and a developer with his hands in several pies, from real estate to hospitality to film production and even education.
The former auto-rickshaw driver has assets of over Rs 143 crore but has suddenly found himself under the lens of the Enforcement Directorate (ED).
The ED Tuesday raided several premises of Sarnaik and called in the MLA and his son, Vihang, for questioning in relation to a Rs 175 crore money laundering case that it has registered against security services firm Tops Group, its promoter Rahul Nanda and others.
The ED’s action comes soon after Sarnaik’s scathing criticism of actor Kangana Ranaut and his moving a breach of privilege motion against Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami. The Shiv Sena has alleged the ED raids against Sarnaik was a case of a “political vendetta” being brought by the by the BJP for taking a firm stand against Republic TV and its owner, Arnab Goswami, in the 2018 abetment to suicide case.
The motion against Goswami, however, isn’t the first such that Sarnaik has moved in the assembly. In April 2015, when the budget session of the state assembly was underway, Sarnaik moved a breach of privilege motion against author Shobhaa De for tweeting against the Maharashtra government’s decision to make it mandatory for multiplexes to screen Marathi movies during prime time. It had drawn much flak from the opposition.
The Rs 143 crore journey from Wardha to Thane
Sarnaik was born in Vidarbha region’s Wardha district.
The MLA, who now owns three cars worth almost Rs 1.75 crore between him and his wife, once lived in abject poverty, driving an auto-rickshaw and running an ‘anda bhurji’ stall.
A month before the 2014 Maharashtra assembly elections, Sarnaik shared photos of himself behind an auto-rickshaw wheel on Twitter, saying, “Relived my past as I rode across wards in a rickshaw. Reminded me of my midnights in Dombivli as a rickshaw driver.”
Relived my past as i rode across wards in a rickshaw.Reminded me of my midnights in Dombivli as a rickshaw driver. pic.twitter.com/sBtyOqw1c4
— Pratap Baburao Sarnaik (@PratapSarnaik) September 4, 2014
His father, Baburao Sarnaik, was known as a noted writer and had worked with Prahlad Keshav Atre, popularly known as Acharya Atre, a prominent Marathi author and founder-editor of Maratha.
The auto-rickshaw driver sowed the seeds of his real estate business in 1989, establishing the Vihang Group of Companies, named after his older son, Vihang. His company initially focused only on real estate development, coinciding with the boom Thane’s real estate saw as demand for housing in the town shot up due to its proximity to Mumbai.
Sarnaik today is counted as one of Thane’s prominent builders with more than half-a-dozen housing establishments completed under the Vihang label. His company later diversified to other verticals such as hospitality, recreation, entertainment and production. In 2003-04, the company set up its first hospitality venture — a recreational club, Vihang’s Palm Inn, and a hotel, Vihang Inn.
A Thane-based journalist, who did not wish to be named, said, “Despite being one of the major realtors in Thane and a politician, his name has never been directly embroiled in graft or irregularities concerning the Thane civic body. There were a couple of cases of illegal construction but they were resolved eventually.”
One of them was regarding ‘Vihang Garden’ — a 13-storeyed building with 112 flats at Thane’s Samatanagar. Three of the 13 floors were said to be illegal, constructed from the Transfer of Development Rights generated from a public school that Sarnaik was supposed to build first. The floors were regularised in 2013.
“There was a technical goof-up on our part and instead of completing the school work and then starting the construction of Vihang Garden, we finished the construction of the latter first,” Sarnaik had said then.
The extent of his riches had by then left several agog. In 2008 when he was a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) corporator, Sarnaik gifted senior party leader Ajit Pawar, then the water resources minister, a diamond-studded mobile handset on the latter’s birthday. Sarnaik had bought the handset in an auction by the Siddhivinayak Temple Trust, which had found the “offering” in its donation box. There were a total of 20 bidders and Sarnaik outdid them all, paying Rs 15.55 lakh.
“It was just a small gesture to Pawar on his birthday from a Siddhivinayak devotee…It’s not a big gift for him and today this is not an exceptionally big sum for me either,” Sarnaik had said.
In two days, Ajit Pawar donated the generous gift back to Siddhivinayak, with his son Parth dropping it off.
Sarnaik has also dabbled in film production, and has several friends in the Marathi and Bollywood film industry, many of whom have attended his annual showpiece ‘Dahi Handi’ event in Thane. The politician’s assets have increased nearly 800 per cent from Rs 16.15 crore in 2009.
“Unlike many others, he is a businessman-turned-politician, and not a politician-turned-businessman,” a Thane-based NCP leader who did not wish to be named said.
Sarnaik was active in politics right since his days as a student at Pendharkar College, Dombivli, but started his formal political career only in 1997 when he got elected as a corporator in the Thane Municipal Corporation on a NCP ticket.
“He was very close to Jitendra Awhad, who is also close to Pawar Saheb (Sharad Pawar),” said the NCP leader quoted above. “But Jitendra Awhad grew in stature in Thane and Pratap Sarnaik who was also very ambitious sensed that there won’t be space for him in the party to grow along with him. They had a fallout on the issue of appointing the opposition leader in the Thane civic body.
“The party eventually suspended Pratap Sarnaik after serving him a notice for speaking against Jitendra Awhad, and then he jumped to the Shiv Sena,” the leader added.
Sarnaik joined the Shiv Sena in November 2008, the same year as he was suspended from the NCP, and contested the assembly election from Thane district’s Ovala-Majiwada constituency for the first time in 2009. He has held the constituency for three straight terms.
Milind Ballal, editor of Thane Vaibhav, a daily newspaper, said, “He is known as a politician who is always among people, on the streets. He doesn’t restrict himself to his cabin. There’s a decent Gujarati and Marwari population too in his constituency, but he has created roads there as well. He is always on his toes.
“I don’t know how straight his business is,” Ballal added. “I don’t want to comment on it. But unlike other politicians who make money that you can never really see where it goes, in his case you can actually see his establishments.”
Sarnaik is said to be close to the Thackeray family, and was recently appointed as one of the official spokespersons of the Shiv Sena. His younger son, Purvesh, is in the inner circle of State Minister Aaditya Thackeray, being secretary of the Yuva Sena. Purvesh along with his mother, Parisha, are Shiv Sena corporators in the Thane civic body.
Purvesh is married to former BJP minister Dr Ranjit Patil’s daughter Kashmira.
Media savvy and always in the news
Irrespective of party, Sarnaik has always known how to stand out as a politician and make news. In January 2007, as the Shiv Sena-controlled Thane Municipal Corporation was heading to polls, Sarnaik, then with the NCP, sat on a roadside with a fishing rod to emphasise that the town’s roads had such deep potholes that he could actually fish in them.
Earlier, he had gifted lanterns to electricity officials to protest against prolonged load shedding in Thane.
In the Shiv Sena, Sarnaik has amply pushed the party’s Hindutva, pro-Marathi and the sons of the soil agenda by picking opportunities that have propelled his name to fame. But, in doing so he has ensured that he follows the style of the new leadership, that of Uddhav and Aaditya Thackeray, taking up issues through tweets, letters and assembly motions rather than the old Sainik garb of force and demonstrations.
In March this year, Sarnaik was in the news for writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to appoint a Shiv Sena member on the Ayodhya temple trust for the construction of the Ram Mandir.
Then in July, when there was much uncertainty over whether Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray would be invited for the groundbreaking ceremony of the Ram temple, and if he will even go, considering he holds a constitutional post of the chief minister in a complicated coalition, Sarnaik jumped the gun. He wrote to the chief trustee of the Shri Ramjanmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust asking him to invite Thackeray as chief guest for the ceremony.
The same month, Sarnaik wrote to State Home Minister Anil Deshmukh demanding the arrest of comedian Agrima Joshua for making a joke about the proposed mid-sea Chhatrapati Shivaji memorial. The comedian publicly apologised through a tweet and said that the video in question had been taken down.
In August, Sarnaik wrote to State Home Minister Deshmukh asking for the probe into the suicide of interior designer Anvay Naik to be reopened, taking up the cause of Naik’s wife and daughter. Arnab Goswami was one of the three main accused in the case and was eventually arrested in November.
In September, Sarnaik once again grabbed headlines when he moved a breach of privilege motion against Goswami in a special two-day session of the state legislature, held instead of the two-week monsoon session. Sarnaik said Goswami through his channel is holding a media trial where he considers himself to be a judge and gives rulings, insulting Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, ministers and members of the House.
He also waded into Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut’s tiff with Ranaut over the actor’s remarks comparing Mumbai to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Sarnaik has on Twitter said his party’s soldiers will break her face if she comes to Mumbai.
Speaking to ThePrint then, Sarnaik said the BJP was using Kangana as a weapon to politically attack the Shiv Sena. “We have information that the Twitter handle of Kangana Ranaut (@KanganaTeam) is actually operated by the BJP’s IT cell,” he said.
For now, Sarnaik is lying low and hasn’t commented on the ED’s raids. According to reports, the MLA has informed ED that he will not be able to respond to its summons for a week as he is under quarantine for Covid-19, having returned to Mumbai Tuesday after a trip to Goa.