After the arrest of one of Maharashtra’s best-known politicians, the question that is being asked with increasing urgency is not Why, but What, or rather, Who’s, Next?
It was becoming increasingly clear in recent months that the law would catch up with Chhagan Bhujbal, a former Dy Chief Minister, Home Minister and most of all, a leader of OBCs. His office had been raided by the Enforcement Directorate and his son Pankaj was questioned last month. The Anti Corruption Bureau has also interrogated him. Nephew Sameer is in jail. The noose was tightening around Bhujbal senior and on Monday he was questioned for over 10 hours, at the end of which the ED arrested him.
Bhujbal is implicated in a scam in several construction projects and has also been charged under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. There are allegations of kickbacks in the awarding of contracts to build Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi and other buildings in the state. Stories have appeared in the media about large amounts of cash being shifted from Mumbai to Kolkata for eventual transfer abroad by hawala. He is also alleged to have amassed huge wealth, along with properties, in different parts of the state.
Activists of the Aam Aadmi Party had been campaigning against him and the BJP, when it took over the reins of administration last year, had declared it would investigate all corruption cases against politicians from the previous dispensation. This was widely interpreted as a warning to leaders such as Bhujbal and Ajit Pawar, who has been linked to an “irrigation scam.”
However, wizened political observers in the state claimed that the growing proximity between Sharad Pawar’s NCP – to which Bhujbal and Ajit Pawar belong – and the BJP would ensure that the new administration would go slow. But Devendra Fadnavis gave the green signal within less than two months of taking over to investigate the irrigation scam, said to be in the region of a stratospheric 70,000 crore.
However, that investigation, being managed by the state-government controlled Anti-Corruption Bureau is still moving along and though Ajit Pawar has been questioned, it is the ED which has gone ahead and arrested Bhujbal. Many observers have been saying that Bhujbal is the sacrificial goat and Pawar junior will not get the same treatment, a BJP MP Kirit Somaiya has declared that Ajit Pawar and another former minister Sunil Tatkare, also of the NCP, will be arrested next.
Sharad Pawar has maintained a silence on the arrest of Bhujbal, once his most trusted lieutenant. A few NCP workers turned up at the ED office to protest against the arrest and the party says it is “political vendetta”, Bhujbal must be wondering where all his friends are.
Bhujbal’s arrest also satisfies the Shiv Sena, whose member he once was and who, after joining the Congress, had send the police to arrest Sena chief Bal Thackeray. Today the Sena is in the government as an ally of the BJP.
Yet, will Fadnavis continue his campaign against corruption and actually arrest Ajit Pawar? That will be a huge political decision. During the campaign for the Maharashtra elections, Narendra Modi had called the NCP a “naturally corrupt party”, but that did not stop the NCP from letting it be known, even as counting was going on, that it would support the BJP. That one declaration helped the BJP stand up to the Shiv Sena. In February 2015, Narendra Modi visited Pawar’s home town Baramati and praised him. In December Modi, like many other leaders, attended Pawar’s 75th birthday celebrations.
Political observers say that Bhujbal’s arrest is an acceptable solution for all concerned and makes the BJP government look good. Besides, the relations between the BJP and the Shiv Sena are on a more even keel and the need for the NCP’s support, open or tacit, is not needed. Another arrest, of a much more high profile NCP leader, would allow Fadnavis to claim he is serious about investigating corruption scandals. The question therefore is, What, or Who’s Next?