Why Chhagan Bhujbal May Be the Fall Guy in a Bigger Political Game

If Ajit Pawar’s case gets lost in the maze of the big case against him, the BJP gets to keep its image of fighting corruption intact while at the same time balancing the Shiv Sena off against the NCP

NCP leader and former deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal after the Anti-Corruption Bureau carried searches of offices and residences in connection with the two offenses registered by the ACB, in Mumbai on Tuesday. PTI Photo

NCP leader and former deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal after the Anti-Corruption Bureau carried searches of offices and residences in connection with the two offences registered by the ACB, in Mumbai on Tuesday. PTI Photo

Mumbai: The raids by Maharashtra’s Anti-Corruption Bureau on the properties of the state’s former deputy chief minister and Nationalist Congress Party leader Chhagan Bhujbal have sent shock waves in political circles. Flats and farmhouses in four different cities said to belong to Bhujbal and his family have been raided.

Not only is Bhujbal – a pugnacious survivor in the state’s politics –  a high-profile leader, he is also an integral part of the NCP led by Sharad Pawar. The NCP is nominally in the opposition but is known to be supportive of the BJP government; the raids thus have strong political implications.

Analysts are speculating whether Bhujbal is the fall guy who allows the BJP to claim it is serious about tackling corruption while at the same time not going after other leaders such as Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit, who is facing serious charges in what has come to be known as the ‘Irrigation Scam’.

Bhujbal’s political career has always been about hard choices – choices that he has made, or that others make for him. A former close lieutenant of Shiv Sena Supremo Bal Thackeray, he jumped ship to join the Congress in 1991. He had been in the forefront of all Sena campaigns, including attacking Pawar when the latter was being mentioned in a land scandal. But when the Sena emerged as a strong force in the state assembly in 1990, he was denied the leader of the opposition’s post. He realised then that as an OBC, he could go only this far and no further.

OBC leader

As a respected OBC leader, he was a valuable resource for the Congress and could have gone on to higher things. In 1999, when Pawar split the Congress, Bhujbal went into hiding for a few days to think out his options. His loyalty was to Sonia Gandhi and the Congress but he knew the local Congress leaders hated him for usurping their positions of authority and getting plum posts such as being the housing minister and later leader of the opposition. Only Pawar could give him the protection he needed from attacks by his old party, the Shiv Sena. So he reluctantly sided with Pawar and even became the president of the Maharashtra unit of the NCP.

When the Congress and NCP came together to form a government later that year, he even 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 a high office on Bhujbal.

But when Bhujbal began emerging as a strong home minister, Pawar cut him down to size by taking away the home department. The next time round, he was put in charge of the public works department – and he continued to hold it through his stints in government; ironically, this portfolio is what has got him into trouble now.

Despite not being part of the Maratha elite, which is the ruling class in the state, Bhujbal continued to grow in stature and Pawar put him down again and again in order to protect the turf for his own nephew, Ajit Pawar. Bhujbal made up with Thackeray, but the dynamics of politics in Maharastra by then were such that 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 question.

Mimicking Modi

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 quietly signed on the dotted line. He went on to lose the Lok Sabha seat from Nasik previously held by his nephew Sameer Bhujbal. The highlight of his campaign then was mimicking Narendra Modi’s exaggerated claims and imitating Modi’s nasal twang. Video recordings of his impressions which went viral during the polls – where he told his `mitron’ that in Gujarat you could even extract milk from bulls – couldn’t have endeared him to Modi and his supporters.

When the NCP announced in October 2014 that it would be supporting the BJP in Maharashtra, it was clear that there was a political bargain that had taken place. Modi had declared the NCP to be the “Naturally Corrupt Party’’ of India and here the two were coming together.

But the government cannot be seen to be going easy on the NCP. It has already announced a series of investigations against ministers in the previous government, and among them is Pawar’s nephew. However, it would be fatal to the Pawar dynasty should that investigation go forward and Ajit be indicted.

This is where Bhujbal now has to offer himself up once again as a lamb for slaughter: he is enough of a fat cat to satisfy both Modi and the BJP and make Devendra Fadnavis look determined to root out corruption. That he did make fun of Modi recently and also of Pawar years ago has also not been forgotten. If Ajit Pawar’s case gets lost in the maze of this big case and other small cases, the BJP gets to keep its image intact while at the same time balancing 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 construction of the new Maharashgtra Sadan in New Delhi and also various land deals over the years, Bhujbal may have nowhere to run. “Where will I go at this age and point in my career?’’ he had said when asked if he would be rejoining the Shiv Sena. Bhujbal has bounced back in the past, but this is one of the biggest crises of his political life. How his political leaders react in the coming days will make it clear what the future holds for him.

After leaving the Sena, he was under threat from the party’s goons, once even escaping an attempt to kill 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 (as a dead man) that evening. Today could be my last sunrise or sunset,’’ he used to say.

He may now once again have to tell his wife to expect another knock at the door. This time from the Anti Corruption Bureau, coming to arrest him.