Chhagan Bhujbal: The Comeback Man

A middle class family, an old building, a kidnapping, a deadly gangster, political bigwigs, a high profile press conference, an encounter and, a traumatized widow fighting for justice. These may be the perfect ingredients for a blockbuster Bollywood potboiler. But these characters and events aren’t from a Bollywood film but part of a scandal that rocked, plagued and almost brought the ruling Shiv Sena-BJP alliance to its knees in Maharashtra.

In 1996, Chhagan Bhujbal, Leader of Opposition, in the Maharashtra Legislative Council, held a press conference at his residence and introduced Sheila Kini, the widow of Ramesh Kini. Bhujbal claimed that he had rescued her and went on to level sensational allegations against the state’s biggest political family.

The Kinis owned a flat in Laxmi Nivas, an old building in the suburb of Matunga. The landlord Suman Shah and Raj Thackeray, who was a rising star in the Shiv Sena and owned a construction firm named Matoshree Realtors, wanted the Kinis to vacate their flat so that they could go ahead with their redevelopment plans. Bhujbal alleged that when the Kinis refused to toe the line, Raj Thackeray summoned Ramesh Kini to the Saamana office on multiple occasions to ‘persuade’ him to let go of the flat. On July 23, 1996, Ramesh left home saying he was going to the Saamana office. A day later, his body was found in a cinema hall in Pune.

Subsequent investigations into the case acquitted Raj Thackeray but the entire controversy seriously dented his and his mentor Bal Thackeray’s image. The Shiv Sena had for long fancied itself as the messiah of the Maharashtrian middle class. Four years later as Deputy Chief Minister holding the Home portfolio, Bhujbal would go on to do the unimaginable: order for Bal Thackeray’s arrest in cases registered against him for inflammatory articles in the Sena mouthpiece Saamana during the riots of 92-93. Political pundits would unanimously dub the decision to arrest Thackeray as a political misadventure but Bhujbal had once again gotten even with his former mentor-turned-arch rival.

1966 to 1991: The Shiv Sena years

The meteoric rise of Chhagan Bhujbal from a vegetable vendor to one of the state’s most influential political personalities has become a part of political folklore in Maharashtra.

Born in Nashik, Bhujbal along with his siblings and his mother’s aunt shifted to Bombay after the early death of his parents. Living in a tiny one room house in a chawl in Mazgaon, Bhujbal and his elder brother Magan would sell vegetables in Byculla’s vegetable market.

It seemed as if Bhujbal would pull his family out of poverty when he got himself enrolled in a two-year diploma course in Electrical and Mechanical Engineering in Mumbai’s famous Veermata Jijabai Technical Institute but he dropped out after the first year. Bowled over by Bal Thackeray’s firebrand oratory and his call for justice for the ‘Marathi Manoos’, Bhujbal joined the fledgling Shiv Sena in the ‘60s to kick-start his political career. His rise through the rank and file of the Shiv Sena was slow but steady: Shakha Pramukh of Mazgaon in 1960, Corporator in the BMC in 1973, MLA from Mazgaon in 1985 and 1990 and Mayor of Mumbai in 1985-86 and 1990-91.

Bhujbal along with Manohar Joshi emerged as one of Bal Thackeray’s two most trusted lieutenants. Due to their contrasting personalities, temperament and style of functioning, both of them complemented each other and played a vital role in strengthening and expanding the Shiv Sena in its early days. While the soft-spoken, suave Joshi with his networking skills and contacts with businessmen helped fill the party’s coffers, Bhujbal with his fiery oratory and organisational skills helped the party to expand its footprints outside the Mumbai-Thane region.

In many ways, Bhujbal was the ideal poster boy for the Shiv Sena. Bellicose, bombastic and belligerent, he was entrusted with expanding the Sena in the hinterlands of Maharashtra by his mentor.

1985 in many ways was Bhujbal’s breakthrough year. He was elected as the Mayor of the BMC, the richest civic body in Asia and within months of his appointment, he made national headlines when he threatened to stop the then PM, Rajiv Gandhi, from entering Bombay.

The Congress had decided to hold its centenary celebrations in the city of its birth, Bombay. Bhujbal queried what the PM and his party had done for the city and why the city should be left to deal with the dirt and mess that would be left behind by the lakhs of Congressmen who were expected to come to the city. A 100 crore central grant for the city’s infrastructure was announced by the PM in order to quell the resistance to the centenary celebrations and pacify the Shiv Sainiks.

An year later, Bhujbal took charge of Sena’s mission to expand in the hinterlands of the state when the party decided to organise a state-wide agitation on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border dispute. A ban had been imposed on the entry of Shiv Sena leaders and other possible troublemakers in Belgaum, the epicentre of the Maharashtra- Karnataka border politics. Defying the ban, Bhujbal entered the border town in disguise, much to the delight of Shiv Sainiks.

Bhujbal posed as one Mohammed Iqbal Sheikh and drove to Belgaum from Panaji. The next day’s papers had pictures of Bhujbal in disguise. Interestingly, during his time at VJTI as a student, Bhujbal had won a mono act competition. The runner-up was a certain Amjad Khan, who would go on to play the silver screen’s most celebrated antagonist: Gabbar Singh. Bhujbal then went on whirlwind tours of Konkan, northern Maharashtra and Marathwada in his bid to expand the Shiv Sena’s footprints.

Exiting the Sena: Blue eyed boy turns Lakhoba.

In 1990, when the VP Singh government announced its decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations, Thackeray voiced his opposition to it. When his ally BJP decided to support the reservation policy, he threatened to initiate divorce proceedings. Thackeray’s decision to oppose the reservation policy didn’t go down well with most Shiv Sena leaders who were worried that his stance might alienate the 60-70 per cent OBC Shiv Sena voters.

But none of them barring one prominent leader publicly defied Thackeray’s decision and voiced support for the reservation policy: Chaggan Bhujbal. He had started projecting himself as a prominent OBC leader and this was another opportunity for him to build on it. But what had prompted Bhujbal to suddenly become the voice of the downtrodden? After all, the same Bhujbal who was now becoming a voice for the Bahujans had courted controversy when he had ‘purified’ the memorial at Hutatma Chowk after Dalit activists had ‘soiled’ it with their presence during the rally in support of publication of ‘Riddles of Hindutva’. Bhujbal’s attempt at rebranding himself and his decision to publicly contradict his mentor Thackeray was linked to the post of the Leader of Opposition in the assembly.

Bhujbal’s histrionics and fiery oratory had made him quite a hit with the Shiv Sena’s cadre and while Joshi had been the unofficial number 2 in the Shiv Sena for years, Bhujbal’s rising stock within the party meant that a clash of ambitions between the two was on the cards. From 1985-1990, Bhujbal waged a lone battle on the Sena’s behalf in the assembly and on many occasions single-handedly brought the proceedings of the house to a halt. His supporters believed his whirlwind tours across the state had helped the party increase its tally from one seat to 52 in the state assembly in 1990.  It was widely believed that he would be appointed the Leader of the Opposition in the Vidhan Sabha when the Shiv Sena, in alliance with the BJP, won 85 seats. But Thackeray decided to make Manohar Joshi the leader of the opposition. Bhujbal didn’t make an immediate exit from the party but he chose to stay in the Shiv Sena when Thackeray assured him that the post will be rotated. However, when it looked like Thackeray won’t keep his word, Bhujbal decided it was time to call it quits.

In December 1991, 18 out of the 52 Shiv Sena MLAs led by Bhujbal submitted a letter to the speaker of the assembly asking him to recognise them as a seperate group: Shiv Sena (B). Weeks later, 12 of these MLAs along with Bhujbal joined the Congress after the speaker had formalised the split. The Shiv Sena had suffered a serious setback. For the first time in its history, it had suffered a split, one of its biggest leaders had deserted the party and to add insult to injury, it had lost the post of the leader of Opposition to its junior ally, the BJP.

A key figure who worked behind the scenes to engineer this split in the Shiv Sena was the then Chief Minister Sharad Pawar. It is interesting to note that Bhujbal had no qualms in doing business with Sharad Pawar. Just a few years back, Bhujbal had been thrown out of the assembly when he had created ruckus and walked into the assembly with a banner that read ‘Bhookhandache Shrikhand’. The remark was targeted at Pawar’s alleged involvement in a land grab scandal.

Bhujbal’s exit from the Shiv Sena was not without any drama. Bhujbal had to disappear from the MLA hostel in Nagpur, the winter capital of the state, when he heard that the Sena Supremo had dispatched Anand Dighe, a much feared figure and Shiv Sena Pramukh of Thane, who had allegedly killed a Sena corporator who cross-voted in favour of Congress to get him. Bhujbal was soon made a minister in the Sharad Pawar government. The Shiv Sena rued the missed opportunity but four years later in 1995, it seized the opportunity that came its way when it was in power in the state.

Bhujbal had been defeated by Sena leader Bala Nandgaonkar in the 1995 assembly polls and was appointed as the Leader of Opposition in the legislative council by Sharad Pawar. On a Sunday afternoon in 1997, a mob of 100 odd Shiv Sainiks armed with rods, knives and firearms breached the security cover and came looking for Bhujbal. Bhujbal had to seek shelter in a dark, dingy corner of the house to save his life. The attack escalated the rivalry between Bhujbal and Thackeray and it soon became Maharashtra’s biggest political rivalry.

In the years to come, Thackeray would constantly target Bhujbal in the pages of Saamana calling him Lakhoba, after a character from a popular play by Acharya Atre who changes his guise every time before he is out to commit his next crime. Journalist Sujata Anandan in her book Hindu Hriday Samrat: How Shiv Sena changed Mumbai forever quotes Thackeray, “I saw him in a Gandhi Topi soon after he joined the Congress and I was reminded of the character who pretends to be everything but himself. The cap fits Bhujbal well.”

Bhujbal on his part upped the ante against Thackeray and his party. The Ramesh Kini expose was just one of the many that Bhujbal did to knock the Shiv Sena supremo off his pedestal. Justifying his campaign against Thackeray, Bhujbal said, “I knew all of Thackeray’s failings and weak points. If I did not start exposing the man at the earliest, soon there would have been idols and temples dedicated to Thackeray across Maharashtra. I could not allow the devil to worshipped as a god!’ (Sujata Anandan, Hindu Hriday Samrat: How Shivsena changed Mumbai forever)

1999 onwards: Another split, scams and the battle for survival.

Eight years after he split the Shiv Sena, Bhujbal found himself embroiled in another high profile split, when Sharad Pawar split the Congress to form the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Bhujbal followed Pawar into the NCP for which he was duly rewarded by being made the Deputy chief minister in charge of the home portfolio when the Congress-NCP formed the government in Maharashtra. The biggest highlight of his tenure was getting Bal Thackeray arrested.

Interestingly, just days before the recently concluded Maharashtra assembly polls, his party colleague and senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar set the cat among the pigeons when he stated that the decision to arrest Thackeray was wrong and it was due to the ‘obstinacy of some leaders in the party’. With the developments of the past few months, one wonders if it was an attempt to cut Bhujbal down to size in the event of a Sena-NCP combine coming to power.

In 2003, an assistant police inspector alleged that Bhujbal had instructed him to bail out Abdul Karim Telgi, the prime accused in the stamp paper scam. Bhujbal’s downfall began then. In the next decade and a half, his name featured in several high profile corruption scandals. Months later, Bhujbal had to put in his papers after the NCP activists attacked the office of Alpha TV, a news channel that aired a parody song about Bhujbal’s alleged involvement in the stamp paper scam. A year later, when the Congress-NCP combine stormed back to power, Bhujbal was rewarded with the PWD ministry, another ‘ATM ministry’. But this clearly was a demotion for him. The NCP was being taken over by Maratha leaders and the OBC strongman was being sidelined.

Things got worse when fresh allegations surfaced against him in the Maharashtra Sadan case. Bhujbal was accused of giving away contracts to family members for the construction of Maharashtra Sadan building in New Delhi during his stint as the PWD minister. Nevertheless, Bhujbal continued as the PWD minister till 2014 when the Congress-NCP were voted out of power. He even enjoyed a second stint as Deputy Chief Minister from 2008 to 2010.

Bhujbal’s darkest hour was when the Enforcement Directorate arrested him in 2016 under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. Once considered a major claimant for the CM’s chair, Bhujbal spent almost two years in jail before finally getting bail in 2018. While his party and party chief, Sharad Pawar, weren’t quite vocal in voicing their support for Bhujbal during his imprisonment, he found help from unexpected quarters when Raj Thackeray extended his support to a campaign protesting Bhujbal’s imprisonment ‘Anyay pe Charcha’. Given the history between the two, the move did raise more than a few eyebrows.

Bhujbal did make peace with Bal Thackeray in 2008 when he withdrew the defamation case filed against Thackeray and called on his ailing mentor at Matoshree. But the bitterness was far from over. Perhaps, that’s why when media reports speculated about Bhujbal’s possible ghar wapsi to Shiv Sena, banners came up across the city reminding Shiv Sainiks of the ‘pain inflicted on Bal Thackeray’ by Bhujbal.

Two years back, when Bhujbal was spending time at the Arthur Road prison, almost forgotten by his own party, few would have imagined that he would once again go on to become a minister in Maharashtra. And almost no one would have imagined that he will be a minister in a government headed by Shiv Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray. But politics is the art of the possible. For someone who started off as a Savarkar fanboy to take oath invoking Ambedkar, Phule and Shahu Maharaj is no mean feat. Bhujbal’s career, which has seen him being a part of all three constituents of Maha Vikas Aghadi, proves another old adage: You should never write off anyone in politics.

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