The old adage that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics is coming true once again in Maharashtra right now. Three decades ago, when defections and rebellions were uncommon in the State, Chhagan Bhujbal’s defection in 1991 from the Shiv Sena to the Congress sent shockwaves through Maharashtra’s political circles. Bal Thackeray roared like a wounded beast, not surprisingly since Bhujbal had been his right-hand man. It hurt all the more because Bhujbal was lured away by Sharad Pawar who was then still with the Congress.
Bhujbal’s elation at joining the Congress was soon replaced by actual physical terror. In the 1990s the Sena was still a street-fighting party and Bal Thackeray had whipped up a frenzy within the party over Bhujbal’s defection. Bhujbal was besieged in his Ministerial bungalow by a raging mob that was just about controlled by the police. Just days later he relived the terrors of that afternoon when Sainiks surrounded his house. He graphically enacted his fears to this correspondent. He described how the mob outside screamed for his blood. He imitated their shouted threats and abuse.
But nothing more happened and Bhujbal’s career flourished, but his name continued to be a red rag to Sainiks. He later followed Pawar to the NCP and became Deputy Chief Minister, but his career went into a decline when the Enforcement Directorate investigated him in a money laundering case. Ill-health and a term in prison turned him into a spent force.
But now he is back in the forefront, sharing the dais with the same Sena that had been ready to tear him apart. Celebrations held for Bhujbal’s 75th birthday on October 13 resembled a mini political rally. On the dais were Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, Ajit Pawar, and even the National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah. Thackeray and Ajit Pawar both spoke in characteristic style and both lauded Bhujbal’s hold over Sainiks.
Thackeray said that if Bhujbal had not left the Shiv Sena he would have been Chief Minister. Ajit Pawar said that if Uddhav had turned to Bhujbal during the recent crisis, he would have managed to stem the flow of rebels leaving the Shiv Sena. But if Bhujbal did not step up on his own and stem the flow of rebels and, in fact, allowed his own government to collapse, it is a mystery what he can actually achieve now with the rebel Sena faction and the BJP firmly entrenched in government.
Tie-up with CPI
The Thackeray-led Shiv Sena has also raised eyebrows by forging an alliance with the CPI. On October 12 the two joined hands to contest the upcoming by-elections in the Andheri East Assembly constituency. Their candidate, Rutuja Latke, was not eligible to run for elections as she was an employee with the BMC, and was able to confirm her candidature only after the Bombay High Court told the BMC to stop delaying the acceptance of her resignation.
Senior State CPI leaders such as Milind Ranade, Prakash Reddy, Prakash Narvekar, and Baba Sawant, and trade union leaders Vijay Dalvi and Babli Rawat met Thackeray at his residence and vowed to fight the BJP by allying with the Sena.
Even though the CPI has no great voter strength, the Shiv Sena believes allying with the communists gives it a fighting chance. However, the BJP and the rebel Sena faction are likely to use Uddhav Thackeray’s decision to ally with the CPI to further undermine his already tenuous position.
Decades ago, the Sena and the communists were fierce rivals. At its mildest the hatred was expressed by Bal Thackeray calling the communists “red monkeys”; at its worst it was murder. Communist leader Krishna Desai was allegedly killed by the Shiv Sena in 1970. The fight then was between communists and Shiv Sena-led cotton mill trade unions. In those days the communist unions were strong and the Shiv Sena was trying to muscle its way in.