Bhujbal’s rise and fall

Print edition : April 15, 2016

Chhagan Bhujbal being taken court on March 17. Photo: VIJAY BATE

Reactions to the arrest of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Chhagan Bhujbal on March 14 were mixed. Many politicians and political observers said he had it coming and his “best by” date was long past. His supporters attempted a protest march and the NCP issued a formal statement saying he was being victimised. But after the formal protestation, it was obvious that the NCP backed off from challenging his arrest. It seemed as if Bhujbal had served his purpose and was being left out in the cold.

Bhujbal was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) under Section 19 (1) of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. He, his son Pankaj and his nephew Sameer had allegedly laundered money through hawala operators and parked it in shell companies. Bhujbal is also being investigated for corrupt practices in awarding contracts to build the Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi and other projects when he was Public Works Minister in Maharashtra.

From hawking vegetables to becoming the Deputy Chief Minister of the State, Bhujbal’s is the quintessential rags-to-riches story. He started his political life with the Shiv Sena in the early 1960s and rose through the ranks to become its loudest voice in the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. He was elected Mayor twice. He stayed with the Shiv Sena for about 25 years until he was lured away by NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, who was at the time with the Congress. It was a brave move on the part of both Pawar and Bhujbal since the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray did not take slights easily. Thackeray accepted the political expediency of his old friend Pawar who stole one of his trusted lieutenants. They were from diametrically opposed party ideologies and theirs was an odd friendship. The Congress had, to a great extent, nurtured the Shiv Sena in its infancy. They had cleverly channelled its hatred of communism and propensity for violence in the 1960s against the “troublesome” Communist Paty of India (Marxist) leaders who were backing trade unions. When CPI legislator Krishna Desai was murdered by Shiv Sena goons, the trade union movement was destabilised, albeit temporarily.

Bhujbal’s decision to leave the Shiv Sena made Thackeray rant and rave, calling him colourful names in Marathi. The all-too-famous “spontaneous” rage of Shiv Sainiks also came into play when they mobbed Bhujbal’s residence. Bhujbal had told this correspondent how he hopped, crawled and crept around his house while his former party colleagues were baying for his blood outside. “I thought my last day had come,” he had said. But he survived the Shiv Sena’s anger and flourished when his new master broke away from the Congress and formed the NCP.

His star was on the ascendant until August 2013 when Anjali Damania, activist and former convener of the State unit of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), alleged that Bhujbal had awarded contracts in exchange for kickbacks during his stint as Public Works Minister. Although there was some media furore over this, in December the AAP filed a public interest petition in the Bombay High Court. On the basis of this, Chief Justice Mohit Shah appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) comprising the E.D. and the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB).

The E.D. took the lead in the investigation. Its case against Bhujbal was further bolstered by confessions from numerous employees and other complainants. Kirit Somaiyya, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament, said there was corruption in awarding contracts for the construction of the Maharashtra Sadan. Sunil Karve, founder trustee of the Mumbai Educational Trust, of which Bhujbal is a co-founder trustee, filed a complaint in the Charity Commissioner’s office alleging that Bhujbal and his family had defrauded the trust of Rs.177 crore.

The clincher came from Sameer Bhujbal, a former MP and Bhujbal’s nephew. Bhujbal relied heavily on his nephew. Sameer was arrested in February 2016 and it was apparently Sameer’s statements that led to Bhujbal’s arrest. Bhujbal tried to escape by saying his nephew was the brains behind the schemes.

Bhujbal’s property includes flats, bungalows and commercial establishments in Thane, Belapur, Lonavala and Nashik and flats in at least six locations in Mumbai. Failure to declare his property is evident from just one example. His Bhujbal Farms in Nashik is valued at Rs.100 crore, way beyond his declared assets of Rs.22 crore.

Lyla Bavadam

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