The former Shiv Sena rebel and now Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal's dinner diplomacy with the Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray in Mumbai on Saturday has caused serious misgivings in the senior ranks of the BJP which is Sena's electoral partner in Maharashtra.
The anxiety over the Thackeray-Bhujbal meet was discernible in the BJP camp in Nagpur where a two-day national council meeting of the party concluded on Sunday. Though none of the leaders voiced concern over this new development openly, whispers were heard over the possible ulterior motive behind Thackeray's new-found love for Bhujbal, who split the Sena in 1991 and joined the Congress with a breakaway group.
It was said that the Thackeray-Bhujbal meeting was an attempt to explore the possibilities of working out an alliance between the Sena and NCP in the coming elections. Local Sena sources said that tension had been brewing between Sena and BJP for the past couple of years over some issues, and that the BJP-led Karnataka government's ill-treatment of Marathi-speaking people living in Belgaum-Karwar areas on the border with Maharashtra had become the latest sore point.
The NCP leadership is reportedly exploiting this tension between the two saffron partners, and trying to drive the wedge further by having Bhujbal explore the possibility of Sena dumping BJP and joining hands with NCP for the coming elections.
The senior BJP leader, Gopinath Munde, however, tried play down the new development saying that Bhujbal's meeting with Thackeray was just a courtesy call and that Bhujbal had taken Pawar's prior consent before accepting the dinner invitation. He also maintained that the duo's meeting would not affect the coalition of both the parties.
"The meeting will not affect the Sena-BJP's coalition politics in Maharashtra," he asserted. Instead, he claimed, the meeting would help the coalition in the coming elections as Bhujbal, a popular leader, would not speak against Sena or Thackeray that he did in last elections. Moreover, the warm relations between the two would actually help the Sena-BJP alliance as it would lessen the bitterness in the rival political camps during the next poll campaign.
According to Munde, Bhujbal is not comfortable in NCP. He has been cornered by powerful Maratha lobby within NCP. "The issue of reservation for the Marathas in government jobs is a further challenge to his OBC clout," Munde pointed out. He said that the BJP would not oppose reservation for the Marathas. But there is a need to amend the constitution if the state wants to provide political reservation to a particular community.
He ridiculed the Vilasrao Deshmukh and the Maratha warlord, Sharad Pawar for not doing enough for the Maratha community when they were in power and now they were pushing the reservation issue. 'It is just a political gimmick when Deshmukh said that he would have granted reservation for Marathas if he were in power," he pointed out.
Answering a question, Munde admitted that if Bhujbal rejoins the Sena, the alliance would get benefit. "But I have a doubt that he would return to Sena again," he said.
In another question, Munde made it clear that he was not a contender for the post of chief minister if Sena-BJP coalition comes in power. Uddhav would be the best choice and Eknath Khadse, Nitin Gadkari or Pandurag Phundkar from the BJP would be made as deputy chief minister. He continued, "I would now concentrate more on central politics."