In the early and mid-1990s, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Gopinath Munde had launched an aggressive campaign against criminalisation of politics in Maharashtra.
Post-liberalisation, real estate in Mumbai and surrounding areas started becoming a lucrative business. It also led to emergence of several ‘strongmen’ in these areas. Faced by opposition parties such as the Shiv Sena and the BJP that were becoming stronger, the Congress then fielded several strongmen such as Pappu Kalani in Ulhasnagar and Hitendra Thakur in Vasai who called the shots in their areas.
The Congress led by chief minister Sharad Pawar managed to retain power in the 1990 assembly elections and some of these strongmen entered the legislature. Most of these strongmen had serious criminal cases against them. A shrewd Munde picked this opportunity and ran a campaign accusing Pawar and the Congress of criminalising politics. He made a series of allegations against Pawar and even accused him of links with the underworld. This campaign made a dent in Pawar’s popularity in the state.
It also led to the urban middle class in Maharashtra looking at the Congress with suspicion.
The events that unfolded in the next few years, including the communal riots and the 1993 terror attack, further damaged the Congress leading to its defeat in 1995 and the coming to power of the first Shiv Sena-BJP government.
Two decades later, things seem to be changing. The BJP is in power and in a bid to win the civic polls, it is inducting controversial people who can help it defeat the rival parties. A few days ago in Pune, it inducted Vithal Shelar who has several criminal cases against him. In Thane, it is now welcoming Sudhakar Chavan who was one of the first politicians to be arrested under the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act in 1992. There are reports that the party is talking to Pappu Kalani’s son Omi for improving its chances in Ulhasnagar. Papu Kalani’s wife Jyoti is currently the NCP MLA from Ulhasnagar.
There were media reports about some other people with criminal background joining the BJP, one or two of them even in the presence of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis who later distanced himself from those elements. Earlier, the BJP also inducted former Maharashtra Navnirman Sena legislator Pravin Darekar who was in the dock for irregularities in the Mumbai District Central Cooperative Bank.
So why is the BJP, which always took pride in being a party with a difference, allowing such controversial persons to the join its fold and give a chance to rivals to criticise it? Why do Fadnavis and his party need such people to win elections, given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is popular and the chief minister himself compares well with the state’s politicians?
According to party insiders, there are several reasons behind this. First, the local political calculations: Either these people can influence voting in certain areas or they will be needed to counter rival parties that have numerical strength in that area.
For the BJP, the elections to 10 municipal corporations and 25 district councils (ZP) are crucial. Since about 80% of the population will be voting in these elections, they are being called mini-assembly polls.
The party knows that the opposition Congress and NCP will get a launch-pad to bounce back in the 2019 assembly polls if they a majority of the local bodies. As such Fadnavis and his party don’t want to take any chances.
The BJP is also preparing for the next assembly elections. It suspects that the 2019 elections will probably be contested in the absence of any wave.
As such, there are chances that each seat will be fiercely contested. Then such ‘strongmen’ could come in handy — whether it is about showing strength on the ground or managing resources. Speaking at the meeting of party’s state executive in Thane last Thursday, Fadnavis told his colleagues that the BJP needed to be expanded and different types of people will have to be accommodated. As the party aims for expansion and retaining power in the state, its stand on criminalisation of politics may take a backseat. A small price to pay when you aim for higher rewards in politics…