Following the Enforcement Directorate’s (ED) money laundering case against him, former deputy chief minister and senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Chhagan Bhujbal’s political future is uncertain.
If he fails to come out of this unscathed like he did in the Telgi scam, it would mean an end to a three-decade-long political career the 68-year old former Sainik has enjoyed. Even though there were some spontaneous and some organised protests on Tuesday against his arrest, sources said a political revival for the veteran politician seems difficult.
If the case against Bhujbal sticks under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, a conviction could get him a minimum of three and a maximum of seven years in prison. This would effectively rule out a public life as he won’t be able to contest elections for a period of six years. Even without a conviction, the legal battle is expected to continue for long. Bhujbal — a trailblazing leader of opposition during the last saffron government’s tenure and a survivor of the Sena’s ire — could be seen as a political liability.
“For all practical purposes, this is the end of his political career. Even though he may not get convicted in the case, the glaring corruption and the direct link between the ill-gotten wealth and the abuse of his position as minister will not be forgotten. His cardinal mistake may have been that unlike others, he brazenly flouted his wealth. That doesn’t go down well with people. He just about scraped through the Telgi scam, but this time his government is not in power,” said political analyst Prakash Bal.
The BJP-led state government seems to have a clear agenda — to corner its opponents. Many in the opposition embroiled in scams have given the BJP a ready bat to beat them with. The signs are clear: Last month, the government re-opened the Adarsh case against Congress state president Ashok Chavan. And some ministers in the government vouch that those accused in the irrigation scam, Ajit Pawar and Sunil Tatkare, may soon feel the heat. But, a direct money trail seems to have only been established in Bhujbal’s case, linking him to a more than Rs800 crore empire.
“We will not indulge in vendetta politics, but we will also not cover up your scams. If there is evidence, we will not let the guilty go scot-free,” said chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, in the state assembly on Tuesday, in a clear challenge to the opponents.
Bhujbal, a former home minister, occupies a significant position in state politics as an Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader and comes from the dominant Mali community, which does not have enough political representation. He had taken a strong position on the implementation of the Mandal Commission report on reservation for the OBC community in Maharashtra. He is also known as a politician who dared to arrest of Sena chief late Bal Thackeray in connection with 1991-92 communal riots in Mumbai. He is also a good orator and organiser, but now this political USP may get tainted by the money laundering scam.
There are doubts how much weightage he will have in his own party, the NCP.
Already, there are theories doing rounds in political circles as to why he had to face stern action by the ED, a central agency, even though his mentor and NCP chief Sharad Pawar shares cordial relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley. A political future in another party, like his alma mater, the Shiv Sena, despite a truce with party chief Uddhav Thackeray, as was being speculated recently, also now seems improbable.
“For the Sena, Bhujbal had a certain USP. He has both muscle and money power, knows the Thackerays and can win a couple of seats for them, but now he seems a spent force,” said a former Congress minister.
While Bhujbal has tried to project himself as the national leader of the OBCs in the past 10 years, many question his base in the state itself. His area of influence has largely been limited to Nashik and Mumbai. Hemmed in a party filled with Marathas, Bhujbal also failed to take on the mantle of OBC leader to great heights like the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde.
While the NCP protested against Bhujbal’s arrest, it’s an open secret that Pawar’s political heir in the state and nephew Ajit Pawar does not get along with the veteran leader. In the Assembly on Monday, Bhujbal was defended by senior leader Jayant Patil and not the group leader of the party, Ajit. “Sharad Pawar has not been able to protect Bhujbal from ED action. He will continue to be a senior leader in NCP, but his role as a decision-making leader in the party may be over,” said an NCP leader.
Bhujbal survived being the first Sena rebel and went on to become the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra and home minister. He also survived the Telgi scam and got another innings as senior minister. His luck now seems to be have run out.