Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Rise and Fall of the original...Muffler Man - By Yogesh Naik & Chaitanya Marpakwar, Mumbai Mirror


By Yogesh Naik & Chaitanya Marpakwar, Mumbai Mirror | Jun 18, 2015, 02.00 AM IST

Pankaj Bhujbal's 65-acre farmhouse in Nashik; (right) Pankaj (in blue shirt) and Sameer
The Rise and Fall of the original...Muffler Man

Bhujbal's ambition, and his son and nephew, have been both his strength and his undoing.

Chhagan Bhujbal has seen much in life - extreme poverty, the heady feeling of breaking out of the vice-like grip of a life of constant want, success in public life that surrounded him with adoring masses, political wilderness, and finally affluence and power that is the stuff of dreams. But one thing that he has never experienced is being friendless. And that feeling of being abandoned, as the Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Enforcement Directorate's noose tightens around him in two cases, has left him shaken today. 

In the past week or so, as the ACB and the ED have raided one property after the other belonging to Bhujbal, his son Pankaj, and nephew Sameer, all that his party, the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, has done is issue a rather tame statement calling the ACB action "political vendetta". Pawar himself has spoken only once in Bhujbal's support. In Patna, at a party anniversary event, he said it is only an FIR and that the truth will eventually emerge. 

Cut to January 2004. A day before Bhujbal was to appear before a Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Bombay High Court in the Telgi fake stamps scam, the NCP organised a massive morcha that jammed the Sir Pochkhanwala Road in Worli where the SIT had its office. Eventually, the Telgi scam probe was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation and not even an FIR was filed against Bhujbal. 

There are various theories going around on how a political leader of Bhujbal's heft - two-time Mumbai mayor, two-time deputy chief minister, and somebody who at some point or the other held almost all important portfolios in the state - could have come to such a pass. Some of the theories are: 

1. He fell out with Pawar a year ago. 

2. He is being made a scape-goat to protect Ajit Pawar, senior Pawar's nephew, who has serious cases of corruption pending against him. 

3. He is the new BJP- Shiv Sena government's show-piece anticorruption project. 

4. Now that Sena shares power with the BJP in the state, Bhujbal must pay for arresting Bal Thackeray in 2000. Bhujbal was then the home minister. 

Whatever the motivation - and it is also entirely possible that it is just the law of the land taking its course - Bhujbal seems to have been cornered. The wily fox, who loved to dress in jeans and made mufflers fashionable much before India even heard of Arvind Kejriwal, has run out of tricks. His arrest is imminent. If and when that happens, the Sainiks most certainly will start a big party. 

Bhujbal's rise 

Whatever Bhujbal is today is because of the Shiv Sena. He would like to believe that whatever Sena is today is because of him, but that wouldn't be entirely true. Bhujbal was just a vegetable trader when he joined Shiv Sena in the 1960s, inspired by Bal Thackeray's call to Marathis to claim their place in the metropolis. 

By dint of hardwork, focus, and courage, Bhujbal soon rose to be counted among the Sena's most promising leaders. He was elected as a corporator in 1973 and in 1978 became the group leader of Sena's 12 corporators. He was Mumbai's mayor for two terms in 1985 and 1991. 

His friends and followers say they have never come across a more nakedly ambitious politician. According to a well-documented story, in 1991 Bhujbal had made his desire to be appointed the leader of the opposition clear to Thackeray. Not accustomed to such demands, the Sena chief next day published a cartoon in Saamna. It depicted Jesus Christ riding a donkey, followed by hundreds of people. The caption said the donkey should not mistake the crowd for his supporters, they are following Jesus Christ. Six months later, Bhujbal left the Sena and joined the Congress. "I realised then that I was being told to take what was being given and not what was due to me. I vowed that if I could build something, I could even break it," he had said then. 

Bhujbal's ambition has been both his strength and the undoing. He introduced immense sense of insecurity among the established Congress leaders when he jumped ship from the Sena. A few years later, he defected out of the Congress with Pawar and became the NCP's OBC (other backward classes) face. But his ambition was to occupy the CM's post in Maharashtra. This ambition, many believed, made Bhujbal reckless and also arrogant. First he slipped on Telgi and now the immense wealth he has amassed has become an albatross around his neck. 

Bhujbal's fall 

Somebody more down-to-earth would have seen the danger much earlier, but Bhujbal, who by now believed he could wriggle out of any trouble, did not. 

It all started in the 1990s, when the Bhujbals bagged a government plot at Bandra (west) opposite Leelavati Hospital and appointed Sunil Karve, a chartered accountant, to run an educational institution there. And that's how the Mumbai Education Trust (MET) was born. 

By 2005, the plot had a shiny multi-storied building and MET was running a bouquet of courses. Karve alleges that while he gave 15 years of his life to build MET, Bhujbal began interfering in its affairs from 2005 onwards. 

Karve was sacked in 2012 after a running feud with the Bhujbals. 

Just months later, Karve approached the charity commissioner with complaints against Bhujbal and MET. He then approached the Economics Offences Wing of the Mumbai police with documents he had access to when he was a part of Bhujbal's inner circle. 

Those close to Bhujbal say he knew how damning the evidence that Karve had submitted to EoW was. His friends advised him to call a truce. But this was 2012, Bhujbal was a minister, Narendra Modi had still not become the force he is today, and the Congress-NCP were quietly confident of returning to power. 

Bhujbal would not bow to a man he appointed to run an educational institution. 

But it all changed with the BJP's landslide in 2014, Sena's reluctant participation in the state government as a junior partner, and the near decimation of the Congress-NCP combine, who in a foolish misstep fought the elections separately. 

Karve now is a bit of a folk hero. It's not uncommon for him to issue statements like - "I was alone in the beginning, but my struggle encouraged others to come forth with evidence against Bhujbal." There is an element of truth in that statement. Sunil Tekchandani, who once was Sameer Bhujbal's business partner, too has filed cases against the family. 

That his son and nephew were not satisfied with just influencing decisions in Mantralaya and were often seen flaunting their power and wealth did not help. Pankaj's 65-acre farm house - the size of three Oval Maidans - is a case in point. 

A cornered Bhujbal's only hope now is Pawar, who has built, like he always does, an excellent rapport with the party in power. Modi partook of his hospitality in Baramati just months after assuming power in Delhi. And Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis uses Pawar's NCP to keep the Sena on a tight leash. 

It is believed that it was Pawar who had bailed Bhujbal out in the Telgi scam. Will he play the saviour again or will he sacrifice Bhujbal to secure a guarantee from the BJP-Sena government that Ajit Pawar would not be touched? Only time will tell.

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