Chhagan Bhujbal, who was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in March 2016 and spent over two years in jail in connection with a money laundering case, has since struggled to overcome this setback.
At the OBC rally in Maharashtra’s Jalna district Friday, the crowd saw an entirely different avatar of the NCP (Ajit Pawar) leader. Donning dark sunglasses, Bhujbal stood up and delivered a speech that resonated across the state’s villages, cities and political corridors.
The rally had leaders from across the political spectrum on stage, from Vijay Wadettiwar of the Congress to Gopichand Padalkwar of the BJP. But there was no doubt who the main attraction was, as all these leaders who took the stage before Bhujbal, broke into effusive praise of the NCP leader for bringing the OBC community (38% of Maharashtra’s population in the 1931 census) together and “articulating their fears” about the numerically (33% in 1931) and politically powerful Marathas looking to “corner” a part of the OBC quota by getting included in its category.
Expectedly, Bhujbal, who holds the food and civil supplies portfolio in the Eknath Shinde-led coalition government, stole the show, deploying rhetoric that no one from the ruling NDA has so far used since the Maratha agitation was reignited on August 29.
Much of Bhujbal’s attack was reserved for Maratha reservation activist Manoj Jarange-Patil, who has been spearheading the community’s demand for reservation. He minced no words in running down Jarange-Patil’s “stubbornness”.
It was the first time someone from within the government had attacked Jarange-Patil, who has been unsparing in his attacks, even on the likes of Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Even Bhujbal’s leader, Ajit Pawar, the other Deputy CM in the NDA government and its most vocal face, too, has avoided getting into a verbal duel with Jarange-Patil.
Ever since September 1, when police lathicharged villagers of Antarwali-Saraati — where Jarange-Patil was sitting on a fast-unto-death — the Shinde-Fadnavis government has been on the backfoot, with Jarange-Patil virtually dictating terms. The government went all out to pacify the Maratha protesters, even flying delegations to Antarwali-Saraati to calm down Jarange-Patil and to make him withdraw his fast. It then extracted 40 days’ time from Jarange-Patil to find a way to provide reservation to the Marathas.
When that did not work, the government sent another delegation of former chief justices and ministers. One of the ministers, Dhananjay Munde, even went to the extent of telling Jarange-Patil that he would touch his feet while pleading for time till January 2. Unmoved, Jarange-Patil issued a directive to Marathas to ban entry of political leaders in their villages.
On Friday, though, the tables appeared to have turned for Jarange-Patil at Jalna. As tens of thousands of people from the OBC communities arrived for the rally, Bhujbal first tried to go after the Maratha leader by alleging he was being backed by Sharad Pawar. ”When the police lathicharge happened, Jarange-Patil fled home. It was Rohit Pawar and Rajesh Tope of the NCP (Sharad Pawar) who brought him back and urged him to continue his fast. They told him that Sharad Pawar would come to meet him the next day,” he said.
Bhujbal also defended the police lathicharge at Antarwali-Saraati. Until then, none in the government had sided with the police. Earlier, when Fadnavis had said the police had been told to see that no villager was seriously injured, he drew severe flak from Jarange-Patil, as a result of which, Fadnavis avoided visiting Antarwali-Saraati to meet the injured villagers, and later kept away from commenting about the agitation.
Bhujbal claimed the police were trying to take Jarange-Patil to hospital after his condition deteriorated. But he refused. Soon there was heavy stone-pelting on the police, in which around 70 police personnel were injured. “What were the police supposed to do in such a situation?” he asked, adding that action was taken against the cops even though they were not at fault.
The NCP leader went on to attack Jarange-Patil’s directive for villagers to stop entry of political leaders. “Who are you to ban political leaders? Is Maharashtra 7×12 land records in your name? We are living in a democracy. We will tear down boards banning entry of political leaders in villages,” he thundered.
Bhujbal’s attack has not gone down well with Maratha leaders. “The kind of language Bhujbal used, has never been used by anyone before. Jarange-Patil has never attacked the OBC community. Yet, Bhujbal tried to create bitterness between OBCs and Marathas. Does the government agree with his views? If not, he should be immediately sacked from the Cabinet,” said Chhatrapati Sambhajiraje, who hails from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s family, and has been at the forefront of the Maratha agitation.
Former CM Prithviraj Chavan of the Congress said the ruling coalition was using Bhujbal as a ploy to trigger a friction between Marathas and OBCs. “While Bhujbal is trying to keep himself politically relevant, the BJP and mahayuti (coalition) have conspired to use him to pit Marathas against OBCs,” he said.
Chavan said Bhujbal’s inflammatory comments will backfire on the mahayuti. “The mahayuti may have succeeded by pitching Bhujbal against Marathas, but his inflammatory comments will backfire in the long run. It will widen the rift between Marathas and OBCs, and this is detrimental for Maharashtra as a whole,” he said.
OBC leader Haribhau Rathod, too, did not approve of Bhujbal’s comments. “Bhujbal might have gained politically, but his personal attack on Jarange-Patil was unnecessary. Such an attack will only create a rift between Marathas and OBCs,” Rathod said.
On his part, Jarange-Patil said he won’t respond to Bhujbal. “I want to restrain myself in the larger interest of the Maratha community. We are focused on getting reservation for our community, not indulging in a verbal duel.”