Out on bail, Chhagan Bhujbal seeks to wrest control of Nashik

Shiv Kumar
Tribune News Service
Mumbai, April 20

Out on bail in a money-laundering case in which he is accused of causing losses to the tune of nearly Rs 900 crore to exchequer, veteran politician Chhagan Bhujbal is seeking to reassert himself in his old stronghold of Nashik.

Battling ill-health brought about by age and a two-year long stint in jail, Bhujbal (72) has hit the campaign trail for his nephew Sameer, who is in the fray as a candidate of the Nationalist Congress Party.

Sameer had been in jail along with his uncle for allegedly taking kickbacks during the latter’s tenure as Minister for Public Works when several major projects like the Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi were allegedly awarded to dubious contractors.

The elder Bhujbal is now playing the role of a farmers’ champion addressing rallies of cultivators across Western Maharashtra. At rally after rally, Bhujbal, who has been an effective speaker since his days as a street-fighter in Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, accuses the Narendra Modi government of betraying the farmers.

Nashik being the main supplier of fruits and vegetables to cities like Mumbai, Thane and Pune, apart from Nashik city itself, the foremost concern of voters is the proposed Mumbai-Nagpur Expressway which is planned through vast stretches of fertile farmland. With farmers refusing permission for officials to even survey their land, the government has had to scale down plans to construct townships on either side of the proposed Expressway.

Land acquisition has slowed down because of the elections, but farmers here are apprehensive about the process being restarted should the BJP-Shiv Sena combine do well in the Lok Sabha elections.

And Chhagan Bhujbal is playing on their insecurities. “The Shiv Sena has betrayed the farmers by allying with the BJP. Uddhav Thackeray had called the BJP government a bunch of thieves and even called the loan-waiver scheme a big scam. Now, he has tied up with the BJP,” Bhujbal said at a rally.

Among those who are veering towards the Bhujbals include onion farmers who have been forced to sell their produce at Lasalgaon and Pimpalgaon for a pittance despite the state and central  governments promising a Minimum Support Price for their crop.

The Shiv Sena has fielded sitting MP Hemant Godse from this seat.

Bhujbal can, however, draw comfort from the fact that no sitting MP has managed to get re-elected since 1952 from the Nashik Lok Sabha seat.

Only in 1971 did Bhanudas Kavade of the Congress party get re-elected. Sameer himself had won the Lok Sabha seat in 2009 before his uncle unsuccessfully entered the fray in 2014.

In this round, Sameer can expect rebel BJP leader Manikrao Kokate to cut into his rival’s votes. On the other hand, Pawan Pawar of Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) can eat into some of his vote-share.

Belonging to the Mali community, the Bhujbals had for long headed a patronage network of cultivators in Nashik. Apart from a swanky Knowledge City, the Bhujbals control a string of educational institutions and companies under the Armstrong banner.

Bhujbal himself has indicated that he would be contesting the forthcoming Assembly elections from his old seat at Yeola, while his son Pankaj is sitting MLA from Nandgaon. Both these seats fall in the
neighbouring Dindori Lok Sabha constituency.

RELATED Co-accused files fresh bail plea