Mired in scams, end of the road for Chhagan Bhujbal?

Mired in scams, end of the road for Chhagan Bhujbal?

In the early 1960s, there was an inter-collegiate one-act play competition in Mumbai. A student of Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute College in Matunga went up to the stage and delivered a scintillating performance.

No one can catch him and he was No 1. And the closest to him was another youth, a few years older than him, and his name was Amjad Khan, later most famous for playing the iconic Gabbar Singh in the 1975 thriller Sholay, a multi-starrer superhit movie. The boy who came first was none other than Chhagan Bhujbal.

Known for his fiery style, street-smartness and oratory, Bhujbal had always been an asset for any political party that he has been part of. Whether it is the Balasaheb Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, the Congress or Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), he made a mark for himself and for the party. Once, he had been the blue-eyed boy of late Thackeray and then of Pawar.

He started off with the Sena, became Mayor of Mumbai and then an MLA, but in early 1990s, engineered the biggest defection by joining the Congress under the leadership of Pawar and then when the latter was expelled, he became one of the founders of the NCP.

But today, the 68-year-old OBC leader, who a few years ago founded the Akhil Bharatiya Mahatma Phule Samata Parishad, stands isolated as he spends his time behind the bars. The veteran politician – who had risen from the ranks – having started as vegetable vendor to becoming one of the richest politicians of Maharashtra, is this the end of the road for him? But it must be mentioned that Bhujbal is a known comeback man.

In 2003, his name was embroiled in the fake stamp-paper scandal masterminded by Abdul Karim Telgi and after his supporters attacked a TV channel for a show criticising him, he had to resign as Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister and home minister. But a few years later, he made a comeback and became a minister – though he never got back the post of deputy CM.

Today, Bhujbal, an MLA, is lodged at the Arthur Road jail and so as his high-profile nephew, former Nashik MP Sameer Bhujbal, while his son Pankaj Bhujbal, an MLA faces the prospects of being arrested. The Bhujbal family is being probed by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) in the Maharashtra Sadan scam.

The division bench of the Bombay High Court had on December 18, 2014 set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) comprising ACB and ED to probe the 11 specific allegations against Bhujbal. The ED had on June 17, 2015 registered 2 Economic Case Information Reports (ECIRs) in connection with the same allegations under the provisions of Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).

The 2 ECIRs, registered against Bhujbal, his son Pankaj, nephew Samir and 19 others, relate to the alleged illegal transactions to the tune of several hundred crores of rupees under the provisions of PMLA. Between 2007 and 2011, Pankaj and Samir were directors of Parvesh Construction, a firm which executes redevelopment projects in Mumbai.

Irrigation scam

The ACB had registered 3 FIRs against Bhujbal and his family members among others and investigations were in progress into the Maharashtra Sadan scam and Kalina land scam. The investigations into the bunch of cases against the Bhujbals is being supervised by the Bombay HC.

“The party is solidly behind Bhujbal sahab and his family,” says NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik. However, supporters of Bhujbal point out that he is being selectively targeted by the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP-Shiv Sena saffron alliance government and why his former colleagues Ajit Pawar, then deputy CM and Sunil Tatkare, former water resources minister,  are not being targeted even though their name has surfaced in the Rs 70,000 crore irrigation scam.

“Now Bhujbal is behind the bars and very soon Ajit Pawar and Sunil Tatkare would join him in Arthur Road jail and they would celebrate Diwali together,” said Kirit Somaiya, BJP MP, who is a whistle blower against the Bhujbal family.

“I have seen other governments besides the Congress and the NCP. I have very closely observed the Shiv Sena-BJP government in 1995. But, in a democracy, I have not seen such a blatant misuse of power in the last 40 years,” Somaiya had stated.

The Bhujbal family faces charges of money laundering under Section 19 of the PMLA, diversion of funds and favouritism in awarding contracts besides receiving kickbacks. In fact, Pankaj and Sameer are directors in Armstrong Energy Pvt Ltd, which is a part of the Singapore-based Armstrong Global and Armstrong Infrastructure. “Bhujbal means arms and strong,” points out Somaiya.

What makes the matter worse for him, the ED also linked the Mumbai Education Trust (MET), an educational institution run by the Bhujbals at Bandra, to the scam. The ED has informed the court that the “so-called” directors of the entities controlled by the Bhujbals were employees of MET like the accountant, the executive assistant to trustees, the wife of the accountant, liaison officer, clerk, wife of the executive assistant to trustees of MET, accountant of M/s Parvesh Construction Pvt Ltd, family friends, ex-employees and even a driver of MET.

All the above deposed and said that they were only signatory directors of the said companies and used to sign documents at the behest of the Bhujbals. Over the last couple of years, there were reports that Bhujbal would leave the NCP and return to the Sena as his personal equations with Uddhav Thackeray have been good. Whatever it is, it would take time for the Bhujbals to come out of this mess and resurrect their political careers.

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