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The Rediff Special/ Thackeray vs Bhujbal

Maharashtra's Political Rivalry No 1

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Shounak Nachare in Bombay

"Whoever shows the guts to put Balasaheb behind bars will have his guts pulled out." With this unseemly calling of attention, a young Shiv Sainik swaggers through a crowded Bombay market, warning shopkeepers to down shutters. He has just obtained an engineering diploma from the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute, one of the city's prestigious educational institutions, but he behaves like a gifted goon with the flash and cold nerve to force terrified traders to their knees.

The moment "Saheb" is arrested, the youngster -- Chhagan Bhujbal, Sena shakha pramukh from Chinchpokli to Chinchbunder -- goes on the rampage, destroying public property in Mazgaon and wreaking similar havoc in its vicinity. Bombay burns for four days, and seeing the destruction all around, a satisfied Bhujbal says: "They won't dare touch Saheb again," making Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray immensely proud of "the courageous boy's exploits".

This was in February 1969. Today, Bhujbal has done what so many Congress governments didn't have the courage to even contemplate. He has asked the Bombay police to prosecute Bal Thackeray for his inflammatory writings during the 1992-93 riots and is impatient to see his former guru behind bars.

And Thackeray now sees "the courageous boy" as "a serpent in human form".

"I don't even want to take his name. He was a nobody. I gave him plum posts, made him Bombay mayor not once but twice. None of my other men got to be mayor twice. He acquired fame and recognition and then stabbed the Sena in the back," says an angry Thackeray.

Bhujbal says Thackeray is forgetting what he did for the Sena. "I was responsible for the Sena's spread in rural Maharashtra. Other Sena leaders didn't know where Marathwada and Vidarbha stood on the map, I showed them the way out of Bombay."

Rubbishing this claim, Thackeray says: "All my men campaigned extensively along with me in the rural areas. We didn't win rural Maharashtra because of him. He's a big liar. I'll give you an example of his haramkhori (treachery). He took a bottle of wine from Manohar Joshi. It was Joshi's birthday and he was given two bottles by his daughter. He gave one to Bhujbal and Bhujbal, gulping it down greedily, asked Joshi where he could buy the brand because he had liked it a lot. Fifteen days later, he quit the Sena and showered abuse on Joshi."

Bhujbal sees nothing wrong in this. "After all, I learnt from Joshi how to politely stab others in the back."

The conflict between the street-fighter Bhujbal and the suave Joshi was fundamental, but Thackeray and Bhujbal had an extraordinary bond as guru and shishya for years. "Bhujbal got a lot of importance from Thackeray, often at the cost of other, more deserving candidates," says a veteran Sena politician.

Bhujbal became a corporator in 1973 and was made leader of the House in the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1978. In 1985 he became the Sena's first member of the state legislative assembly and was appointed Bombay mayor the same year. "I want to make him mayor for all five years," a proud Thackeray then said in praise of Bhujbal (the mayor's term was one year).

For the Sena chief's wife, Meena, Bhujbal was like a son, and Thackeray himself played indulgent father, methodically propelling him ahead of other Sena politicians. By the mid-80s, Thackeray had set up Bhujbal as the only challenger to Joshi for the number two slot in the party.

When Bhujbal traversed the whole of Maharashtra between 1985 and 1990 to expand the Sena's base, he unfailingly noted, wherever he went, that he was only carrying Thackeray's message to the people. While the Sena chief glorified him as "one of my most loyal lieutenants", his bhakta, underlining his devotion, proclaimed: "My future is in the hands of Senapati Balasaheb Thackeray. Only he can decide on it. He is the supreme commander and can send me anywhere he wants."

Along with Bhujbal's political promotion came the sharpening of his rift with Joshi. The undercurrent of tension turned into a full-blown war in 1990, when Joshi grabbed the post of leader of the Opposition in the assembly despite Bhujbal's just claim to the position. But even as he slammed Joshi publicly for getting an undeserved honour, Bhujbal swore allegiance to Thackeray. "There's no question of going against his decision. His word is final for me, and I haven't said a word against him."

But a note of discord had crept into the guru-shishya symphony. Breaking point came when Thackeray lambasted Bhujbal at a gathering of Sena MLAs for undertaking a "Congress-style" signature campaign to grab the opposition leader's post. Unable to take the drubbing, Bhujbal switched over to the Congress in December 1991, triggering a political trembler in Maharashtra. Even on the day he quit the Sena, Bhujbal hailed Thackeray: "I feel very sad I have to leave Balasaheb. I have always worshipped him."

When Thackeray reacted to his defection furiously, Bhujbal said: "He knows he has lost one of his favourites." He was right.

But soon respect was replaced by recrimination. "Senapati Balasaheb" became "T Balu" and Bhujbal's political identity as a Congressman came to be inextricably linked to his criticism of the Sena chief. He could never play a perfect Congressman, but he could act as a biting opponent of Thackeray, someone who could give the tiger a taste of his own medicine.

He fulfilled this role effectively. The Shiv Sena goons' attacks on his bungalow in 1997 led to more vocal and acerbic attacks on his one-time mentor. Thackeray, on his part, labelled Bhujbal "Lakhoba Lokhande", a character from a popular Marathi play who is the very symbol of treachery and evil.

The labels "T Balu" and "Lakhoba," used and abused unendingly by both camps, have now come to occupy a special place in the political idiom of Maharashtra.

"I don't mind going to jail, but not for this home minister," Thackeray said recently. Bhujbal was ready with his retort: "Bal Thackeray should not think he's above the law, I'll show him his place."

The wheel has come a full circle.

Immediately after he quit the Sena, Bhujbal was asked if he would work to politically finish Thackeray and his outfit. "I am too small for Balasaheb. I cannot fight him and the Sena. Both are too big to be finished by someone like me. It would not be easy for me to even take them on."

Still, Bhujbal has taken on this difficult task. All because, in his own words, he's keen to "give guru dakshina."

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The Rediff Specials

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