On Wednesday night, senior NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal walked onto a stage in Nandgaon with an intent to spruce up his son Pankaj’s public image.
“I have never heard him say anything hurtful to anyone. Even if an angry thought crosses his mind, he goes and sit in penance for some time in Mutt,” said Chhagan Bhujbal as he urged the large gathering to vote for his son.
For the 5,000 residents who had gathered, the fact that the person who was being lauded remained absent from the gathering did not go unnoticed. While Pankaj’s supporters claim he is soft spoken and shy, his detractors call him a recluse.
“Pankaj bhau is a nice human being, but he is everything that a politician should not be,” Santosh Amar, a local resident who had come for the rally said while speaking about Pankaj, who was elected twice as MLA from Nandgaon.
Pankaj makes an entry at the fag end of the rally and avoids making a speech. Despite being surrounded by a huge entourage of poll managers, the 46-year-old clearly lacks his father’s gumption and is visibly at unease amongst the crowd in Nandgaon from where he seeks a re-election.
The only thing that seems to work in Pankaj’s favour is that his opponent from the Shiv Sena, Suhas Kande, is a history-sheeter and had externment proceedings initiated against him by the Nashik district police. Kande, who was then seen to be a close associate of the Bhujbals, ensured that the proceedings were dropped during the Congress-NCP regime. He has, however, now decided to put up a challenge before his former associates.
For many local residents of Nandgaon, Pankaj is symbolic of the trend in Indian polity of heirs being forced to join politics against their will. For Chhagan Bhujbal, whose political fortunes have been on a decline since his 26-month jail stint after being arrested on charges of money-laundering pressed by the Enforcement Directorate, ensuring his son’s victory is a personal battle aimed at projecting an image to his detractors inside and outside his own party that he is not a spent force.
The father-son duo are like ‘chalk & cheese’ and are contesting from the adjacent constituencies of Yevla and Nandgaon in Nashik district. Bhujbal senior, who has been representing Yeola since 2004, managed to undertake large-scale cosmetic changes in the constituency. Between 2004 and 2014, Yeola had one of the best road networks in the state along with a state-of-the-art Central Administrative building. It was also one of the few villages in the country then, which boast of a having a swimming pool.
However, Chhagan Bhujbal’s propensity of trying to lord over the entire district earned him hostility and lack of support. “All the people who were with him once have deserted him. These desertions were not because he is not in power. They happened because he had started acting like a feudal king whose interest did not go beyond himself and his family,” said Sambhaji Pawar, Shiv Sena candidate from Yeola.
Bhujbal’s on-off relationship with the NCP and reports of him joining the Sena have cost him dear. Senior NCP leaders over the past few days have openly been taking swipes at Bhujbal, questioning his intent in arresting late Bal Thackeray.
Facing an onslaught from both within and outside the party, Bhujbal is now pinning his electoral hopes on the goodwill that he seems to have generated after the completion of the Punegaon-Daraswadi-Dongargaon canal. The canal, which took 44 years for completion, last month started supplying water to drought-hit Yeola as part of the Majarpada Water diversion scheme.
“This was a golden moment for me,” says Bhujbal. Many local residents believe that the goodwill generated by the water may help Bhujbal sail through and he may emerge as the last man standing in Yeola.
Even though Bhujbal harps on development, he gets the loudest cheers from the audience when he speaks about his association with the Sena. “You may have joined that party recently, but remember that main bhi usi taalab ki machli hoon,” says Bhujbal.