Bhujbal Arm-strong: Once a vegetable seller, now charged in a Rs 800 cr scamhttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/sunday-story-ncp-leader-and-former-maharashtra-deputy-chief-minister-chhagan-bhujbal-arm-strong-money-laundering-case/

Bhujbal Arm-strong: Once a vegetable seller, now charged in a Rs 800 cr scam

He once borrowed money to sell vegetables. Now the man who jumped parties and loyalties with ease is charged in a Rs 800 cr scam.

He once borrowed money to sell vegetables. Now the man who jumped parties and loyalties with ease is charged in a Rs 800 cr scam, and has real-estate and business interests worth crores. Shubhangi Khapre, Zeeshan Shaikh and Atikh Rashid on Chhagan Bhujbal

Sometime in the fifties, at an inter-college competition, a young man had gone up on stage to deliver a power-packed performance in a one-act play. The winner that day was Chhagan Bhujbal, a student of Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute College in Matunga, Mumbai, and the runner-up was Amjad Khan (of later-day Sholay fame).
Those who know Bhujbal, the 69-year-old NCP leader who was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on March 14 for alleged corruption during his stint as PWD Minister in two terms of the Congress-NCP government of 2004 to 2014, say that’s one skill that has stayed with him — theatrics. All he needed was a stage and in his four-decade political career, he had several — first with the Shiv Sena, followed by the Congress and then the NCP.

Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray and Chhagan Bhujbal (in black coat). Express archive photo (20.6.85)
Former Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Chhagan Bhujbal (in black coat). Archive/Express Photo

Much before this rise and fall was a story, one as unexceptional as any. Young Bhujbal and his siblings grew up in the narrow lanes of Bagwanpura in Nashik, where his family lived cheek by jowl with several Muslim households. His parents died early and the family moved to Mumbai when Bhujbal was two. “My siblings and I were raised by my mother’s aunt Jankibai (whom he called grandmother). She was a feisty lady,” Bhujbal had recalled in an earlier interview. Jankibai’s husband was a policeman and the family struggled to make ends meet.

Those were tough days. Bhujbal would later often talk about a family function in his childhood home in Nashik, where he had to dilute the curry with water because he feared there wouldn’t be enough to go around. The story goes that in Mazagaon, Chhagan and his elder brother Magan would trudge from their one-room chawl in Anjirwadi to the Byculla vegetable market every morning where members of the Mali community (the OBC community of gardeners to which the family belonged) would pool money and help the brothers buy vegetables.

The two brothers and their aunt would then sell the vegetables outside their Mazagaon home. The Bhujbals later managed to secure a 35 sq ft vending spot for themselves at the Byculla vegetable market. The bond that Bhujbal shared with his elder brother during those years of struggle is one of the reasons why he took his nephew, Magan’s son Sameer, under his wings after his brother’s death in the early ’80s. Sameer is now in judicial custody in the money laundering case that the ED has filed against Bhujbal and his relatives. The ED is probing alleged kickbacks received by the Bhujbal family for favouring contractors in construction of the Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi and the Kalina Central Library in Mumbai.

Political Leader Chhagan Bhujbal and Bal Thackarey. Express archive photo
Chhagan Bhujbal and Bal Thackeray. Archive/Express Photo

Bhujbal, the man who borrowed money to sell vegetables, would later come to be known as the ‘strongman from Nashik’ who combined opportunism with calculated risks to further both his politics and business. As a senior NCP leader says, “Bhujbal struck a perfect balance between his politics and business. But it appears he took some wrong decisions and entrusted his nephew Sameer with his business. He should have exercised caution and ensured good advisers around him when in power.”

The man, his empireThe sprawling campus of the Mumbai Educational Trust (MET) in Bandra stands as testimony to Bhujbal’s business acumen. The campus, spread across prime real-estate, came up in 1989 and offers multiple courses such as business management, engineering and pharmacy and even has a “rishikul” for children. The Trust also runs Bhujbal Knowledge City, an “educational hub” with four colleges in Nashik.

PWD minister Chhagan Bhujbal during NCP state meeting for party¿s internal election at Y B Chavan *** Local Caption *** "PWD minister Chhagan Bhujbal during NCP state meeting for party¿s internal election at Y B Chavan on Saturday. Express photo by Prashant Nadkar, Mumbai, 02/06/2012"
Chhagan Bhujbal during a 2012 NCP state meeting in Mumbai.  Archive/Express Photo/Prashant Nadkar

“Unlike politicians who own sugar mills and district banks, I decided to invest in education. Those accusing me of charging high fees should know that I have to pay electricity bills of Rs 25 to 30 lakh a month,” Bhujbal once said.
But in 2013, Bhujbal had a fallout with his chartered accountant Sunil Karve, with whom he had set up MET. Karve had accused Bhujbal’s family of misappropriating funds from the Trust.

Over the years, Bhujbal acquired prime land in Nashik and Lonavala, among other places. The Bhujbals’ family home in Nashik, inside the sprawling Bhujbal Farms, underwent a major revamp in 2012-14 when Bhujbal was PWD minister.

“It’s a huge mansion and is situated in the heart of the 5-acre Bhujbal Farms, which has a swimming pool, a tennis court, library, home theatre and a mini auditorium. The mansion is known to have imported furniture and expensive artefacts. It was built in phases over two years. The family moved here in May-June 2014,” says a Nashik-based journalist with a Marathi newspaper. He says very few people among those who have access to Bhujbal Farms — and there aren’t too many — can go to the mansion.

Shiv Sena Leader Bal Thackarey, Vamrao Mahadhik, Chhagan Bhujbal, Promod Navalkar and Manohar Joshi 12.10.86 Express archive photo
Former Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, Vamrao Mahadhik, Chhagan Bhujbal, Promod Navalkar and Manohar Joshi. Archive/Express Photo

“Most of those who visit Bhujbal Farms are not allowed to go beyond the office building. Only family members and very close aides can go to the bungalow,” says a former aide of the Bhujbals. Bhujbal Farms is enclosed within a 7-foot-high compound wall and a dense growth of Ashoka and bamboo plantation within these walls block out any view of the mansion from outside.

About 15 km away, at Shilapur village on the Nashik-Aurangabad Road, stands Armstrong Energy Pvt Ltd, a biomass power plant owned by Bhujbal’s son Pankaj and nephew Sameer. The name ‘Armstrong’ is a translation of ‘Bhujbal’.
The plant, which was supposed to have generated 6 MW electricity, has been dysfunctional since it was set up in 2009. A guard at the entrance claims repair works are on inside and says he is under instruction not to allow anyone to enter.

Chhagan Bhujbal, Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackarey and Sharad Pawar. Express archive photo *** Local Caption *** Chhagan Bhujbal, Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackarey and Sharad Pawar.
Chhagan Bhujbal, former Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Sharad Pawar. Archive/Express Photo

“Trucks would sometimes bring in bagasse from sugar factories. But the plant has hardly functioned — if it was open for a day, it would remain closed for two,” says a tea stall owner outside the gate. Officials at the Nashik District Co-operative Bank says the firm had defaulted on a Rs 11-crore loan. “It hasn’t paid back a single penny. Since Bhujbal enjoyed a lot of clout, nobody uttered a word. The firm again applied for a Rs 20-crore loan. But by this time, the state had appointed an administrator for the bank as it had run into huge losses and the bank rejected the loan straightaway,” an official of the bank says on condition of anonymity.

According to a complaint filed by Anjali Damania of the Aam Aadmi Party with the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), the contract for furnishing Maharashtra Sadan was given to Armstrong Energy and another company owned by the family. Not so far from the biogas plant is Jai Electronics, formerly owned by actress Amisha Patel’s father Jai Patel. After this firm reportedly defaulted on a Rs 11.75 crore loan from Canara Bank, it was bought by Armstrong Energy a few years ago. At the entrance gate, which remains shut, is an Armstrong banner.

The Bhujbals own several other properties in Nashik — besides Bhujbal Knowledge City, they own Armstrong Water Purifier, Chandrai Bungalow, Ganesh Bungalow, an eight-acre agricultural plot, among others. Laxman Savji, a BJP leader from Nashik, blames Bhujbal for making the “politics of Nashik money-oriented”. “All this has happened in the last 10-12 years. Now it has became impossible for a common political worker to fight elections. Before Bhujbal came to Nashik, he had been a mayor of Mumbai. People hoped he would bring in change, but during his reign, only money and muscle ruled,” he says.

Political Leader Chhagan Bhujbal and Bal Thackarey. Express archive photo
Chhagan Bhujbal with Bal Thackeray. Archive/Express Photo

In Nashik, there are several stories of his alleged high-handedness. In 2009, then Nashik police commissioner V D Mishra reportedly attempted to extern four politicians with known criminal records, including one Kailas Mudaliar, who is said to be close to Bhujbal, but the act allegedly led to Mishra being transferred. It was only after Nashik residents took out protest marches that the suspension was revoked.

His critics also accuse him of treating Nashik as his fiefdom, having ensured an Assembly ticket for his son (Pankaj is MLA from Nandgaon) and a parliamentary ticket for his nephew (Sameer was elected Nashik MP in the 2009 elections), while keeping Yeola (from where he is MLA) for himself.

Despite several attempts by The Sunday Express to contact Pankaj Bhujbal, who is also named in the ED case, for this story, he remained unavailable for comment. Over the years, Bhujbal’s real-estate interests spread beyond Mumbai and Nashik too. In June 2015, after cases were registered against Bhujbal over the Maharashtra Sadan scam, the Maharashtra ACB raided his property in Achvan village, 15 km from the hill station town of Lonavala.
According to ACB officials, the estate, which oversees a valley, is spread over 65 acres and has a six-bedroom bungalow replete with rare artefacts. The estate also has a pond and a stream with a barrage over it.

Villagers say the family bought the property and bungalow around eight years ago. “As long as he (Bhujbal) was in power, he used to come here, especially during festivals. The family would always be here around New Year. But no one has come here since last year’s raid,” says a villager.

The politician“Nobody is questioning his politics or leadership,” says BJP MP Kirit Somaiya, whose complaint to the ACB in 2012 brought out the Maharashtra Sadan scam. “There are serious corruption cases which have been established and he is facing the consequences. But if he has done something wrong, the law will apply to him as to any other citizen,” he says. As a diploma student of engineering in Matunga, Bhujbal had attended a Bal Thackeray rally at Shivaji Park, where he was so mesmerised by the Sena chief’s oratory that he decided to join the Shiv Sena. With his bombastic and aggressive style, Bhujbal was a natural fit in the party.

Mumbai: NCP President Sharad Pawar with party leader Chhagan Bhujbal during a meeting with the party workers of Thane district in Mumbai on Wednesday. PTI Photo (PTI7_1_2015_000139B) *** Local Caption ***
NCP chief Sharad Pawar with party leader Chhagan Bhujbal during a meeting with party workers of Thane district in Mumbai. PTI Photo

In 1973, Thackeray helped him become a BMC corporator. Bhujbal would later go on to become mayor twice. In 1985, he became Shiv Sena MLA from Mazagaon, which he represented for two terms. But soon, things started souring for Bhujbal within the Sena, especially with the rise of the soft-spoken and tactful Manohar Joshi. In 1991, at the peak of the Mandal agitation, Bhujbal decided to quit the Sena, saying the party was against OBC reservation. He had by then fashioned himself as an OBC politician, but those who know him have always maintained that the real reason he left the party was because he felt sidelined. After the 1990 Assembly elections, when the Sena-BJP alliance won 85 seats, Bhujbal thought he would be named leader of Opposition. Instead, Thackeray chose Manohar Joshi.
After he quit the Sena, Bhujbal joined the Congress led by Sharad Pawar. He reportedly spent 10 days in a safehouse in Nagpur to ensure he was not attacked by the Sena.

When Pawar left the Congress to float the NCP in 1999, Bhujbal followed the Maratha leader. The same year, the Shiv Sena lost power and the Congress-NCP government came to power. Bhujbal was made Deputy CM and also handled the Home portfolio. As Home Minister, he did the unthinkable, moving against his mentor Thackeray. In August 2000, he cleared the arrest of Thackeray over his “inflammatory” writings in the Sena mouthpiece Saamana. It was a technical arrest and Thackeray was released on bail a few hours later, but the damage had been done and the Thackerays declared war. It took about 15 years for the two to patch up.

Inside Bhujbal Farm: The 5 acre premise houses several bungalows - with a recently added 'palace' and an office is on Agra Road, Nashik.Express Photo By Pavan Khengre,17.03.16,Nashik.
Inside Bhujbal Farm: The 5 acre premise houses several bungalows – with a recently added ‘palace’ and an office is on Agra Road, Nashik. Express Photo/Pavan Khengre

For someone who has never hidden his ambition for the CM’s post, the Deputy CM’s post seemed like the start of bigger things. But ironically, that’s when the slide began. In 2003, he had to resign over his alleged role in the fake revenue stamp case, popularly called the Telgi scam. Though he subsequently received a clean chit from the investigating agencies, he sat out for the rest of the government’s term. But when the Congress-NCP came back to power in 2004, Bhujbal was made PWD minister. For someone who had been Deputy CM before, that was a letdown but it was a key portfolio. One that has returned to haunt him in the form of the Maharashtra Sadan case.

High net-worth: ASSETS ATTACHED

* The ED has attached a 97,000-square-metre Navi Mumbai property worth Rs 160 crore belonging to the Bhujbal family in the name of Devisha Infrastructure. Devisha Infrastructure Pvt Ltd runs a housing project in Navi Mumbai called Hex World Housing Society.

* Besides, the agency has attached two properties of the Bhujbals in Mumbai – Habib Mahal in Bandra and La Petit Fleur in Santacruz – worth Rs 250 crore. Habib Mahal is owned by Pankaj and Sameer Bhujbal, according to ED’s investigation. The other building, La Petit Fleur, was built by Parvesh Construction, a real estate firm. Pankaj and Sameer were directors of the firm from 2007 to 2011.

* The ED is now planning to attach Girnar Sugarcane Mills in Malegaon that belongs to the Bhujbal family.

With inputs from Sushant Kulkarni and Khushboo Narayan