SENIOR Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Chhagan Bhujbal, who was recently denounced by the BJP after he questioned the rationale behind putting up portraits of Goddess Saraswati in schools, turns 75 today. The celebration will be marked by the first joint appearance on a stage by Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar since the collapse of the MVA government, as well as other Opposition leaders like Farooq Abdullah. A prominent OBC leader, Bhujbal speaks about the need for consolidating OBC votes and the political crisis currently roiling the Shiv Sena, which he quit in the early ’90s. Excerpts:
* Your recent statement on Saraswati portraits in schools, saying they would be better served by honouring leaders like Jyotirao Phule and B R Ambedkar, created a controversy. Do you still stand by that statement?
What I said (in the meeting) is very different from how it was reported. I had said that we should put up photos of people like B R Ambedkar, Shahu Maharaj, Mahatma Phule and Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil in schools because they all worked on the ground to spread education among Bahujans, and avoid photos of those whom we have never seen. What’s wrong with this? Secondly, it was an assembly of Samata Parishad members…I was speaking indoors in front of my workers. How can that be turned into a controversy? I am neither against God nor against religion. But this was used to target me. Some people even performed a puja outside my house in Nashik. I did not object at all.
* As one of the most powerful OBC leaders in Maharashtra, how do you see the future of OBC politics?
OBC politics in this country is witnessing its strongest phase, and, in my understanding, the OBCs have started drifting away from the BJP and RSS. I remember how everything started revolving around religion when the Rath Yatra was organised across the country. Even today we see big leaders spending much of their time in temples and performing pujas while people are suffering due to high inflation. They (people) are also noticing it slowly. I tell them how even the cost of materials used in puja has risen. It is high time that the issues of livelihood, not just of religion, are brought to the fore. I see that process already underway. Just look at the actions and statements of people like Mohan Bhagwat (the RSS chief), which hint that they also realise that the OBCs and Dalits are shifting away from them and that they need to present a more inclusive worldview to the community.
* Is there lack of leadership in the OBC community?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is an OBC… he avoids using that identity. I think a debate on the issue of leadership is of no use — there’s always a leader when required. Today, the community must ponder upon livelihood issues. Everything else will follow.
* Have you decided to revive the Mahatma Phule Samata Parishad, which seemed dormant for the past few years?
The Covid lockdowns forced everyone to slow down but we continued to work silently on the organisation, not just in Maharashtra but across the country. The network that I had established in different states after my first rally in Bihar and then in Delhi, exists even today. We continue to work on different issues… silently, away from the limelight and the media. The media does not give us importance because of lack of sensationalism. My journey with the Parishad will continue, and I am sure it will grow in the years to come.
* You were put behind bars during the BJP’s rule in Maharashtra. Do you think politics in the state has changed over the years?
I was sent to prison because of political enmity, nothing else. Despite that, I have good relations with everyone, including the top bosses of the BJP. When (Uddhav) Thackeray was in power, I met with Amit Shah and Narendra Modi at a function in Pune. Modi asked me how I was, and I thanked him for his blessings. ‘My blessings? You don’t want my blessings,’ he said with a smile. Even today, both (Eknath) Shinde and (Devendra) Fadnavis are good to me. Yes, politics has changed but ultimately one needs to adapt to new styles of functioning.
* Do you think the Thackerays face political extinction after the split in the party?
Quite the contrary. The popularity of the Thackerays has increased manifold. I am experiencing it firsthand in my home district Nashik. People did not like what happened. In the past, there was a split in the Congress.What happened then? The faction led by Indira Gandhi survived and grew. It will be exactly the same here too. The Shiv Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray is here to stay and grow. The BJP is going to suffer losses in the election because of the Eknath Shinde-led faction.
* Why do you think so?
If elections are announced today, will they (the Shinde-led camp) be satisfied with 40 seats only? They will demand at least double of that, and the MVA is going to gain from it. It is us against whom the Shinde group will fight, and we have an advantage there. The BJP will find itself on the losing side.
* The new election symbol of Uddhav Thackeray’s party has a
connection with you.
When I was in the Shiv Sena, the party had no dedicated symbol. In the 1985 Assembly elections, I contested from the Mazgaon constituency and my symbol was the mashaal (flaming torch). It was widely known to all and was easy to popularise. We didn’t have funds for campaigning then, so we used to paint the symbol on walls. It was easy to draw. I won the election as the only Sena candidate in the Assembly.
The symbol was later used during the Mumbai municipal corporation poll and we won the highest number of seats. I believe that Uddhav Thackeray’s Sena too will chart a new path of success through this symbol.
* A raft of opposition leaders will be present at your 75th birthday celebrations in Mumbai. Are you sending a political message through these grand celebrations?
I always celebrate my birthday amongst the people and workers of my party. This being the 75th birthday, leaders like Praful Patel, Supriya Sule and Sameer Bhujbal decided to organise it on a grand scale. They have invited Ashok Gehlot, Farooq Abdullah, Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar, among others. Since Thackeray was invited, it was inappropriate to call Chief Minister Eknath Shinde. We had sent an invitation to Devendra Fadnavis as well, but he wanted to avoid controversy and hence declined. As far as sending out a political message is concerned, the presence of Pawar and Thackeray at the event will accomplish that.
* How do you see your political journey so far? Will there be a change in the way you do politics after you turn 75?
My party is strong and growing in Maharashtra. From the municipal corporation to Lok Sabha, we will target every election. As far as I am concerned, I am like a scattered seed that grows anywhere, in any climate and against all odds. I will continue to do so.