By Seema Kamdar
A decade after leaving the Shiv Sena and after winning a Lok Sabha election for the Congress, Sanjay Nirupam still has to prove his credentials as a loyalist.
Curiously, this is the fate of all Bal Thackeray’s favourites who fell out with him and walked over to centrist parties like the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Their defection was motivated by what they had viewed as greener pastures. Each of them left with stars in their eyes and promises of a bigger future. However, as it turns out, they are still to find their moorings in the new outfits.
In the Sena, Nirupam rose quickly to become the blue-eyed boy of Bal Thackeray. He was entrusted with editing the Hindi evening publication, ‘Dopahar ka Saamana’ and liaised confidently with the media and important people on behalf of Thackeray. When internal politics got the better of him, he quit the Shiv Sena in 2005 to join the Congress.
His primary issue was that he was feeling sidelined. However, Nirupam has never felt settled since. To the Congress rank and file, he is still an outsider. He has had to forever contend with party heavyweights like Kripashankar Singh, Murli Deora and Gurudas Kamat, who have often closed ranks against him. His tendency to speak his mind, a quality honed in the Shiv Sena, has brought him more bad blood. Just when he had begun despairing that he would never become Mumbai Congress chief, his wrestling gambits eventually paid off. Now that he has bagged the post, he is now hoping to also bag the power that goes with it, apart from fending off collusive attacks from his formidable opponents.
Charged with treason – the ultimate sin in a party that primarily finds it strength in loyalty to the Nehru family – for permitting the publication of an article critical of the Nehru dynasty, he appears to have fought his way right into the wall.
Intriguingly, his fate is similar to that of his colleagues from the Shiv Sena who have also made a mid-career switch to the Congress or the NCP. If anything, their horoscopes have been more chequered than they would have been in the Sena.
The first key Sena player to quit Bal Thackeray’s side was Chhagan Bhujbal in 1991. He felt humiliated when Thackeray named Manohar Joshi as the leader of the opposition in the legislative assembly. All Thackeray’s pumping had led him to believe he was next only to Thackeray. He reckoned that better prospects awaited him outside. For Sharad Pawar, Bhujbal was a big draw as he wanted to dispel the common perception of NCP as a Maratha party and improve its base among the OBCs. But once in, Bhujbal not only never managed to get the much-coveted chief minister’s chair, he had to claw his way up through the fortified second rung to claim a ministership. And when there, he was rarely taken into confidence over any important decision.
In one incident which is not well-known, the wily Sharad Pawar had to take a step back because of the internal opposition to Bhujbal. In 1999, Chhagan Bhujbal was first sworn in as deputy chief minister. Miffed that his party was denied the chief minister’s chair, Pawar directed all NCP ministers to report to Bhujbal instead of Vilasrao Deshmukh. But this time, his plans were foiled by his own people. NCP stalwarts like Ajit Pawar, Jayant Patil and R R Patil refused to report to Bhujbal, an outsider in their eyes. They simply ignored Pawar’s directive. After almost two-and-half decades, he remains a pariah within his adopted party, which has never offered him any inheritance, only guardianship.
Each time Bhujbal has been accused of graft, as in the Maharashtra Sadan case, he has found himself alone. Far from defending him, his party has walked away from him, leaving him to his fate. He has no supporters in the NCP that he can count on. Fully aware of the limitation of his political growth in the NCP, he has often mulled forming an OBC party, and has mulled making conciliatory gestures to the Shiv Sena to negotiate a comeback. As he is believed to have told a confidante, he will enjoy ‘at least some’ visibility in the Sena
Another Sena heavyweight to retain temperamental affinity to the Shiv Sena and have a star-crossed existence outside it, is Narayan Rane. A quintessential Sainik and one of Thackeray’s favourite rabble rousers, Rane’s iron-cast personality does not allow him to melt in the Congress mould.
Yet another aspirant for the chief minister’s post, Rane quit the Sena in 2005 after Uddhav Thackeray’s anointment as the party working president. Initially, he tried to drive a hard bargain with Pawar for the deputy chief minister’s post. But Pawar was unwilling to unseat the incumbent, R R Patil, and offered him revenue instead. Rane squirmed and joined the Congress. No sooner had he joined, he rocked his boat by criticising Sonia Gandhi’s leadership in his typical slam-bang style. It took the might of the entire central leadership and the state leadership of the party to weigh down on him and force an apology. Ever since, Rane has been persistently wooing the high command and watching his mouth at all times. Unfortunately, none of that has helped consolidate his position in the party.
From the time he swaggered along the corridors of the income tax department in gold jewellery and open shirt buttons as a 20-year-old employee, it has been a long haul for Rane. Always in the throes of usurping the chief ministership, his aspirations have been well reined in, if not throttled, by the Congress. Ironically, the only time he could become chief minister, even if for a year and half, was when he was in the Sena.
The one Sena leader who has managed to protect his turf successfully outside the Sena is Ganesh Naik, but that is perhaps also because he has been mostly confined to Navi Mumbai.
It’s not only because all these men from the Sena have made wrong moves in their new allegiances that they are always looked upon with suspicion. The problem, rather, is simpler. The shoe doesn’t fit. The Congress and the NCP have a vastly different culture from that of the Sena. The Sainik is abrasive, upfront and brusque while a Congressman is smooth, calm and rarely uncivil in public. Typically, a Congressman could be plotting to wipe out his rival but there is no way he won’t hug him when they meet. Outspokenness, a way of life in the Sena, is akin to blasphemy in the Congress. Needless to add, the NCP draws its culture, lock, stock, and barrel, from the party it came from.
Unlike Bhujbal and Rane, Nirupam is a genteel Sainik. Under him, ‘Dopahar ka Saamna’, the Sena’s Hindi evening daily, adopted a milder tone than the official Marathi mouthpiece, ‘Saamna’. However, try as he might, he cannot disown his Sena grooming. And therein lies the story.