Meena Menon

The NCP leader’s move raises speculation that he will return to the Shiv Sena, his parent party

MUMBAI: Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Chhagan Bhujbal has withdrawn a defamation case against Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray which he filed in 1997. Mr. Bhujbal, Maharashtra Minister for Public Works, said he had done this considering Mr. Thackeray’s poor health and inability to leave his house.

Once a staunch Shiv Sainik, Mr. Bhujbal left the party in 1991 to join the Congress. Later he became one of the founder-members of the NCP floated by Sharad Pawar.

Mr. Bhujpal said that on August 5 he received a letter from Subhash Desai, Sena MLA and publisher of Saamna, and Sanjay Raut, MP and executive editor of the paper, requesting him to withdraw the case since Mr. Thackeray was 81 years old and in poor health. For this reason, it was difficult for him to go out anywhere.

Mr. Bhujbal had consulted Mr. Pawar, who had said that there was no harm in considering the appeal from a humanitarian point of view.

At a press conference on Friday, Minister for Aviation and NCP leader Praful Patel announced a grand felicitation on Mr. Bhujbal’s 61st birthday in Mumbai on October 15.

He refuted reports that Mr. Bhujbal’s move had any political motive and there was no growing nexus between him and the Shiv Sena. The Sena was still a political rival, he added.

Mr. Bhujbal’s reason for leaving the Sena was said to be the marginalisation of the other backward classes in the party. However, in the NCP, which is seen as a Maratha party, he has been increasingly sidelined, especially after his name cropped up in the Telgi scam. Mr. Bhujbal’s withdrawing the case has raised speculation that he will go back to his parent party. However, politically it is significant that he has withdrawn the case. He also sent a signal to the NCP that he cannot be taken for granted in a party which he helped set up.

On Friday, Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray and a host of party leaders accompanied Mr. Bhujbal to the court in Bandra, where he made the statement withdrawing the case. Mr. Bhujbal said he would meet Mr. Thackeray senior later.

The defamation case was filed in Nasik in September 1997 after reports in the Sena mouthpiece Saamna on July 23 and 24, 1997 that Mr. Bhujbal had instigated the desecration of a statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar in Ramabai Nagar in eastern Mumbai.

The Sena-BJP government was in power then. This led to riots in which 10 people were killed in police firing. Saamna had reported a press conference by Rajendra Agarwal, who claimed that Mr. Bhujbal had asked him to desecrate the statue which led to the riots on July 11.

The Sena had launched a vicious attack on Bhujbal after he quit the party, and after Agarwal’s press conference in 1997, Saamna called Mr. Bhujbal anti-Dalit. But things have quietened in the last two or three years.

“There has been no open animosity between Bhujbal and his former leader. I filed the defamation case because the matter was blown out of proportion in Saamna and Agarwal had made a false charge against me,” said Mr. Bhujbal.