‘Upset’ at being denied ticket, NCP’s Chhagan Bhujbal keeps largely away from Nashik campaign

May 15,2024

Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Chhagan Bhujbal is still seemingly sulking over the ruling Mahayuti alliance’s decision to give the Nashik seat to the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena instead of him. With only days to go before the seat goes to polls in the fifth phase, the NCP heavyweight and Yeola MLA has largely kept away from the alliance’s campaign for the Lok Sabha seat, currently represented by Shiv Sena candidate Hemant Godse.

Nashik has been a sticking point between the Shiv Sena and the Ajit Pawar faction — two parties that, together with the BJP, make up the Mahayuti alliance. While the BJP wanted the Ajit Pawar faction to contest from the seat and Bhujbal sought it for himself, it finally went to Shinde, whose party seemed unwilling to part with it during seat-sharing negotiations.

For now, Bhujbal, Maharashtra’s minister for food, civil supplies, and consumer protection, has agreed to support Godse, even telling the media he will go “whenever he’s called”. The minister’s decision to support the Sena candidate came after the latter met the senior NCP leader last week at Shinde’s urging.

Following this, he campaigned for Godse during an election meeting and roadshow Saturday.

नाशिक लोकसभा मतदारसंघातील शिवसेना महायुतीचे उमेदवार खा. हेमंत गोडसे यांच्या प्रचारार्थ आज नाशिकमधील सातपूर परिसरात भव्य बाईक रॅली काढण्यात आली. यावेळी उपस्थित राहून रॅलीचा शुभारंभ केला, तसेच रॅलीत सहभागी झालो.

याप्रसंगी उमेदवार खा. हेमंत गोडसे यांच्यासह महायुती घटक पक्षातील… pic.twitter.com/WacqwUFy9B

— Chhagan Bhujbal (@ChhaganCBhujbal) May 11, 2024

Bhujbal has previously voiced his displeasure at the seat-sharing negotiations. For instance, in an interview with NDTV on 28 April — before the Mahayuti announced its candidates — he said he had been keen on the seat but decided against it over the delays in the alliance’s declaration of its official candidate. He “did not feel respected enough”, he said in that interview.

ThePrint tried to reach Bhujbal via calls and text messages. This report will be updated if and when he responds. But NCP sources close to the leader claim that a senior leader like him needs to be “invited” to a campaign or rally.

“He won’t be going there on his own. He’s a very senior leader. He needs to be respected,” a functionary from the NCP (Ajit Pawar) faction close to Bhujbal told ThePrint.

Meanwhile, Sena leaders say all’s well on the campaigning front. “Bhujbal saheb had participated in the bike rally last week. There’s a rally going on even now, and NCP workers and district leaders are campaigning alongside us,” Shiv Sena Nashik district head Ajay Boraste said.

Nashik will vote in the fifth phase of the Lok Sabha polls on 20 May.

Bhujbal not actively campaigning?

Seat distribution has been a source of friction between the three components of the Mahayuti in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. While Ajit Pawar’s NCP initially demanded nine seats, it had to settle for four and one seat for ally Mahadev Jankar of the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha.

On the other hand, Shinde, who had 13 MPs of the then undivided Shiv Sena when he rebelled against party leader Uddhav Thackeray in 2022, has managed to wrangle 15 seats.

Withdrawing his name from the ticket race on 19 April, Bhujbal, who started his career with the Shiv Sena, said that he had initially sought the ticket for his nephew and former MP Sameer Bhujbal but that senior BJP leader and home minister Amit Shah wanted him to contest from the seat himself.

On Thursday, after rumours of his being upset over the Nashik seat flew, Bhujbal said at a joint press conference with Godse that he would campaign for the Shiv Sena MP and even participated in an election meeting two days later.

But except for the odd rally here and there, Bhujbal has largely kept away from Godse’s campaign. In contrast, the minister has been actively campaigning for BJP’s Dindori candidate Bharti Pawar an hour away from Nashik.

But this isn’t the only time Bhujbal has been at odds with the Shinde-led Sena. In January, he questioned the Shinde government’s decision to grant OBC quota to the state’s powerful Maratha caste group.

On Tuesday, he even came to the defence of Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) chief Uddhav Thackeray Tuesday after BJP MLA Ram Kadam tweeted a photo of him with Bhavesh Bhinde, whose illegal hoarding collapsed Monday killing 14 people in Mumbai.

“We have a government in the state, and the Mumbai Municipal Corporation is also under the control of the administrator, so what is the connection of Uddhav Thackeray in all this?” he told the media.

Asked about why Bhujbal was not campaigning for Godse, who has been representing the Nashik parliamentary seat since 2014, the source from the Pawar faction, quoted earlier, said that the Shiv Sena has its own strength in the region and it was up to the party to seek Bhujbal’s help.

This functionary also dismissed talks of any problems between the two parties over the seat. “As far as cadre is concerned, Godse was a sitting MP so it was not like the Shiv Sena took away our seat. So, there’s no question of cadre being angry or charged up,” he said.

Another NCP functionary from the region too insisted that it was the BJP’s Delhi leadership that wanted Bhujbal to contest from Nashik. On the other hand, Shinde wanted the seat for Godse, who was among the leaders who sided with him during the 2022 rebellion. “He could not have overlooked Godse,” this functionary conceded.

Despite these assurances, however, tensions between Shiv Sena leaders and Bhujbal are far from over. While addressing his party’s supporters on 10 May, in Nandgaon MLA Suhas Kande, a leader of the Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena and long considered Bhujbal’s political rival, accused the leader of campaigning for the rival Sharad Pawar faction of the NCP in Nashik and Dindori and even demanded his resignation from the Cabinet.

But Bhujbal’s aides dismiss this allegation. “His statements should not be taken seriously,” the first functionary told ThePrint. “For him to stay relevant, he has to make such statements. If he stops doing that, his space will be taken up by the Opposition.”

Bhujbal, meanwhile, didn’t take the statement lightly, accusing Kande of being publicity-hungry and claiming that he was “queering the pitch for the ruling alliance candidates” who are already on the backfoot over rising onion prices.

Meanwhile, Shantigiri Maharaj, a local religious leader and a disappointed Mahayuti ticket aspirant who is contesting from the Nashik seat as an independent, visited Bhujbal earlier this month. This sparked talks that Bhujbal could back the candidate.

नाशिक लोकसभा मतदारसंघातील अपक्ष उमेदवार महामंडलेश्वर श्री शांतिगिरी महाराज यांनी आज नाशिक येथील कार्यालयात येऊन सदिच्छा भेट घेतली. याप्रसंगी त्यांचे आदरपूर्वक स्वागत व सत्कार केला.