BJP in a double bind over striking a balance between Sushant, Kangana

The BJP in Maharashtra was cornered when it weighed in on Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s side after he demanded a CBI probe into Rajput’s death
Homicide or suicide? It seems the original objective of the inquiry into actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s sudden death was obscured by events unrelated to the tragedy. The side stories ranged from a relationship gone awry to Bollywood’s female actors doing drugs, shady substance vendors, and tongue lashings and moral lessons imparted by the film industry's self-assumed sentinels of uprightness. 


The plot and sub-plots dragged Maharashtra’s politicians in the hoop, but not inadvertently because it was apparent that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wanted to rack up political points over the Shiv Sena, its principal opponent, and use the Rajput issue in the Bihar polls.



Yet, the BJP in Maharashtra was cornered when it weighed in on Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s side after he demanded a CBI probe into Rajput’s death. Or when the BJP’s central unit endorsed actor Kangana Ranaut’s full-throated attack on the Maharashtra government and the Mumbai police for the “shoddy” investigations and “encouraging” the drug mafia. The Sena, whose politics revolves around regionalism and Maharashtra’s “pride”, took the BJP to task for “offending” the state police and endorsing Ranaut’s “Mumbai is PoK” assertion.


The BJP distanced itself from her egregious remark but some damage was done. Are the BJP and Devendra Fadnavis, former Maharashtra CM, in a quandary over making a political choice that allows them to balance regional sentiment with electoral imperatives in Bihar?  Fadnavis was assigned the charge of the Bihar polls as prabhari with Bhupender Yadav, general secretary.


“There is no dilemma,” stated Madhav Bhandari, Maharashtra BJP vice-president, adding, “Kangana is a Sena and media preoccupation. The Sena is in the dock because people are talking about its patronage of the drug mafia. If we have to corner the Sena, we can do it on the government’s handling of Covid19 and farmers’ issues.”


On the other hand, Sanjay Raut, Rajya Sabha MP and Sena’s chief spokesperson, stressed by attacking the state administration and police, the BJP had “hurt” Maharashtra. “This is a difficult period when all Marathi people of Maharashtra should unite,” wrote Raut in his weekly column Rokhthok in the Sena mouthpiece Saamna.


The battle was occasioned when Gupteshwar Pandey, Bihar’s former director-general of police, despatched his officers to Mumbai to act on a complaint filed in Patna by Rajput’s father K K Singh against the actor's partner, Rhea Chakraborty. The visiting contingent refused to quarantine itself on arrival in Mumbai. When the cops were told to, Pandey accused the Mumbai police of causing hindrances. Later, after the apex court ordered a CBI probe, Pandey and the Bihar BJP adopted Rajput as “son of Bihar” and said the demand for “reparation” was an “emotive” matter for the people of Bihar. Sena sources said now that Pandey retired voluntarily to contest the Bihar elections, their charge that he was “out to play politics in Maharashtra” stood vindicated.


Fadnavis maintained he did not have to do a “balancing act”. He told Business Standard: “I clarified that Rajput is not on our agenda in the state election. Regarding a political campaign, our only concern is the truth must come out (on Rajput’s death). If I say that, how does it make me anti-Maharashtra?”


However, after Ranaut’s tirade against the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, the state BJP forcibly nuanced its response. Initially, half a dozen leaders were deployed to answer the Sena’s offensive against the actor. Later, the BJP just stuck to condemning the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)’s demolition of the alleged illegal parts of Ranaut’s office, an action that was critiqued as political overreach and vindictive by Mumbai’s commentariat.  “The condemnation was necessary because we have the north Indian votes to think about in urban Maharashtra,” a Maharashtra BJP source said. The BMC elections are scheduled to be held early 2024. For years, the BJP was content being the Sena’s junior partner in the civic polls. After their estrangement, it will fight solo for the first time.


In the polemics over regionalism and nationalism, there were voices that emphasised the BJP had to view Maharashtra and Bihar as separate entities and not mesh their politics. Vandre East MLA Ashish Shelar, Fadnavis' confidant, said: “Rajput was a Mumbaikar. Demanding justice for a Mumbaikar doesn’t make us anti-Maharashtra. Our conviction stands strong. In Bihar, the BJP will flag Rajput as an issue.” Shelar was among the first to accuse the Uddhav Thackeray government of obstructing police investigations.


Kandivli legislator Atul Bhatkhalkar — who wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposing the dismissal of Param Bir Singh, Mumbai police chief, for “causing grave damage to the cause of justice” in the Rajput probe — asked: “Wasn’t it the Congress, the Sena’s present ally, that opposed the Samyukta Maharashtra movement and making Mumbai part of Maharashtra?” Before Maharashtra and Gujarat were carved out as separate states in 1960, Mumbai’s influential Gujarat business lobby insisted on taking away the port city but couldn’t in the end.


Raut felt “beyond a point”, Fadnavis will have to privilege Maharashtra over Bihar. “We will watch his Bihar campaign. In the end, he will have to come back to his home state to do politics,” said the Sena leader.

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