Mumbai: Over 14 months ago, when Anil Deshmukh of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was picked to head the high-profile home department in Maharashtra, many within the party were surprised.
Deshmukh, a five-time MLA from Katol in Vidarbha’s Nagpur district, is a long-time member of the NCP, but is not counted among the party’s tallest leaders in Maharashtra, significant enough to be handed the home portfolio, sources in the party said.
Discussing how his appointment came about, sources in the NCP said he was picked after a series of candidates were ruled out.
For one, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar — nephew of party supremo Sharad Pawar — opted out in light of the irrigation scam probe against him, said a source in the NCP.
“Sharad Pawar did not find names such as Dilip Walse Patil, Jayant Patil and Rajesh Tope (senior NCP leaders) appropriate for some or the other reason,” the source added. “Deshmukh is very close to (former Union minister) Praful Patel and though he is diplomatic, he owes his first loyalty to Pawar saheb (Sharad Pawar).”
Described as a soft-spoken leader, Deshmukh, now 70, first became a state minister 1995, in a government led by the Shiv Sena and the BJP. But never before in his nearly three-decade political career has he courted the kind of allegations that have been lobbed at him by former Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh.
According to a letter written by Singh to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Deshmukh directed Mumbai Police officer Sachin Waze to extort Rs 100 crore a month from bars and restaurants in the state capital.
The entire episode is a fallout of Waze’s arrest for his alleged involvement in planting explosives outside industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s south Mumbai home Antilia last month. In the wake of Waze’s arrest, Singh was shunted out and posted as Director General of Maharashtra Home Guard over “serious lapses” in the Mumbai Police’s probe into the bomb scare, as Deshmukh told the media.
In the aftermath of the letter, the state government is planning to launch an inquiry against Deshmukh, who has denied the allegations.
He has found public support from the chief of his party, who has dismissed all allegations made against him, as well as other allies of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government. However, the opposition BJP is insistent it wants him out.
Soft-spoken, Vidarbha leader from the Pawar camp
Deshmukh, whose election affidavit describes his profession as “agriculture and business”, holds an MSc from the Nagpur-based Agriculture College.
He started his political career from the Nagpur Zilla Parishad, serving as its chairman. He was first elected as an MLA in 1995, as an Independent. At the time, he backed the then Shiv Sena-BJP state government, serving as minister of state for education and culture. When the NCP was formed in 1999, he joined the party, and went on to serve as minister of state in the late Vilasrao Deshmukh-led Congress-NCP government till 2001, when he was upgraded to the post of cabinet minister.
In the subsequent two terms of the Congress-NCP government too, Deshmukh continued to be a cabinet minister, holding portfolios such as excise, food and drugs, public works, food and civil supplies and consumer protection.
He lost the 2014 elections to the BJP, which fielded his nephew Ashish Deshmukh, but came back to the assembly and the cabinet in 2019.
“In all these years, he never faced such major allegations. He has always been a rural leader, soft-spoken, decent and popular in his constituency,” said a second NCP leader.
Deshmukh is seen as crucial to the NCP in Vidarbha.
“Deshmukh is important for the NCP in Vidarbha because they never worked on growing their party in the region. So, now they have just Praful Patel and Anil Deshmukh,” a senior Congress leader from Vidarbha said.
No stranger to headlines
It was during Deshmukh’s tenure as food and drugs minister that the Maharashtra government imposed a ban on gutka in 2002.
As public works department minister, Deshmukh helmed Mumbai’s landmark Bandra-Worli sea link project for four years (2004-2008), eagerly briefing reporters, declaring project deadlines, and even taking them to the project site.
As home minister, he has made media statements on high-visibility cases such as fake social media followers of celebrities, and alleged fudging of TRPs — where Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV is among the channels accused. On New Year’s Eve last year, he sat in the Pune police control room to answer the first call of 2021 — an initiative described as being aimed at boosting the morale of police personnel.
His tenure has had hiccups too. Last year, he locked horns with CM Thackeray over the transfer of deputy commissioners of police in Mumbai, and lockdown movement measures. Earlier this year, he drew flak for ordering an investigation into tweets of personalities such as Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar over the recent farmers’ protests.
In April last year, Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission chief Anand Kulkarni put up a sarcastic Facebook post about one of the minister’s previous assignments.
Kulkarni’s rather cryptic post about Deshmukh said, “All his acts were governed by high ethical and moral standards. Highlights of his decade-long tenure were his transparent, speedy and straightforward handling of two areas: (1) Allotment of molasses to concerned stakeholders (2) Transfers of excise department officers. I have compiled documents of these honest activities and other areas.”
Deshmukh had refused to comment on the issue.
Pawar’s pick in the eye of storm
According to political analysts, it is Deshmukh’s loyalty that earned him the home minister’s post in the MVA government.
“Sharad Pawar wanted someone at the post who is pliable and owes complete loyalty to him. That is why he picked Deshmukh,” political analyst Prakash Bal told ThePrint.
Pawar Sr has been among Deshmukh’s most vocal defenders in the light of the extortion controversy.
According to Singh’s letter, Deshmukh met Waze around mid-February.
At a press conference Sunday, Pawar hinted at a political conspiracy behind Singh’s letter, presenting documents to state that the home minister was ill-disposed for almost the whole of February on account of a Covid infection, being under hospitalisation first and then in home quarantine.
BJP leader and former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has been attempting to question the explanation, aggressively demanding the home minister’s resignation, but Pawar has not budged from Deshmukh’s side.
Discussing Pawar’s defence, political analyst Hemant Desai said “compromising Deshmukh will also dent the credibility of Pawar as the man who picked the minister, and hurt his party’s position in the three-party Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA)”.
“If his minister resigns it will be seen as a defeat of Sharad Pawar because this is a man selected by Pawar. Nobody had expected Anil Deshmukh to be the home minister,” Desai added.
The Deshmukh controversy comes days after another MVA minister, Sanjay Rathod of the Shiv Sena, resigned amid another row, including his alleged links to a TikTok star’s death and a gathering that flew in the face of Covid guidelines.
“The ruling coalition fears that if they succumb to the BJP’s demand now, it will set a precedent to sacrifice ministers every time there is an allegation,” he added.
Edited by Sunanda Ranjan