Mumbai: Iqbal Singh Chahal, the IAS officer who was hailed for the way he handled the Covid-19 pandemic in Mumbai, is now caught in the middle of a political war between the two Shiv Senas — one led by Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and backed by the BJP, and the other led by former CM Uddhav Thackeray.
On Monday morning, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Commissioner Chahal spent four hours at the Enforcement Directorate’s Mumbai office, responding to allegations that he illegally awarded a contract for medical services for a Jumbo Covid centre to a company run by an associate of Sanjay Raut, Rajya Sabha MP from the Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray (UBT) faction of the Sena.
The complainant, in this case, was former BJP MP Kirit Somaiya who in a tweet Sunday said he hoped Chahal “cooperates with the investigating agencies” and gives them all the required information and documents.
But by Monday afternoon, Chahal also faced brickbats from the Sena (UBT) over alleged irregularities in tenders for road works for Mumbai worth Rs 6,000 crore.
Speaking to reporters, Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Aaditya Thackeray said he wrote to Chahal Monday, raising questions on tenders floated by BMC for the concretisation of nearly 400 kilometres of roads in the city. Aaditya, however, maintained that he had nothing personal against Chahal: “Even if this letter is to the administrator, I am not blaming him individually because I don’t want to make it personal.”
A minister in the previous Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, he also said that since the “BMC currently doesn’t have any corporators, mayor, standing committee or any other committees, it becomes the responsibility of the administrator who takes orders from the unconstitutional CM”. His barbs were aimed at Shinde, who had in June last year rebelled against the Thackeray-led Sena, bringing down the tripartite coalition that included the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress.
The term of the BMC’s general body expired on 8 March after which the state government, then headed by Uddhav Thackeray, appointed Chahal as an administrator till fresh elections are held.
Chahal, an IAS officer from the 1989 batch, responded by dismissing both the allegations.
Outside the ED office, he told reporters that the Jumbo Covid centres were set up on the orders of the Maharashtra government and that “lakhs of lives were saved because of timely medical treatment”.
On the charges by Aaditya Thackeray, the BMC issued a statement saying, “The proposed concretisation of roads undertaken by BMC is as per administrative procedure. (There is) No discrepancy in the tendering process.”
Monday’s developments sum up Chahal’s nearly three-year-long tenure as BMC chief during which he found himself in the middle of the Shiv Sena-BJP proxy war — accused at first of serving the agenda of the Thackeray-led Sena, and now facing criticism for implementing the programmes of the incumbent BJP and Shinde-led Sena government.
ThePrint reached BMC Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal via calls but did not receive a response by the time of publication. This report will be updated when a response is received.
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Out of favour with Modi govt, close to Thackeray
During the previous MVA administration, Chahal — who was once unceremoniously shunted from the Union government — was perceived to be close to Thackeray, more so when the government came under fire from the Opposition for Mumbai’s rising Covid tally. Chahal eventually won several awards and accolades for the BMC’s handling of the pandemic.
Under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, Chahal was Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to then Union Home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde.
In 2015, not long after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, Chahal was transferred to the Ministry for Women and Child Development. Here, he was put on compulsory leave reportedly after he had a ‘tiff’ with then WCD minister Maneka Gandhi.
In 2016, with three years still to go for his central deputation to end, Chahal was prematurely repatriated to his parent Maharashtra cadre.
However, once back in Maharashtra in 2019, he was posted in plum departments such as water resources and urban development under the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP-Shiv Sena government.
Chahal was appointed BMC chief in May 2020 after then CM Thackeray dropped IAS Praveen Pardeshi — who was seen as close to Fadnavis — as municipal commissioner over charges of alleged mishandling of the Covid crisis in its early months. Chahal was appointed as Pardeshi’s replacement though he was four years his junior.
Caught in a proxy war
Under the previous MVA government, the BMC was under constant fire from the opposition BJP for sending demolition notices to those perceived as critics of the MVA, or particularly the Thackeray-led Sena, under the garb of dealing with “illegal construction”. These notices were sent to Union minister Narayan Rane, actor Kangana Ranaut, BJP leader Mohit Kamboj, and MP-MLA couple Navneet and Ravi Rana, among others.
In 2020, the BMC took a bulldozer to Ranaut’s office bungalow in Bandra at a time when the actor was caught in a war of words with Sena leaders. The Maharashtra Human Rights Commission even issued a summons to Chahal in this regard, asking him to appear before the panel after the Bombay High Court set aside the demolition order and directed BMC to compensate her for the damages incurred.
After he received several notices from the BMC in March 2022 seeking his response to allegations of carrying out illegal construction work in his building, Kamboj targeted Chahal directly by calling for an income tax probe into Chahal’s “properties in the United States”. At the time, Chahal responded to the charges levelled against him by Kamboj by saying, “I have zero properties in the USA. The allegations levelled against me are baseless and an attempt to drag me into a controversy.”
In June 2022, after the Shinde-led rebellion brought down the MVA government and the Shinde-Fadnavis duo took over, Chahal continued as BMC commissioner. And he now finds himself fending off criticism from the same leaders he was accused of supporting.
In September last year, when both the Shinde and Thackeray factions of the Sena were trying to secure permission to hold the party’s annual Dussehra rally at Dadar’s landmark Shivaji Park, the BMC turned both down. While the Shinde camp also applied for permission for Bandra Kurla Complex grounds as an alternative, the Thackeray camp was banking on its traditional venue, Shivaji Park. The Thackeray-led faction eventually got relief from the Bombay HC which said the BMC had “misused its power”.
The Thackeray-led Sena also objected to BMC’s decision to not relieve its employee Rutuja Latke from service citing technical difficulties. Latke was the (UBT) Sena’s candidate for the crucial Andheri East bypoll held last November. The (UBT) Sena alleged that Chahal was deliberately stalling to accept Latke’s resignation under pressure from CM Shinde and Deputy CM Fadnavis. But like in the case of the Dussehra rally, the Bombay HC eventually cleared the decks for Latke to contest the bypoll, which she won.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
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