Mumbai: During the five years of the former Devendra Fadnavis-led government in Maharashtra, there was one legislator in the House known to lead the attack against the ruling party from the front, leveling allegations of graft and irregularities, and aggressively demanding resignations of ministers over some controversy or the other.
This was Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Dhananjay Munde, leader of opposition in the state legislative council.
Munde, estranged cousin of BJP leader Pankaja Munde, is now a minister in the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, and this time, he is in the dock with BJP leaders clamouring for his resignation from the cabinet.
An MLA from Parli in the Beed district, Munde is battling allegations of sexual harassment from a woman who describes herself as a playback singer.
While Munde has denied any allegations of wrongdoing, the plot has gotten thicker with a leader from the BJP, another from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and one more person from a non-political background having made allegations against the complainant, accusing her of blackmailing them.
For now, Munde can rest easy with his party having decided not to ask him to step down as minister.
Speaking to reporters Friday, NCP president Sharad Pawar said, “I came to know that there was a similar complaint against the lady by leaders from different political parties. Let the Mumbai Police do its investigation first. We will think o f the action to be taken once the investigation is over.”
Here’s a look at the controversy, the twists and turns, and its political implications.
Complainant accuses Munde of rape; Munde calls it blackmail
The complainant said she wrote a letter to the Mumbai Commissioner of Police on 10 January saying Munde, who had married her sister, repeatedly raped the complainant in 2006. She said Munde also professed his love to her and told her that he can launch her in Bollywood as a playback singer.
In a tweet on 11 January, the complainant claimed that she had approached Mumbai’s Oshiwara Police station earlier, but her complaint was not accepted and that her life was under threat.
The complainant said she first met Munde in 1997 when she was just 16-17 years old. They met at her sister’s house in Indore. Munde and her sister tied the knot in 1998, the complainant said. In her letter to the Mumbai CP, she added that Munde started making advances on her in 2006 when her sister had returned to Indore after delivering a baby.
On 12 January, Munde responded to the allegations, claiming them to be false simply to “defame and blackmail” him.
In a Facebook post, Munde said he was in a mutually consensual relationship with the complainant’s sister in 2003 and sired two children, a son and a daughter, with her. His family, wife and friends were aware of the relationship and have accepted the children, who have been given the Munde family name, the MLA said.
He added that he was also taking care of the complainant’s sister, had helped her buy a house in Mumbai and helped her brother start a business of his own. However, the family started blackmailing him from 2019, demanding money.
Munde said in November last year he complained to the police about the blackmailing, after which the complainant’s sister published some personal material about him on social media.
“So, to get justice I filed a petition against her in the Bombay High Court. The court restrained her from publishing such material. The petition is pending for hearing in the Bombay High Court. Simultaneously, lawyers from the two sides have been discussing the matter for an out of court settlement. It won’t be appropriate for me to say more as the matter is sub judice,” Munde said in his post.
He, however, added, “I also have evidence of messages sent from the complainant’s number to me blackmailing me and asking for crores of rupees.”
The Mumbai Police have accepted the complaint against Munde, but haven’t registered an FIR against him as yet.
Clamour for Munde’s resignation
Following the allegations against Munde, BJP leaders started aggressively demanding that the MLA resigns from the cabinet.
Politically, it is significant as it is the first major controversy concerning a minister in the MVA government, and the first such opportunity for the opposition to put the three-wheeler government comprising ideological rivals Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress in the dock. Moreover, the charges are serious.
Former BJP MP Kirit Somaiya, who has been holding almost daily press conferences to make allegations against the Thackeray-led government and his family members, waded into the controversy, visiting the Oshiwara police station to pursue the complaint against Munde.
He also wrote to the Election Commission, asking the authority to take action against Munde for not disclosing that he had a second wife and two children.
I have submitted complaint against Maharashtra Minister #DhananjayMunde to Election Commision of India for Non Disclosure, Concealment of Facts about Wives, Children & Properties @BJP4Maharashtra @Dev_Fadnavis @BJP4India pic.twitter.com/RlVSElNTty
— Kirit Somaiya (@KiritSomaiya) January 13, 2021
BJP state president Chandrakant Patil also demanded Munde’s resignation saying, “considering the complaints, he has no right to continue in public office”.
Former CM Fadnavis, now the opposition leader, gave a more measured reaction to allegations against Munde. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, he said, “The entire matter should be investigated. Munde has himself accepted this (his relationship with the complainant’s sister). We will make our stand clear once the entire investigation is done.”
However, the BJP was forced on the back foot when Krishna Hegde, one of the party’s own leaders, at about 3 pm Thursday said that he had filed a complaint with Mumbai’s Amboli police station accusing the complainant in Munde’s case of blackmailing him too.
Hegde, a former Congress MLA who joined BJP in 2017, said the woman was messaging him and coaxing him, “to the point of stalking”, to have a relationship with her. In his complaint, Hegde added he found out through his sources that she was a “dubious person who is setting up a honey trap”.
“Two days ago I was shocked to see and read in the media her allegations against Minister Shri Dhananjay Munde… Today they have targeting him, couple of years ago it could have been me and tomorrow it will be someone else. This is a process to lure, honeytrap, blackmail and extort money and I would request the Mumbai Police to file a FIR and take the matter to its logical conclusion,” Hegde said in the complaint, which he shared with media persons.
After Hegde, MNS functionary Manish Dhuri too spoke out against the complainant, accusing her of blackmail.
Speaking to ThePrint, Dhuri said, “She contacted me in 2007-08 through a text message. I generally responded and that’s how our acquaintance started and grew into friendship. She kept asking me to help her with contacts to launch a music album. Then one day, she called me to her apartment and tried making advances. I felt as if there was one more person who was there, trying to stealthily record us. So, I left and then stopped being in touch with her.”
A former Jet Airways employee also made a similar allegation against the complainant Thursday.
The political impact of the allegation against Munde runs deeper than the fact that this was the first serious charge against an MVA minister.
Munde, nephew of late BJP stalwart Gopinath Munde, has been trying to claim his uncle’s legacy for himself. He quit the BJP when Gopinath Munde decided to promote his daughter, Pankaja, over him.
Since then, the 45-year-old MLA has been building himself as a powerful face of the NCP for the other backward classes (OBC) community after Chhagan Bhujbal, and has been attempting to bring Gopinath Munde’s followers from the Vanjari community to the NCP fold.
A starting success was Munde’s triumph over Gopinath Munde’s daughter, sitting legislator Pankaja Munde, in the Parli assembly constituency during the state polls in 2019.
The NCP, which gets a second-generation OBC face with a strong political legacy in Munde, too backed the leader in his political ambitions, first appointing him as leader of opposition in the state legislative council and later, a cabinet minister in the MVA government despite being a debutant MLA.
Serious allegations of sexual harassment have the potential to cause embarrassment to the party.
The party’s senior leaders — Pawar, Deputy CM Ajit Pawar, state president Jayant Patil and former Union Minister Praful Patel — had a meeting Thursday to discuss allegations against Munde. While Pawar initially called the charges “serious”, he later said the NCP will wait till the investigation is through with there being accusations of blackmail against the complainant herself.
The entire episode also tested the strength of the alliance in troubled waters. While Congress leaders stayed silent on the issue, Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut said it was completely a family matter.
Meanwhile, Shiv Sena minister Abdul Sattar quoted what the party founder Bal Thackeray had said to Gopinath Munde over two decades ago.
When Munde senior faced criticism over his relationship with a woman in the 1990s, Sattar quoted Bal Thackeray’s defence of him as: “Pyaar kiya toh darna kya”.
“Munde has himself declared that he was in a relationship with the complainant’s sister and had two children with her. He did not hide anything. Pyaar kiya toh darna kya,” he added.
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