Mumbai: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode to power in Maharashtra in 2014 over the promise to do a few things differently from the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government. Fast-tracking stalled development projects and clean governance after consistently attacking NCP ministers for graft in irrigation projects were among those promises.
While the Devendra Fadnavis-led government’s performance on the first count has been good, its performance has been questionable in the other area.
Over the past four years, the opposition has levelled corruption allegations against at least a dozen of Fadnavis’ council of ministers. Former revenue minister Eknath Khadse was forced to resign over irregularities in the purchase of an industrial plot by his kin, and three others were dropped last month even as Fadnavis maintained that the “unproven” graft allegations had nothing to do with their exclusion.
Now with three months to go for the Maharashtra elections, the opposition, though beleaguered after its dismal Lok Sabha performance, has sharpened knives once again. This time, its aim is Fadnavis’ number two in the cabinet, Chandrakant Patil, who holds key portfolios such as revenue and public works.
Between 2009 and 2014, it was BJP leaders, with Devendra Fadnavis at the forefront, who stood up in the House and questioned NCP ministers on corruption.
Last week, in a role reversal, NCP legislator and the party’s state chief Jayant Patil stood up and accused the state revenue department, headed by Chandrakant Patil, of favouring developers and causing a loss to the state exchequer in two different cases. The NCP state chief sought a high-level probe and demanded that the revenue minister step down till the inquiry is concluded.
In the first case, Chandrakant Patil was accused of using his powers to go against previous orders by his department categorising a 23-acre plot in Pune’s Haveli taluka that his department officials had said was a ‘devasthan inam land’ attracting nazrana (transfer price) as a private plot instead to favour a builder. Chandrakant Patil refuted the allegation by insisting that it was indeed a private plot, pulling out a government land record from the 1800s.
The second case was related to a plot in Pune’s Balewadi worth Rs 300 crore where Chandrakant Patil stayed a re-measurement order issued by local authorities after finding that a seven-acre public playground was wrongly measured as part of a developer’s property. Here too, Chandrakant Patil declined to any wrongdoing, but said directions to initiate action will be issued if any irregularities come to light.
Fadnavis hasn’t said a single word on the allegations in the legislature yet. The monsoon session ends Tuesday.
“Although the session is getting over, we will pursue issues raised against Chandrakant Patil. We will take it to the public before the assembly elections and see if there are any legal options,” said NCP’s Nawab Malik.
“This is not clean governance, it is a clean-chit governance. The scams and irregularities don’t matter to this government. The government either ignores allegations and even if it does set up inquiries, the ministers are given a clean chit,” added the NCP leader.
“This will be one of the hallmarks of our campaign ahead of the assembly election.”
CM Fadnavis has in several media appearances and interviews reiterated that his government is tough on corruption and nobody will be spared if any charges are proved, but until now no inquiry has indicted any minister for wrongdoing.
The very first corruption allegation against the Fadnavis government surfaced in 2015 when BJP minister Pankaja Munde was accused of placing orders worth Rs 206 crore under existing rate contracts in a single day, a bulk of it with a single company to buy micronutrient chikki.
An entire panel of Maharashtra ministers had come together to defend Munde before the press as well as in the assembly. The Congress filed a complaint with the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB), which later submitted a report to the home department absolving her of any illegalities.
Similarly, over the next few years, the CM announced inquiries in the legislature on graft allegations against former housing minister Prakash Mehta, who was dropped from the cabinet last month, industries minister Subhash Desai, former revenue minister Eknath Khadse, who was asked to resign on graft allegations, and senior ex-civil servant Radheshyam Mopalwar among others.
Even as Khadse was asked to quit, the Maharashtra ACB later gave him a clean chit. In the cases of Desai and Mopalwar too, the inquires found nothing incriminating, while the action taken report in Mehta’s case, which was investigated by the Lokayukta, is likely to be tabled before the monsoon session ends Tuesday.
The CM had set up an inquiry to look into Congress’ allegations of graft involving his office too though he steadfastly denied the allegations. Fadnavis was alleged to have facilitated a land scam in Navi Mumbai by allowing a private builder to buy land allotted to project-affected persons at a throwaway price. While the report is pending, former Congress opposition leader Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, who was at the forefront of making the allegations, is now a minister in Fadnavis’ cabinet.
‘Won’t dent the BJP’s poll performance’
Political commentator Pratap Asbe said though some of the allegations such as those against Chandrakant Patil seem watertight, on the whole the issue of corruption is unlikely to dent the BJP’s poll performance in the upcoming assembly election.
“The war against corruption is a protracted one. It takes a long time for people to form a perception about a government on issues of graft. On individual allegations, people look at it as a minister being corrupt rather than forming an image about the government as a whole,” Asbe said.
The opposition did a weak job of hammering the allegations over the years for them to stick, he added.
“Now, generally by the fag end people’s minds are made and such accusations are unlikely to impact much unless something really big comes up that is very evidently hard to ignore.”