Eknath Khadse, who once held 9 key portfolios, resigned from Maharashtra cabinet in 2016 on graft charges. He is yet to be rehabilitated despite a clean chit.
Mumbai: Every few months, there are talks of a cabinet reshuffle in Maharashtra. Each time, the name of one Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader features prominently in the political and media circles with a question mark next to it.
This is the story of Eknath Khadse, once a chief minister aspirant who eventually settled as a powerful number two in the Devendra Fadnavis-led state cabinet, but now roams the corridors of the state legislature as just another aspirational MLA.
Khadse, who once held nine key portfolios in the state cabinet, is the only minister who has been made to resign on graft charges in the Fadnavis cabinet so far. While a judicial inquiry has given him a clean chit, the state government has neither made the report public, nor made any move to politically rehabilitate him.
Political watchers say Khadse, who was sulking when the party leadership picked Fadnavis as the chief minister over him in 2014, was deliberately cut to size to keep his ambitions in check.
“Khadse doesn’t seem to have a strong political career now. He has been sidelined by the current party leadership,” said political analyst Prakash Bal.
“Even if he wins the next assembly election, it is unlikely that he will get a ministerial berth or a prominent position in the government. For now, he has been making controversial statements probably to assert his identity,” Bal added.
Khadse intermittently makes public statements that are veiled digs at CM Fadnavis, giving away his unhappiness at being sidelined by the party. For instance, the six-time MLA from Jalgaon’s Muktainagar said he knew who the “Shani” (in Hindu mythology, the deity Shani is known to inflict bad luck) who ruined his political career is.
Earlier this month, he also said he was not inclined to contest this year’s assembly polls. During the state’s budget session last year, Khadse targeted his own government, alleging a corruption scandal in the contract awarded to kill rats inside Mantralaya, the state government headquarters.
“He thinks he has been targeted unfairly,” said a party leader who did not wish to be named. “Many ministers in the state cabinet have faced corruption allegations, but only Khadse was asked to resign. An inquiry has cleared him of all charges, but neither has the report been made public nor has Khadse been made to feel vindicated by taking him back.”
Although there have been talks of Khadse defecting to the Congress, he has denied the speculation so far.
Rise through the ranks
Khadse entered active politics as a BJP worker in the 1980s and helped the party establish a base in northern Maharashtra over the years.
The 66-year-old leader was a strong Other Backward Classes (OBC) face in the BJP, especially after Maharashtra BJP strongman and former Union Minister Gopinath Munde’s death in 2014. He comes from Jalgaon’s Leva Patil community, which used to earlier rally behind the Congress but has supported the BJP in large numbers with Khadse’s rise.
The leader gradually strengthened the BJP’s hold over Jalgaon — from first helping the party gain strength in the zilla parishad, then the district cooperative bank and the Jalgaon municipal corporation.
He made his debut in the Maharashtra assembly in 1990 from Jalgaon’s Edlabad constituency, which later became the Muktainagar constituency after delimitation. His political career went from strength to strength after that. When the Shiv Sena-BJP combine formed its first government in Maharashtra from 1995 to 1999, Khadse, a Gopinath Munde loyalist, first became the state finance minister and then the irrigation minister.
When his party was relegated to the opposition benches, Khadse grew as a strong opponent of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government, which was in office from 1999 to 2014. He was known for his aggressive speeches, slamming the then administration over corruption charges, allegations of irregularities in irrigation contracts, and the Adarsh Housing Society controversy, which led to the then CM Ashok Chavan’s resignation.
When the BJP won the Maharashtra assembly election in 2014, Khadse was among the CM hopefuls. According to party sources, he was reluctant to work under Fadnavis, but the party pacified Khadse by giving him some of the most significant portfolios and making him the de-facto second-in-command after Fadnavis.
Khadse resigned from the Maharashtra cabinet in June 2016, after a series of corruption allegations against him. His decision to quit prompted at least 14 Jalgaon corporators to offer their resignations. Several BJP MPs and MLAs such as Raksha Khadse (Khadse’s widow daughter-in-law), A.T. Patil, Haribhau Jawale, and Suresh Bhole expressed solidarity with Khadse.
First, Khadse faced the heat when the Maharashtra anti-corruption bureau arrested one of his aides for allegedly demanding Rs 30 crore as bribe in a land deal.
Soon afterwards, an ethical hacker claimed that Khadse was in touch with fugitive don Dawood Ibrahim, who he said had been calling the BJP leader from Pakistan.
The final nail in the coffin was a land purchase by Khadse’s wife and son-in-law in Pune’s Bhosari industrial area, for which the former revenue minister faced allegations of conflict of interest.
The Maharshtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) had acquired the plot, but the government did not complete the process of compensating the original owner for years.
Khadse’s kin bought the three-acre plot for Rs 3.75 crore despite MIDC officials having informed the former minister about the plot’s acquisition for industrial purposes. According to ready reckoner rates, the market price of the plot was at least Rs 23 crore.
A judicial committee appointed by the state cabinet under former Bombay High Court judge Dinkar Zoting as well as the ACB subsequently gave Khadse a clean chit.
Over the past two years, the state BJP leadership has pushed Girish Mahajan, the Water Resources Minister in the Fadnavis cabinet, as a significant leader from north Maharashtra.
Mahajan, also an OBC leader from the Gujjar community, is a five-time MLA from Jalgaon’s Jamner constituency.
“It is a deliberate strategy to counter Khadse’s influence in the region and his aspirations,” said political analyst Bal.
“Mahajan has grown to be a high-profile minister. He has helped the BJP win a few local elections. Internally, pushing Mahajan helps the BJP cut Khadse to size, but one is not sure about how much this will help politically,” he added.
“Khadse enjoys support only in sections of north Maharashtra in the Leva Patil community,” a party source said. “He has the support of a handful of MLAs and MPs from that side. As such, he is not seen as a pan-Maharashtra OBC face. I don’t think the party has suffered much by losing him as a minister.”