Eknath Khadse, who resigned on Saturday as Maharashtra’s revenue minister, is the first to fall to allegations of corruption in the Narendra Modi era of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Probity in public life was a big part of the BJP’s campaign that propelled it to power at the Centre in 2014 and the party can justifiably take credit for grasping the nettle and asking Khadse to quit. Khadse held about 10 portfolios, including agriculture, and allegations of conflicts of interest involving his family had arisen in more than one department. Delaying a decision would have only made it worse and the BJP brass stood firm in the face of attempts to raise the bogey that the OBCs would be upset if their senior-most leader in Maharashtra, who ironically led the charge against the previous Congress-NCP government on the question of corruption, was shown the door.
But the days ahead will prove testing for the BJP in the state where chief minister Devendra Fadnavis will now have to ensure that trouble doesn’t break out within the party and the government. Already 14 corporators from Khadse’s home turf of Jalgaon have quit in protest. The BJP president, Amit Shah, has sent a firm message down the line that people should work for the party and not themselves. Mr Fadnavis clearly has the backing of Mr Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both of whom he briefed in detail about the charges against Khadse. This should strengthen his hand in dealing with any dissent. The fact remains, however, that Khadse is one of the tallest leaders of the BJP in Maharashtra and he is known to be combative. Mr Fadnavis could be bogged down smoothing ruffled feathers in the party and also dealing with fresh charges of wrongdoing against other members of his Cabinet. There is also the matter of finding people to handle the critical portfolios held by Khadse, who was one of the few ministers in the Cabinet with enormous administrative experience.
For the BJP, this is a battle it cannot afford to lose, given its promise of clean and efficient governance— emphasised by the prime minister time and again. It has won the first round by taking action quickly and ruthlessly. It now has to ensure that the focus returns to the government’s programmes and policies. At the same it cannot afford to ignore the political undercurrents that Khadse’s sacking may have unleashed. Next year will show how well Mr Fadnavis, and by extension the BJP, have managed because there are crucial elections to the district councils and local bodies in Maharashtra, including Mumbai’s mammoth civic body. This will call for some really deft footwork on the part of the party.