Maharashtra revenue minister Eknath Khadse, who has become controversy’s favourite child in recent times, is battling a series of allegations — from striking murky land deals to having purported phone conversation s with underworld don Dawood Ibrahim.
Despite the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s image taking a beating over Khadse, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis appears reluctant to act against the heavyweight politician, considered the No 2 in his cabinet.
Sources say Fadnavis has several compulsions to defend the controversial leader even though Khadse was seen as a top contender for his job. In October 2014, after the BJP won the state elections, the 63-year-old made headlines for making public his disappointment at not being made chief minister.
At the time, then Opposition leader Khadse led the BJP’s attack against the Congress-NCP government and was seen as a natural choice for the CM’s post. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah handpicked Fadnavis for the top job. Since then, there has been unease between the two top leaders.
However, sources in the BJP say there is reason to defend the senior BJP leader — from the risk of losing favour among supporters of the Jalgaon strongman to opening the floodgates of allegations against other ministers in the government facing charges.
“Women and child welfare minister Pankaja Munde and education minister Vinod Tawde too are facing charges of irregularities and action against Khadse would encourage the Opposition parties to target them as well,” said a senior BJP leader, who did not want to be named.
In recent times, Khadse has found himself in trouble over the arrest of his aide, Gajanan Patil, by the anti-corruption branch for demanding a bribe of Rs 30 crore, and also over his son-in-law’s illegally modified limousine. The latest controversy erupted after Manish Bhangale, an ethical hacker, claimed that seven calls were made from Khadse’s number between January and March last year to underworld don Dawood Ibrahim.
The revenue minister, however, denied the allegation, claiming that the number was not operational for more than a year. The matter is under investigation.
Another reason that many believe has tied the CM’s hands is Khadse’s stature within the party. “Khadse has a strong base in north Maharashtra and he has led the party efficiently in the legislature while we were in the Opposition,” said a party functionary requesting anonymity. “Such leaders are strong enough to get themselves elected, but they can influence election in 10 other constituencies as well.”
Khadse belongs to the Leva Patil community, which has a significant presence in many districts such as Dhule, Jalgaon, Nashik and Buldhana, and the BJP in Maharashtra has thus far enjoyed their support. Nonetheless, some believe Fadnavis will have to relent if the allegations pile up.
“If he is damaging the party’s image, Fadnavis will have to take some steps to stop the controversies. That would mean asking Khadse to sit out for some time,” said a senior BJP minister.
However, whether or not the chief minister or the party acts against Khadse remains to be seen.