As the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government in Maharashtra faces another crisis with reports of an alleged second scam emerging on Tuesday, the party closed ranks and three senior ministers – co-operatives minister Chandrakant Patil, finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar and education minister Vinod Tawde, who is under fire over irregularities in fire extinguisher contracts – fended off the allegations.
It is reliably learnt that the decision to stoutly defend ministers facing heat was taken after BJP president Amit Shah asked the chief minister to rein in the situation before the public’s perception of the government hits rock bottom. Shah, who was at the Rambhau Mhalgi Prabhodini, a political training institute at Uttan, had spoken to Fadnavis on Monday about the need to have a better system to handle communication when such allegations are made, and also probe how official documents were being leaked. Sources said Shah also stressed that reports of a divided cabinet and political rivalry must stop.
Following the party chief’s discussion with the chief minister, it was decided to appoint Mungantiwar as the government’s spokesperson on all issues.
Meanwhile, in the latest controversy to hit the government, the school education department’s work order for supplying fire extinguishers to zilla parishad schools proposed at Rs191 crore, through rate contract instead of e-tender, has come under scanner. The contract was, however, stayed in March by Tawde, after finance department raised objections.
The proposal was put under Apex Court’s guidelines to equip schools with fire-fighting measures, but it exceeded the approved budget of Rs18 crore, leading to objections by the finance department.
“On Tuesday morning after reports surfaced about irregularities in education department’s contract, co-operatives minister Patil, known to be close to Shah, asked Mungantiwar to handle majority of queries at the press conference. The party’s senior brass asked them to address the media interaction jointly,” said a senior BJP minister, adding that it has been decided to soon set up a committee that will put in place a better communication strategy and probe whether these leaks have come from within the party or certain specific groups.
“There is a systematic effort to tarnish our government’s image and we will probe where this is coming from. With regards to school education department, there has been absolute misrepresentation of facts, given that the contract was stayed in March by the minister himself and not a penny has been paid to anyone. I was asked to be the official spokesperson for the government and I have taken this responsibility seriously,” said Mungantiwar.
Just eight months into power, the BJP government was hit by reports of its first alleged scam over the purchase of Rs206-crore worth of supplies meant for children under the Centre’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) last week. This was followed by an embarrassing sting operation involving a senior leader and former minister Raj Purohit. Tawde and another minister Babanrao Loniker were earlier accused of misrepresenting their educational qualifications in their election affidavits.
All these allegations have seriously dented the image of a government that claimed to be different from its predecessor. The buzz within the government is that internal politicking and rivalry is at play, leading to such incidents. While Fadnavis is seen as Mr Clean, he is surrounded by too many heavyweights and CM aspirants. Both women and child welfare minister Pankaja Munde and Tawde, who are now under scanner, are regarded as the CM’s rivals.