MUMBAI: In a swift decision that came from the BJP’s top leadership in New Delhi, Maharashtra revenue minister Eknath Khadse was asked to step down from the state cabinet on Saturday owing to serious graft charges against him. Khadse, one of the senior most leaders in the state and an aspirant to chief minister’s post, is the first prominent BJP leader to resign over corruption charges since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government was sworn in, largely on an anti-graft poll plank, in 2014.
Sources said the BJP’s national joint general secretary V Satish informed Khadse of the party leadership’s decision on Saturday morning, leaving the so far defiant leader with no option but to quit. Ironically, the OBC leader, who was also the leader of opposition from 2009 to 2014, had led the corruption crusade against the Congress-NCP government.
The party, however, allowed Khadse to make the resignation announcement at a press conference as a face-saving measure. Sources said he was promised a comeback if he gets a clean chit in the probe. But, a second innings for Khadse seems difficult. Meanwhile, CM Devendra Fadnavis announced a probe by a retired high court judge into all the allegations against Khadse.
The senior minister’s ouster came within a month of the first corruption allegation against him in May, when his alleged personal aide, Gajanan Patil, was caught by the anti-corruption bureau (ACB) demanding Rs30-crore bribe. Since then, the minister has battled several allegations, but the controversial land deal in Bhosari (Pune), which directly benefitted his family, cost Khadse his job.
“The decision came directly from the top, with the PM taking a view that such serious charges can’t be ignored. It reflected badly on him and the central government. The state party unit had no role to play in this [decision]. The controversial land deal allegation, which points to conflict of interest and personal profiteering, went against him [Khadse]. The decision is clearly a signal to all that such charges of graft will not be taken lightly,” said a party minister, on condition of anonymity.
Sources said the land scam allegation weakened BJP’s aggressive stance against the Congress, specifically the Gandhis, and that irked party president Amit Shah and Modi. Khadse’s steady defiance in the face of the serious charges also did not go down too well with the leadership.
The decision came two days after Fadnavis submitted a report to Modi on the land deal in Bhosari, where Khadse’s family bought a 3-acre land reserved for industrial use and to be acquired by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) at a throwaway price of Rs3.75 crore.
Sources said the report offered no cover up for the revenue minister, with the industries department clearly terming the land allotment as “irregular”. The Shiv Sena, BJP’s ally in the government and in-charge of the industries department, made its position against Khadse clear with industries minister Subhash Desai announcing that the land belonged to his department and the allotment had been “irregular”. Post the resignation, Sena MP Sanjay Raut termed the move as “inevitable”.
Senior party ministers Vinod Tawde, Sudhir Mungantiwar, Chandrakant Patil and state party president Raosaheb Danve were present along with Khadse at the press conference, to present a united leadership picture. “All the allegations made against Khadse are false and baseless. There is no proof to prove the charges. We believe it is a conspiracy to defame the BJP and one of its senior leaders. Khadse has decided to stay away from the government until the inquiry into the allegations is completed,” said Danve.
However, behind the scenes, legislators, especially from the Khadse camp, were cautioned to align themselves with the decision.
Hours after the press conference, where Khadse claimed to be a victim of media trial and a conspiracy to malign him, Fadnavis tweeted: “Received resignation from Eknath Khadse ji, I have accepted it and sent it to the governor. Khadseji has demanded an inquiry into allegations against him. A retired high court judge will be appointed to conduct inquiry.”
Maharashtra governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao accepted Khadse’s resignation on the chief minister’s recommendation, said a Raj Bhavan communication.
While the BJP saved face by cutting Khadse loose, his resignation is likely to make the party more vulnerable to similar allegations, with a section of the party strongly feeling that the “media trial” won. Fadnavis, who has emerged stronger by showing his biggest rival within the party the door, now faces the challenge of keeping his cabinet together and unscathed from similar graft charges. The CM, who for now will handle all portfolios that were with Khadse, will also have to ensure that his party doesn’t suffer from anti-OBC allegations post Khadse’s dismissal.
Earlier, his senior ministers and rivals, including Pankaja Munde and Tawde, have faced allegations of impropriety and wrongdoing.