As pressure is mounting on the BJP to sack Maharashtra revenue minister and senior BJP leader Eknath Khadse, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis reached Delhi on Thursday evening to discuss the issue with party chief Amit Shah.
Khadse, a BJP heavyweight from north Maharashtra, is facing a series of graft allegations.
So far, Fadnavis and the BJP have been defending him but with various revelations being made by the media and activists, it is becoming difficult for the party not to take any action against him.
Sources said the options before the party are limited.
Earlier, Fadnavis was considering to take away the revenue department from Khadse, while retaining him in the state cabinet. However, now the demand for Khadse’s ouster from the cabinet is growing with ally Shiv Sena, too, joining the Opposition parties on Thursday saying that Khadse should step down.
In fact, the party put the onus on Fadnavis.
“Chief minister Fadnavis should break his silence and tell what is he going to do,”said Sena MP Sanjay Raut.
In a related development, activist Anjali Damania, the whistleblower in the irrigation scam, began her indefinite fast demanding action against Khadse.
Veteran anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare has supported Damania and is likely to write a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to sack Khadse.
This is the first major crisis faced by the 18-month-old BJP-led government in the state.
The series of allegations against Khadse began with anti-corruption bureau arresting Gajanan Patil, a BJP worker from Jalgaon known to be a close aide of Khadse, for seeking bribe from a person who wanted allotment of government land in Thane for setting up an education institute.
It followed with allegations by Manish Bhangle, an ethical hacker, that seven calls were made from fugitive underworld don Dawood Ibrahim’s Karachi residence to Khadse’s mobile phone.
While the Mumbai police rushed to give Khadse a clean chit in the issue, another allegation of Khadse misusing his position as revenue minister to get benefit in a land deal surfaced.
According to Hemant Gawande, a Pune-based builder, Khadse’s wife Mandakini and son-in-law Girish Chaudhary bought 1.21 hectares land in an industrial area Bhosari in Pune from its Kolkata-based owner Abbas Ukani for Rs 3.75 crore.
It turned out that Usmani was in legal dispute with the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC), a state government body that acquires land and develops industrial estates. Usmani had refused to let MIDC acquire the land.
Significantly, state industries minister Subhash Desai told the media that the land was already owned by the MIDC, while Khadse insisted that Ukani had not accepted the compensation and as such no land transfer had taken place. It is alleged that Khadse would have earned anywhere between Rs 60 crore and Rs 90 crore had they got the compensation now according to the new land acquisition law.
The minister is also accused of links with irrigation contractors.
Damania alleged that Khadse’s wife and relatives were directors of a sugar factory bought by two irrigation contractors who got contracts in Tapi Valley Irrigation Development Corporation in north Maharashtra.
Khadse has refuted all the allegations and said he has not done anything illegal. In case of allegations of receiving calls from Dawood’s residence, the minister has presented documents saying he had stopped using the phone when the alleged calls were made.
The BJP, which made corruption its poll plank while fighting the electoral battle against the Congress and the NCP in Maharashtra, is in a dilemma over Khadse, who ironically was leading the party’s charge against corruption as Leader of Opposition in the Assembly between 2009 and 2014.
Khadse comes from a politically influential Leva Patil community and has strong base in north Maharashtra. He is part of the top decision-making group in the state BJP. He was a contender for the chief minister’s post after the party won the Assembly elections in 2014 but Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah chose Fadnavis over him.
However, he was given the significant revenue portfolio, along with nine other departments and is considered as number two in the cabinet after Fadnavis.