Maharashtra polls: How did govt tackle corruption?
One of the first, big decisions that chief minister Devendra Fadnavis took after coming to power in October 2014 was instituting an open inquiry against three senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leaders, who have been facing allegations of graft.
Former deputy chief ministers Ajit Pawar, Chhagan Bhujbal and former water resources minister Sunil Tatkare came under the anti-corruption bureau (ACB) scanner from December 2014, thanks to this open inquiry. Bhujbal was facing allegations in the Maharashtra Sadan scam and Pawar and Tatkare were facing allegations in the irrigation scam.
The Maharashtra Sadan case yielded some results as the ACB and Enforcement Directorate (ED) moved fast to connect the dots between construction contracts given during Bhujbal’s tenure and kickbacks allegedly received by some of his kin’s firms. Bhujbal faced imprisonment for two years before he was released on bail last year. But the irrigation scam, which contributed in a major way to not just get the BJP to power, but also damage the credibility of the Opposition, is yet to see any concrete action.
Nearly, five years later as the BJP-government seeks a second stint, delivering on the anti-corruption plank remains one of its weakest chinks. Besides, investigating scams of its predecessors, the current dispensation lost much of its moral high ground, as several of its own ministers faced allegations of graft. While a majority of the ministers got clean chits from the chief minister, the ruling party lost its tagline of ‘a party with the difference’.
Irrigation Scam Inquiry, A Damp Squib
“The irrigation scam inquiry can go on infinitely. That’s because of the way the investigation has have been done and FIRs have been filed allowing for loopholes that can then be challenged by the accused. The FIRs are not filed on the basis of extensive documents collated by us and at one point even by the now CM Fadnavis,’’ said Firdaus Mirza, lawyer for a non-government organization, Jan Manch.
Mirza has been tracking the Jan Manch petition in the scam from 2012 to 2019. The organization first exposed the scam in the Vidarbha irrigation projects through voluminous documents collated under the Right to Information Act. The documents showcased fraud, abuse of power and siphoning off money in granting clearances and giving cost escalations to irrigation projects in Vidarbha and pointed to Pawar as the centre of the scam. In the past seven years and despite ongoing ACB probe, little has been achieved even though 24 criminal complaints have been filed. “What we have seen is that getting sanctions for prosecution of public servants takes time and in many cases, they move court challenging the action as it could be time barred, etc. As far as the role of former minister Ajit Pawar is concerned, nothing has moved, despite an affidavit by the ACB stating that he was a part of the modus operandi,” said Mirza.
The affidavit filed in November 2018 stated: “What ACB has observed in the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) inquiry was a clear pattern with sinister similarity of a criminal conspiracy to defraud the government under the garb of subverted and sham procedures and through instrumentality of minions in the department and the VIDC.”
It said Pawar’s role was suspect. But since the affidavit, there has been no progress.
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In the Konkan irrigation scam, the progress is even slower with charge sheets filed in only two out of the 13 projects that are to be investigated. In both the charge sheets, the ministers – Tatkare and Pawar – reference is on the last page, saying their role is yet to be investigated. In the past three years, trials haven’t moved an inch in either Balganga or Kondhane case.
“There is no status quo. I can only say that investigations are underway. We have now sought sanction for filing charge sheet in the Kalu dam case,” said Mahesh Patil, superintendent of police, ACB (Thane unit).
“From 2012 to 2019, the government has failed to take any action in this scam. The irrigation scam inquiry exposes the true face of politics, whether it is Ajit Pawar or Girish Mahajan (current minister). Whether it’s the BJP, NCP, Congress or Shiv Sena, each party only wants a share in the pie. Allegations are made only to scare and silence,” said social activist Anjali Damania, who exposed the Konkan irrigation scam and filed petition in the HC in the matter.
“As a party, our stance has been clear from day one that these probes will follow the law and the government will not interfere in them. We have done that whether it is the irrigation scam or Maharashtra Sadan or the MSC bank scam,” said BJP spokesperson Keshav Upadhyay.
However, activists said that more than the government, it was the HC orders that ensured action was taken in any of the above mentioned scams. “If not for court intervention in several of these cases from Bhujbal and Pawar to former revenue minister Eknath Khadse, these scam allegations would have been wrapped up by the government,” said Damania.
The Clean Chit Government?
Within less than two years of coming to power, the BJP lost one of its senior most ministers to allegations of graft. Former revenue minister Eknath Khadse was asked to resign after he faced allegations of quid pro quo in the purchase of a 3 acre plot in Bhosari.
In many ways, BJP insiders admit he was the fall guy and every next minister, who faced allegations got shielded. Even former state housing minister Prakash Mehta, who faced serious allegations in a slum rehabilitation scam, was protected for two years and was indirectly removed from the cabinet in the recent reshuffle.
While both Khadse and Mehta got booted out of the cabinet, they have not faced criminal action. The former got a clean chit from the ACB that exonerated the former minister on the grounds that he did not know his wife and son-in-law brought the plot of land where he had intervened as a minister. In Mehta’s case, the Lokayukta inquiry report has still not been made public.
With regards to nearly a dozen other ministers who faced various allegations, the CM has given them clean chits, earning the sobriquet of Mr Clean Chit CM from the Opposition.
In at least four instances, the government instituted inquiries in the allegations, but ministers were not indicted in these probes.
The Opposition has levelled charges of graft in as many as 21 cases, which were all termed as baseless by the government. The latest allegation has been over ₹1,000-crore scam in the construction of the Shivaji memorial in the Arabian Sea, wherein the government negotiated with the contractor in violation of set norms.
“As a government, we have made it clear that corruption will not be tolerated and hence two ministers were directly or indirectly made to resign. But that does not mean we have to take every flimsy allegation by the Opposition seriously. If they have evidence, let them move court. So far, they have failed to do so,” said a senior BJP minister.
“The administration and the government has been emboldened by the BJP government’s stance that corruption will not be punished. Fadnavis has even given a clean chit to a minister, whose name was there in a CBI charge sheet. And, the BJP has taken on tainted Opposition leaders. It’s time that the voters read the message,” said Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant, who has uncovered several cases of wrongdoing in the government.