Over a year after accusations of impropriety in a land deal led to his resignation from the Maharashtra cabinet, an inquiry commission appointed by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to probe allegations senior BJP leader Eknath Khadse has submitted its report to the government. Khadse, who was at that time the official ‘number two’ in the Maharashtra cabinet, had stepped down on June 4 last year. Following his resignation, Fadnavis had appointed the commission headed by retired Bombay High Court justice Dinkar Zoting on June 23.
While the commission was originally expected to submit its report within three months, it was given several extensions. The report was finally submitted on June 30 this year. Fadnavis, when contacted, confirmed the development but refused to speak on the findings. “The commission’s report is in a sealed envelope. It is with the chief secretary’s office. I’m yet to see it,” he said. Chief Secretary Sumit Mullick was equally evasive. “I’ve not read the report,” he said.
Highly placed sources, however, indicated that the commission had passed strictures against the BJP leader. “It is now the chief minister’s and the BJP’s political call on whether these would be seen as indictment of the senior leader,” said a source.
The case of the judicial commission’s report on Mumbai’s Adarsh housing society was cited by the sources. In January 2014, the then Congress-NCP government in the state had only partially accepted the inquiry findings. While the judicial commission in that case had indicted four former chief ministers, including Ashok Chavan, Sushilkumar Shinde, (late) Vilasrao Deshmukh and Shivajirao Nilangekar-Patil, and former ministers Sunil Tatkare and Rajesh Tope for “granting undue favours” and “political patronage” to the Adarsh CHS, the then government had ruled that no criminality was revealed against ministers with the exception of Ashok Chavan.
For Khadse, senior BJP sources said, hopes of his political rehabilitation were on the line. A strong indictment will deal a telling blow to such plans, while a softer approach would brighten his chances of a comeback. The former BJP minister, who shares an uneasy relationship with Fadnavis, has been sulking at being sidelined. He has even been firing veiled barbs at the chief minister.
Following the “mishandling” of the farmers’ stir, clamour had also grown in the BJP circles to re-induct Khadse in the government. The sources said BJP national president Amit Shah, who was on a three-day trip to Mumbai last month, held a one-to-one deliberation with Khadse. After coming out of the meeting with Shah, Khadse was for the first time seen giving soundbytes praising Fadnavis’s handling of the farm crisis.
Incidentally, during the commission’s inquiry, the state-owned Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) had accused Khadse of impropriety and conflict of interest in the land matter. The agency, which functions under the aegis of the state’s industries department, had also accused Khadse of violating the “oath of secrecy” administered to a minister. “We were given a free hand,” said a senior MIDC official.
The controversy pertains to a three-acre plot in Bhosari near Pune. Even as the land was earmarked for MIDC’s use in 1968 and the state government had even published a gazette declaring the intention to acquire this land on November 11, 1971, records show that the plot’s original owner, one Abbas Ukani, had approached (then revenue minister) Eknath Khadse in March 2016, with a complaint that he had not been paid compensation for his plot. Even as powers in this regard wrest with the industries minister, records show Khadse, as the revenue minister, convened an official meeting involving officials from the MIDC and the revenue department, where the compensation to be given to the original owner under the Land Acquisition Act was discussed. Khadse directed officials to expedite the compensation under the new land Act. Bolstering allegation of there being a conflict-of-interest in the matter, records show that Khadse’s wife Mandakini and son-in-law Girish Chaudhari purchased this land from Ukani on April 27, 2016 for Rs 3.75 crore. The land was valued at Rs 23 crore as per the 2016 ready reckoner rates, and the compensation under the new land Act for it would be to the tune of Rs 100 crore. Khadse has been contesting the argument that the land was in MIDC’s possession. During the commission’s proceedings, he had also controversially claimed that he wasn’t aware until July 2016 that his wife and son-in-law had purchased the plot.
Meanwhile, Pune builder Hemant Gawande, a whistleblower in the case, has written to the chief minister demanding that the report be made available to him. Following the High Court’s directives, the state’s Anti-Corruption Bureau had filed an FIR against Khadse and three others in the Pune land deal case. Gawande is the complainant in the case.