After stepping down from his ministerial assignment, Eknath Khadse, the seniormost minister in the Maharashtra government, claimed credit for taking as many as 189 policy decisions over the past 21 months across the 10 portfolios that he held.
But even those close to Khadse in his second stint as a cabinet minister — he was a minister in the 1995-99 NDA government in Maharashtra too — remember the man otherwise known for his political and administrative acumen, mordant sense of humour and aspirations to become the state’s chief minister more for the controversies that surrounded him during this period.
In November 2014, within days of the BJP winning office in Maharashtra, Khadse took a dig at Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis publicly, remarking that “people wanted someone from the Bahujan Samaj” (non-Brahmin) to become chief minister. Further, throughout his term, he never hid his discomfort regarding working under the much younger and relatively inexperienced Fadnavis. “I hold even more ministerial portfolios (10) than the CM,” he boasted on several occasions, adding that he has spent 40 years in electoral politics and that the CM was junior to him.
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Then, just as the BJP was dousing this dissent, Khadse landed in trouble once again with a remark on electricity farm arrears. “When farmers can pay mobile bills, why can’t they pay electricity bills,” Khadse had quipped, leading to the Opposition immediately pegging the BJP government as ‘anti-farmer’. Khadse was later forced to retract the statement.
An allegation that he had overrided the CM’s powers while sanctioning Transferable Development Rights (TDR) for a land owned by the revenue department followed soon, but Khadse remained defiant that he had acted within his powers in the case.
In January 2016, Khadse was caught in another duel with Fadnavis. While he defended a policy for allotment of government lands on lease at nominal rates to charitable institutions, the CM snubbed him by ordering an overhaul of the policy. The government had then come under fire for allotting land in Versova, in suburban Mumbai, at a concessional rate to BJP MP Hema Malini.
On May 13 this year, Khadse’s office was encircled in bribery allegations after his close associate Gajanan Patil was arrested for allegedly demanding a Rs 30-crore bribe in a land allotment matter. The Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) submitted a status report on its investigation in the matter on May 29, in which the agency gave Khadse and his official staff a clean chit.
“Investigations carried out so far do not show any evidence to suggest involvement of the minister or his aides in the bribe demand,” read the agency’s report, which was submitted to the Chief Minister.
Around the same time, Manish Bhangale, a self-proclaimed ethical hacker from Gujarat, came forward to claim that one of the phone numbers to which underworld don Dawood Ibrahim had made calls from his Karachi residence was that of Khadse’s.
While the Mumbai Police clarified that so far they had come across no evidence to corroborate Bhangale’s claim, sources said the party’s central leadership was upset with the defence that Khadse’s team presented, in which the minister claimed that he had involved associates in Pakistan to help him refute the allegations.
The biggest controversy, however, started on April 27, 2016, when Khadse’s wife Mandakini and son-in-law Girish Chaudhari bought a three-acre MIDC plot in Pune’s Bhosari.
Investigations in the matter revealed Khadse had used his ministerial office to discuss compensation for acquisition of this land before the purchase. It came to light that a month after Khadse’s kin had made the first payment for the land, Khadse convened a meeting in his office at Vidhan Bhavan directing officials to provide compensation at enhanced rates for the land.
This land was acquired by the MIDC in 1971, but records indicate that compensation had not been paid to the original owners.
To his credit, Khadse did take some landmark decisions. As the state’s Agriculture Minister and head of the Cabinet sub-committee on drought, he was instrumental in finalising state’s policies and measures to mitigate drought. A decision to amend laws for permitting sale of lease lands was taken; the government also waived off stamp duty and registration fee for transfer of property to blood relatives.
An inquiry report on irregularities of Wakf lands was submitted; following which a decision to resume all such lands was taken.