Even though a lot of allegations have been levelled against Eknath Khadse in the past few months, it was the accusation of impropriety in the land purchase in Pune’s Bhosari that claimed the minister. Government sources confirmed to The Indian Express that Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has conveyed to the party’s high command in New Delhi earlier this week that there was a clear conflict of interest in the said case.
Fadnavis held closed-door meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah over the allegations against Khadse on June 3, during which he reportedly conveyed that the allegations of ‘conflict-of-interest’ in the Pune land deal case were ‘indefensible’.
With the resignation, Khadse joins two former Maharashtra Chief Ministers — Ashok Chavan (Congress) and Manohar Joshi (Shiv Sena) — both of whom had to resign after allegations of impropriety were raised against them in land related controversies. Chhagan Bhujbal, a former deputy chief minister, is currently in jail over charges of money laundering and graft in a land related matter too.
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At the meeting with the party’s high command, Fadnavis reportedly said it would be difficult to defend Khadse in the Pune land deal case though he backed the minister over allegations of receiving telephone calls from underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. The CM reportedly contended that investigating agencies have so far not come across any calls made to or from Khadse’s phone to or from Pakistan. He was reportedly also willing to give Khadse a clean chit in the bribery demand case, where his close associate Gajanan Patil was arrested for allegedly demanding a Rs 30-crore bribe.
The Indian Express carried a series of reports in the past week that raised questions of propriety and conflict-of-interest against Khadse in the land matter. The newspaper reported how a month after his wife Mandakini and son-in-law Girish Chaudhari made an initial payment for purchasing the three-acre land, Khadse as minister convened a meeting on April 12 where he ordered that the land owners be compensated as per enhanced rates under the new law.
There is no evidence on record to suggest that Khadse had revealed to the bureaucrats present at the meeting that his wife and son-in-law had already entered into a deal with the land owners. Another report highlighted how the minister’s kin had misdeclared and undervalued the property. On Saturday, Khadse, while speaking to newspersons after tendering his resignation, skirted discussion of allegations of impropriety while defending himself on other allegation.
Incidentally, the fate of the land purchase still hangs in balance. Khadse is defiant that there is no “wrongdoing” in it. The Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) has questioned the land deal on grounds that the land had been acquired by it in 1971 and has been in its possession since.
But Khadse insists that the acquisition process was not completed and has now lapsed since the compensation had not been paid to the land owners for 48 years. The local talathi’s office will now sit in judgment over the validity of the sale deed between Khadse’s kin and the land owner, where the MIDC will be given a chance to present its side.
Abbas Ukani, the land owner, has also filed an petition before the Bombay High Court contending that MIDC’s land acquisition was not as per law. The petition is scheduled to come up for hearing on June 28.
Khadse’s resignation also signals a continuity of a disturbing trend which has seen several past ministers from Maharashtra court controversies and corruption in land matters. The country’s wealthiest and the fastest urbanising state has seen a sharp escalation in land prices over the past two decades.
The last time when the Shiv Sena-BJP was in power, Manohar Joshi, the then chief minister, had to quit after the court passed strictures against him for ‘misusing’ his office to facilitate a land deal involving his son-in-law Girish Vyas in Pune. Ashok Chavan was forced to step down after allegations of quid pro-quo were levelled against him in the Adarsh Housing Society scandal. Chhagan Bhujbal, meanwhile, is currently in the dock in the Maharashtra Sadan and the Kalina library land scams.
A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report in 2012 had indicted 10 ministers in the previous Congress-NCP regime for irregularities and violations by trusts controlled by them on lands leased by the state on concessional rates.
Two more former chief ministers, (late) Vilasrao Deshmukh and Shivrajirao Nilengekar-Patil (both Congress), also courted graft allegations in land matters.