Maharashtra Revenue Minister Eknath Khadse has found himself mired in a series of major allegations in a span of just over 10 days. Khadse is the senior-most member of the Devendra Fadnavis Cabinet, and handles many portfolios including excise, agriculture and animal husbandry. In eight days, he has been accused of having talked to fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim, shielding a land grabber, employing a person who seeks crores in bribe and illegally buying industrial land for his relatives. Towards the beginning of this week, the Maharashtra Chief Minister came to Khadse’s rescue and called the allegations “unsubstantiated”. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra, too, said it stood firmly behind Khadse. But the Maharashtra police, including the Anti-Terrorism Squad, is now looking at evidence against Khadse.
This comes soon after the Maharashtra Anti-Corruption Bureau gave him a clean chit initially. But even in the clean chit, the ACB report had conceded that Rs 30 crore were demanded by one Gajanan Patil in the cabin of Eknath Khadse when he was not present. It is not known how he could access a senior Cabinet minister’s office in his absence.
Khadse has refuted all the allegations. He initially even hinted that he was displeased with the arrest of one of his close aides without his knowledge. He said that the string of allegations was a conspiracy against him, and he would find out who was behind it. He urged the Union Home Minister to look into the charges against him.
The allegations have been taken seriously by the central leadership of the BJP, which is keen on showing corruption-free two years of the Narendra Modi government. BJP president Amit Shah told reporters in New Delhi that the Maharashtra Chief Minister would look into the charges against Khadse. The troubles for Khadse, who was once a serious contender for the post of Chief Minister, are likely to mount. Sources in the party say that in the Maharashtra Cabinet expansion, which is slated to happen soon, Khadse’s wings might be clipped.
Last week started with the claim of a barely known activist who said he had evidence against an alleged land grabber in western Maharashtra who is believed to be close to Eknath Khadse. The activist claimed that he had proof to show that the builder in question had acquired illegal wealth and enjoyed Khadse’s proximity. It was not taken seriously by anyone. But within a day or two, the Maharashtra Anti-Corruption Bureau arrested one Gajanan Patil from the gates of the Maharashtra Secretariat (Mantralay) on the basis of a complaint. The complainant alleged that Patil had sought a bribe of Rs 30 crore on behalf of Khadse for a land deal.
Khadse immediately distanced himself from Patil. But Patil was found to have raised the bribe demand from Khadse’s office when he was not in office, the Anti-Corruption Bureau said. It is not yet known how a person can get access to the chamber and office of a minister in his absence if the person is not associated with the minister.
The ACB has claimed that Patil was on the radar of the agency since last September, but has also added that no evidence has been found against any of the staffers including Khadse’s private secretary and the officer on special duty. Although the Chief Minister came to Khadse’s rescue, it is believed that the arrest of an associate of a Cabinet minister cannot take place without the approval of the head of the Home Department which is currently being handled by CM Devendra Fadnavis himself.
The party has come out in support of Khadse. Khadse is known to have held several discussions with Maharashtra BJP chief Raosaheb Danve over the issues, including allegations of proximity to fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim.
“The ACB has given a clean chit to Khadse. Moreover, no bribe has been given or taken. What are we talking about? There is no question of Khadse’s involvement in anything. The party is united. There is no question of Khadse being made the scapegoat of internal politics,” Danve told reporters this week.
But the allegation which has stung the Revenue Minister the most is that of his proximity to fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim, who is wanted for his role in the 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai. “The allegation against him is unsubstantiated,” Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said at the beginning of this week. But within a few days, the Maharashtra ATS and the Mumbai police started to probe “fresh evidence” in the matter.
An ethical hacker from Gujarat has claimed that several calls were made to Khadse’s number 94******67 from Dawood’s wife’s phone in Pakistan. He claims to have got the information after hacking a Pakistani telephone company’s website.
Soon after he levelled the allegations, the Maharashtra police quickly issued a statement saying that no such calls were found to be made on the number. The speedy police statement further added to political speculation in the state. While the hacker has demanded a thorough investigation, Khadse himself has demanded police action against the hacker for entering into a criminal conspiracy with others and committing the crime of hacking accounts.
“If the hacker has done it for legitimate reasons, he should have disclosed the findings to the police first, instead of announcing it in public through a press conference. This raises questions on the intention of the hacker,” Khadse said. He also alleged that his cell phone number was cloned by someone else, and misused. He said the technique called spoofing is old, and can be misused by conspirators to show that calls were made to your phone. But the hacker has refuted the charges, claiming that in such “infantile” techniques, the call logs of the company do not show the details of the calls.