Mumbai: “I am not sad about losing posts. I am sad about the mental torture I had to go through,” said a teary-eyed Eknath Khadse Wednesday as he announced his decision to quit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after 40 years.
Starting as a local party worker to becoming a cabinet minister, Khadse was the BJP’s face for Other Backward Classes and a tall figure in the community. A chief minister aspirant who settled for being a powerful number two, he eventually became just a disgruntled MLA who was denied candidature. At one point, Khadse held nine key portfolios in Devendra Fadnavis’ cabinet.
This is the story of the 68-year-old, six-time former MLA who on Wednesday walked out of the BJP with plans of joining the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
In his farewell press conference, Khadse trained his guns on Fadnavis, singularly blaming the BJP leader for his decision to quit the party.
Political watchers say the BJP’s decision to pick Fadvanis over Khadse as the Maharashtra chief minister in 2014 was a deliberate move to cut Khadse to size and keep his ambitions in check. Asking him to resign from the minister’s post in 2016 and keeping him out of the cabinet despite a clean chit were also seen as moves to keep Khadse from challenging Fadnavis’ leadership.
The leader, in turn, launched several acerbic veiled digs aimed at Fadnavis, now the opposition leader, over the past four years.
Khadse versus Fadnavis
“Khadse doesn’t seem to have a strong political career now. He has been sidelined by the current party leadership. He has been making controversial statements probably to assert his identity,” political analyst Prakash Bal told ThePrint in January last year after the former MLA from Jalgaon’s Muktainagar said he knew which “Shani” ruined his political career. In Hindu mythology, the deity Shani is known to inflict bad luck.
In 2018, during the state’s budget session, Khadse targeted his own government, alleging a corruption scandal in the contract awarded to kill rats inside Mantralaya, the state government headquarters.
The year before, in 2017, social activist Anjali Damania filed a molestation case against Khadse, for which the leader blamed Fadnavis, who held the home portfolio at the time.
Last year, after the BJP failed to form the government in Maharashtra despite being the single-largest party, Khadse yet again blamed Fadnavis, but without directly naming him.
“I am talking about the person who led the entire poll campaign and the strategy. I do not have to take anyone’s name at this moment as people are smart enough,” said Khadse. He had been denied a ticket to contest the election. Instead, the BJP fielded his daughter, Rohini Khadse, who lost Muktainagar to a Shiv Sena rebel.
Last month, Khadse started holding small public functions, calling them ‘junta darbar’ sessions to talk about how Fadnavis had sidelined him.
“He thinks he has been targeted unfairly,” said a party leader who did not wish to be named. “Many ministers in the state cabinet have faced corruption allegations, but only Khadse was asked to resign.” Khadse had resigned as minister in 2016 after being accused of misusing his position as revenue minister. He was also the agriculture minister at the time.
BJP strongman to playing second fiddle to Fadnavis
Khadse entered active politics as a BJP worker in the 1980s and helped the party establish a base in northern Maharashtra over the years.
The leader was a strong OBC face in the BJP, especially after Maharashtra BJP strongman and former Union Minister Gopinath Munde’s death in 2014. He comes from Jalgaon’s Leva Patil community, which used to earlier rally behind the Congress but has supported the BJP in large numbers with Khadse’s rise.
The leader gradually strengthened the BJP’s hold over Jalgaon — from first helping the party gain strength in the zilla parishad, then the district cooperative bank and the Jalgaon municipal corporation.
He made his debut in the Maharashtra assembly in 1990 from Jalgaon’s Edlabad constituency, which later became the Muktainagar constituency after delimitation. His political career went from strength to strength after that. When the Shiv Sena-BJP combine formed its first government in Maharashtra from 1995 to 1999, Khadse, a Gopinath Munde loyalist, first became the state finance minister and then the irrigation minister.
When his party was relegated to the opposition benches, Khadse grew as a strong opponent of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government, which was in office from 1999 to 2014. He was known for his aggressive speeches, slamming the then administration over corruption charges, allegations of irregularities in irrigation contracts, and the Adarsh Housing Society controversy, which led to the then CM Ashok Chavan’s resignation.
After the BJP won the Maharashtra assembly election in 2014, Khadse was among the CM hopefuls. According to party sources, he was reluctant to work under Fadnavis, but the party pacified Khadse by giving him some of the most significant portfolios and making him the de-facto second-in-command after Fadnavis.
Graft charges undercut Khadse’s standing
Khadse resigned from the Maharashtra cabinet in June 2016, after a series of corruption allegations against him. His decision to quit prompted at least 14 Jalgaon corporators to offer their resignations. Several BJP MPs and MLAs such as Raksha Khadse (Khadse’s widow daughter-in-law), A.T. Patil, Haribhau Jawale, and Suresh Bhole expressed solidarity with Khadse.
First, Khadse faced the heat when the Maharashtra anti-corruption bureau arrested one of his aides for allegedly demanding Rs 30 crore as bribe in a land deal.
Soon afterwards, an ethical hacker claimed that Khadse was in touch with fugitive don Dawood Ibrahim, who he said had been calling the BJP leader from Pakistan.
The final nail in the coffin was a land purchase by Khadse’s wife and son-in-law in Pune’s Bhosari industrial area, for which the former revenue minister faced allegations of conflict of interest.
The Maharshtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) had acquired the plot, but the government did not complete the process of compensating the original owner for years.
Khadse’s kin bought the three-acre plot for Rs 3.75 crore despite MIDC officials having informed the former minister about the plot’s acquisition for industrial purposes. According to ready reckoner rates, the market price of the plot was at least Rs 23 crore.
A judicial committee appointed by the state cabinet under former Bombay High Court judge Dinkar Zoting as well as the ACB subsequently gave Khadse a clean chit.
After Khadse’s resignation as minister, the state BJP leadership pushed Girish Mahajan, the water resources minister in the Fadnavis cabinet, as a significant leader from north Maharashtra. The growing prominence of Mahajan was a deliberate strategy to counter Khadse’s influence in the region and his aspirations.
Mahajan, also an OBC leader from the Gujjar community, is now a six-time MLA from Jalgaon’s Jamner constituency.
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