Reports of a purported meeting over the weekend between NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Ahmedabad, and a strongly worded article against Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut in the party newspaper “Saamana”, have once again brought to the fore the faultlines in the Maharashtra coalition government.
Two weeks after the coalition was rocked by corruption allegations levelled against Deshmukh by Mumbai’s former police chief Param Bir Singh, the presence of Sharad Pawar, senior NCP leader Praful Patel and Shah in Ahmedabad on Saturday kept the political pot simmering.
According to party sources, Pawar and Patel were in Gujarat on Friday to attend a function in Kevadia and subsequently left for Jaipur on Saturday. Pawar returned to Mumbai on Saturday itself, they said. Shah arrived on Friday evening “on a private visit” and inaugurated a private hospital in Ahmedabad on Sunday morning before leaving for Delhi.
The NCP denied that Pawar and Patel held a meeting with the Home Minister. “This is absolutely untrue and a baseless rumours,” NCP spokesperson and Minority Affairs Minister Nawab Malik said. “No meeting has taken place. There is no reason for such a meeting,” he said.
However, Shah added to the speculation when asked about the reports during a press conference in Delhi. “Yeh sab cheejein sarvajanik nahin hoti (Things like these are not made public),” he said.
Meanwhile, Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut, who was seen as instrumental in pushing Uddhav Thackeray to join hands with the NCP and the Congress, hit out at Deshmukh in his weekly column “Rokthok” in “Saamana”, the party mouthpiece edited by him.
Raut also pointed out that no senior minister had initially come forward to defend the government against Singh’s allegations. In a veiled response, NCP leader and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar said that leaders of the ruling coalition “should not make statements that put their allies in trouble”.
Although his party has backed him, the Home Minister is under intense pressure to resign after Singh alleged in a letter to Thackeray that Deshmukh had asked Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Waze, who was later arrested by the NIA in the bomb care case, to “collect” Rs 100 crore every month.
In a signed article, Raut wrote: “Deshmukh got the post of Home Minister by accident. Jayant Patil, Dilip Valse-Patil had refused to accept the post of Home Minister. Then this post was handed over by Sharad Pawar to Anil Deshmukh. This post has dignity and status…A person cannot work effectively as a Home Minister if he remains surrounded by suspicious elements….”
Criticising Deshmukh’s style of functioning, Raut wrote: “Deshmukh unnecessarily got into a confrontation with some senior officials. A Home Minister should speak as little as possible. Repeatedly going in front of cameras and ordering inquiries does not behove his position.”
The MP wrote that the allegations levelled by Mumbai’s former Police Commissioner had caught both the Home Ministry and the state government off guard. “No senior minister immediately came to the rescue of the government. There was confusion for the first 24 hours and the public at large initially felt that the allegations were true…the entire narrative was hijacked by the opposition initially…” Raut said.
He ended his article on an ominous note. “This government is sliding on a slippery slope and is getting saved due to providence,” he said.
Deshmukh did not directly react to Raut’s comments. He said in Nagpur that Thackeray has agreed to his request for an inquiry to be conducted by a retired judge of the High Court into the allegations made by Singh.
While Deshmukh had met Thackeray last week, no probe has been officially appointed yet. The Chief Minister has also not made any statements in public on the allegations against Deshmukh.
Later in the day, Ajit Pawar said that appointment of ministers was the prerogative of the party to which the portfolio had been allocated. “No one should play spoilsport when the coalition is functioning properly,” he said.
NCP spokesperson Malik, however, struck a more conciliatory note. “The article highlights his shortcomings. But we need to take it in a positive way and use it to improve ourselves. I see it as positive criticism and I hope even the Home Minister will take it in the same spirit,” he said.
Malik also acknowledged Deshmukh has committed “some mistakes…as a Minister”. “His statement at an event about senior officials was something that he could have avoided…The behaviour of some junior police officials shows that he was not able to assert his authority. There should have been strictness in handling the department (police) as some officers were acting as per their own will,” he said.
“We accept some of the issues raised in the article and acknowledge that some mistakes were made. However, we do not agree with all that has been said in the article. It says that he is an accidental minister, which is not the case. He is a five-time MLA and has been a minister for 18 years. An experienced man can’t be an accidental minister,” said Malik.
“There have been some mistakes made by him as a minister. Everytime the media asked him something, he responded. A Home Minister needs to be guarded about all that he brings forth before the public. In a Lokmat event, he spoke about certain issues which could have been avoided. The way junior officers were conducting themselves, it shows that he had failed to stamp his authority on the department,” Malik said.
(With Parimal Dabhi in Ahmedabad and Harikishan Sharma in Delhi)