Dharmendra Jore: To be or not to be...
That's the dilemma the chief minister faces in taking a decision in the case of housing minister Prakash Mehta, who is facing serious corruption allegations
A BJP veteran, Prakash Mehta has been lording over his Assembly constituency, which comprises a part of very resourceful and happy-go-lucky Gujarati community-dominated Ghatkopar. Such has been his elective merit there that neither opponents nor a sceptical BJP will doubt the outcome in his favour.
By next Assembly polls, an unconquered Mehta will complete three decades in the state legislature that has been witness to changing fortunes of political parties. He represented Ghatkopar in the Lower House, mostly as an Opposition member. He shifted to the ruling benches in 2014, that too in a seat at the front by virtue of being a Cabinet minister.
Rising through the ranks
As an Opposition member, Mehta rarely troubled the successive Congress and NCP governments. He restricted himself to extending support to what firebrands in the BJP ranks spoke against the government. He was seen as an MLA who ensured that development works in his constituency did not stop, and most importantly, someone who saw to it that businesses of his family and friends did not suffer owing to questions raised in the House.
Like Mehta, the BJP has many other legislators and leaders who scaled up their respective businesses to unparalleled levels during the Congress-NCP regime. While several others in this category did not get into the Devendra Fadnavis council of ministers, Mehta paved his way to the housing department. People say he got the job, which previous chief ministers had been keeping for themselves, because of blessings from the BJP high command.
Perhaps, the CM too agreed with the fact that Mehta's experience in the housing sector would help him in reforms. Housing and urban development (which is with the CM) are the two crucial departments that are difficult to understand for laypersons.
A lot of bother
The very housing department in which Mehta wasn't seen as a leader fit for public policymaking has landed BJP in trouble. He faces charges of irregularities, nepotism, quid pro quo, and favouritism, which allegedly gave or would give enormous monetary benefits to his kin and private real estate companies. It has been established by both Mehta and Fadnavis that the minister did not keep the CM in the loop while illegally transferring FSI from one project to another. Mehta has defended himself against the allegations and put the ball in Fadnavis's court. He wants the CM to tell him to resign if his acts are deemed illegal.
As expected, Mehta's supporters have accused his rivals within the BJP for helping out the Opposition in "framing him in baseless matters". Inadvertent, as it may appear, but the Mehta camp has clearly suggested that the housing department is very lucrative, and hence, some BJP legislators and office-bearers are eyeing the job. They have requested the CM and party high command to not allow Mehta to get trapped for "no fault of his".
The Opposition is rejoicing. Senior Congress and NCP leaders who don't see eye to eye have now teamed up to get yet another wicket. Last year, they got Eknath Khadse removed from the Cabinet, and last week, they forced the government to remove a tainted babu, Radheshyam Mopalwar, from MSRDC, which is implementing the CM's dream project — Mumbai-Nagpur super communication expressway.
To be or not to be is the question. Shakespeare's Hamlet dealt with it. Now, it's Fadnavis's turn. Apparently, he is happy to have avoided tarnishing his clean image by immediately scrapping Mehta's proposal. He is equally convinced that a veteran colleague has taken him for granted. He may want to prove whether Mehta's action was a willful act or otherwise.
The CM has announced an inquiry but hasn't decided the type of probe, even as he is accused of being selective in getting Khadse out and giving clean chits to some ministers who faced allegations. Considering the political pros and cons, Mehta may survive for sometime, say till Fadnavis gets high command's approval to reshuffle or expand his Cabinet.
Sena to the rescue?
Sources say the opportunity to get rid of Mehta is likely to come soon because the Sena is keen on replacing its two senior Cabinet ministers. Of the two, one recently announced that he was willing to work for the party (incidentally, a serious allegation was levelled against him last week in the Upper House). The other one hasn't lived up to the Sena chief's expectations despite being well qualified for running the department. The minister recently resigned as the guardian minister of a district in east Vidarbha.
If seen in entirety, the BJP may not hurt sentiments of the Gujarati community with the unceremonious shunting out of Mehta, who has been a consistent contributor to running the party affairs. Buying time to reach a definite decision, either to shun or embrace Mehta, appears to be the party's immediate strategy.
It would again be over to the Opposition from Monday to Friday, the last week of legislative business, for mounting further pressure on the BJP government. Previous two weeks have been good in terms of the aggression it has shown - not a mean achievement if we look back and post-mortem its past performance.
Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore. Send your feedback to email@example.com
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