Ajit Pawar: A political force not far from financial controversy | Mumbai news

On November 2, the Income Tax (IT) department provisionally attached properties including an office building at a prime location in Mumbai, a flat in an upscale Delhi locality, a resort in Goa, and agricultural land and a sugar mill in Maharashtra allegedly linked directly or indirectly to Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar. According to officials in the investigation wing of Maharashtra’s IT department, the value of the properties, spread over the three states is 1,000 crore.

The action was taken after the department allegedly discovered unaccounted income of about 184 crore during searches it carried out at 70 premises of two Mumbai-based real estate groups and individuals linked to Pawar (including his son, Parth) in October. At the time, Pawar had said that the raids conducted in the premises of his three sisters in Pune and Kolhapur, were “politically motivated”. “I am hurt by the IT department’s actions,” he had said.

Soon after the November 2 raid however, Pawar’s lawyer Prashant Patil issued a statement stating that no property related to the state’s deputy chief minister was attached by the I-T department, and Pawar had received no notice.

“None of his properties were attached by the I-T department nor has he received any notice in this regard. The I-T department has sought clarification related to some issues. An appropriate response will be given on that particular letter. Appropriate action will also be taken through administrative and legal means,” the statement read.

In a political career spanning three decades, 62-year-old Pawar’s name has cropped up in other allegations that have attracted probes by central agencies. However, these recent raids seem to be the biggest challenge facing the state’s deputy CM. They come at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power at the Centre and the Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress coalition (referred to as the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi or MVA) are locked in a seemingly inexhaustible battle of accusations and counter-accusations. Ajit Pawar is fourth MVA leader to face a probe by central agencies, after former home minister Anil Deshmukh (who was recently arrested by the Enforcement Directorate), transport minister Anil Parab and Sena MP Bhavana Gawali.

A skilled political organiser

Known for his skills as a political organiser, as a strategist who is good at ground level management to handle elections, as a minister who is lauded by the bureaucracy for his fast decision-making style, Ajit Pawar, took a long time to come out of the shadow of his charismatic uncle Sharad Pawar.

He played a significant role in the 2004 assembly elections — from picking candidates to handling election management— following which the Congress-NCP combine returned to power. An ambitious politician, he became deputy chief minister in 2010.

Son of Anantrao Pawar, Sharad Pawar’s younger brother, Ajit was the only member of the Pawar family that the NCP chief permitted to enter politics. He began at the gram panchayat level before he was elected as a Member of Parliament from Baramati Lok Sabha constituency in 1991. It was a brief stint and he took control of the assembly segment in a bypoll when Sharad Pawar shifted to national politics the same year to serve as the defence minister in PV Narasimha Rao’s government.

Since then, Ajit Pawar has represented the Baramati assembly constituency for seven consecutive terms. He first became a minister in 1991 in Sudhakarrao Naik-led Congress government in Maharashtra. His role as Sharad Pawar’s key aide began after the latter broke away from the Congress to form the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in 1999. While the NCP had senior leaders such as Padmasinh Patil, Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil and Chhagan Bhujbal, it was Ajit Pawar who became his uncle’s most trusted aide.

Till 2006, when Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule entered politics, Ajit Pawar was seen as the undisputed political heir of the NCP chief. With her emergence in national politics — she has been part of three successive Lok Sabhas and is currently serving her third term — a silent power tussle developed between uncle and nephew. The emergence of Rohit Pawar, grandson of another of Sharad Pawar’s brothers, as a new-generation leader from the family and his victory from Karjat-Jamkhed assembly seat in the 2019 state elections, added to Ajit Pawar’s woes.

The bond was certainly strained enough for Ajit Pawar to switch sides after the 2019 assembly election results and partner with the BJP.

High political drama

In 2019, shortly after the assembly poll results were announced, the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party — long-time allies — split up. The Sena (which won 56 seats) had been angling for a CM post, but the BJP, which had won 105 seats, refused. Together, the two parties had a comfortable majority over the Congress (which had won 44 seats) and the NCP, which had garnered 54 seats.

As Uddhav Thackeray began to hold talks with Sharad Pawar and the Congress, former CM Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP — who had helped expose an irrigation scam worth 70,000 crore allegedly carried out by the erstwhile Congress-NCP government and initiated an Anti-Corruption Bureau inquiry into this soon after taking over as CM in 2014 — reached out to Ajit Pawar.

On November 23, 2019, Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar were sworn in as Maharashtra chief minister and deputy CM, respectively. This came hours after the Sena, NCP and Congress arrived at a consensus to form the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, with Thackeray as CM.

The following day, nephew and uncle locked horns on Twitter.

Ajit Pawar insisted that he was in the NCP and that the BJP-NCP alliance shall provide a stable government in Maharashtra. “I am in the NCP and shall always be in the NCP and @PawarSpeaks Saheb [Sharad Pawar] is our leader. Our BJP-NCP alliance shall provide a stable government in Maharashtra for the next five years which will work sincerely for the welfare of the State and its people,” he tweeted.

Less than an hour later, Sharad Pawar shot back and ruled out any possibility of an alliance between the NCP and BJP. “There is no question of forming an alliance with @BJP4Maharashtra. NCP has unanimously decided to ally with @ShivSena & @INCMaharashtra to form the government. Shri Ajit Pawar’s statement is false and misleading in order to create confusion and false perception among the people,” he wrote.

At a joint press conference with Thackeray, Sharad Pawar said his nephew had acted on his own and didn’t have the support of either the family or the party. “Ajit Pawar’s decision is an act of indiscipline. No NCP worker is in favour of the NCP-BJP government. NCP MLAs who support the BJP should know this move attracts provisions of anti-defection law,” he said.

Over the following two days, Sharad Pawar managed to get all rebel MLAs who had followed his nephew to the BJP back into the party and Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar were left with no option but to tender their resignations.

“I never left the party. I was with the NCP, I am with the NCP and will remain with the NCP,” he told reporters outside the Vidhan Bhavan where he arrived to be sworn in as an MLA, a few days later. His cousin, Sule, greeted him with open arms and smiled widely at the clicking cameras. Order seemed to have been restored in the Pawar clan.

“BJP was of the view that Ajit Pawar will return to them. They also thought that the MVA government will not last for more than a year, but now they have realized it won’t happen. If they have to maintain the perception that the BJP can return to power then they will have to target senior leaders and break them. This will help in keeping their flock together, especially those who joined them from Congress and NCP,” said Abhay Deshpande, political analyst.

“Ajit Pawar has more command than Supriya Sule over the party. There is a major chunk of the cadre who follows Ajit Pawar. Such attacks by the BJP will create a fear among leaders who are likely to pressure their respective leadership to reconsider their decision of staying in MVA,” Deshpande added.

Three main important probes

Though Ajit Pawar’s power accrues to his family legacy, he is also known to be a strong political force in Maharashtra. Yet, he has never been far from allegations — none have been proved till date — of financial irregularities.

In 2012, Ajit Pawar became embroiled in an alleged 70,000-crore irrigation scam. Pawar, who was deputy CM at the time, resigned but returned to the post the same year.

The scam had many parts to it: One, though 42,500 crore had been spent over the course of a decade, the state had brought only 0.1% of the targeted land under irrigation. Two, a nexus of contractors, officials and politicians had allegedly siphoned off thousands of crores meant for irrigation projects. Three, Ajit Pawar, the water resources minister since 1999, had cleared cost escalations of 32 irrigation projects by more than 17,000 crore. When Devendra Fadnavis became CM in 2014, he ordered a Maharashtra Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) enquiry.

In December 2019, after Pawar’s short-lived rule as deputy CM, the ACB filed affidavits before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay HC stating that no criminal liability could be found against the NCP leader. In February 2020, the court also rejected a public interest litigation that challenged ACB’s clean chit.

On July 1, 2021, the ED attached assets worth 65.75 crore belonging to Jarandeshwar Sahkari Sakhar Karkhana (cooperative sugar mill) in Satara district in connection with an alleged 25,000-crore Maharashtra State Cooperative (MSC) Bank scam. The mill operating out of the attached property was linked to Pawar, a statement issued by the ED stated. Ajit Pawar’s uncle and Nationalist Congress Party’s supremo, Sharad Pawar, said the ED raid was a bid to “harass” him.

The alleged MSC bank scam came to light in 2011 and a charge was made against the bank’s board directors — of whom Ajit Pawar was one — for disbursing loans to sugar mills in blatant violation of prescribed rules. MSC bank is the apex co-operative bank in the state and controls credit in the entire co-operative sector, forming the backbone of the rural economy.

A committee led by a retired principal district judge Panditrao Jadhav was formed and a departmental probe of the state Cooperation department conducted an enquiry into these allegations. In February the committee gave a clean chit to Ajit Pawar and other directors of the Bank.

Soon after the ED raid, Maharashtra BJP unit chief Chandrakant Patil wrote a letter to the union home minister Amit Shah on July 3 alleging corruption in the auctioning of 29 other sugar factories in the state. He asked that action be initiated as the factories were sold at throwaway prices to the directors of the MSC Bank board who were also politicians.

“The factories, which were auctioned by MSC Bank were purchased at throwaway prices by its directors, who happened to be politicians. Despite the 2019 Bombay high court order directing the economic offences wing (EOW) of Mumbai Police to take action, the cases against these 30 factories were closed. With action against Jarandeshwar sugar factory taken, the hopes of citizens of action against [accused’s] misdeeds have revived. I would request you to initiate similar action against 29 more such factories which were part of the court hearing,” the letter stated.

On October 22, Pawar categorically denied any wrongdoing in the auctioning of sugar mills by MSC Bank. He said that multiple investigations by agencies found no irregularities. He also claimed that many of the cooperative sugar factories were sold for 3 crore to 8 crore to private firms during BJP’s rule in the state, but no questions were raised then.

“The Jarandeshwar sugar mill was bought by Guru Commodities for 65.75 crore and handed over to BVG, another firm, to run, but they gave it to some other firm after a year owing to the financial losses… Since me and my family members are linked to Jarandeshwar sugar mills, I am clarifying this to everyone in the state… The Enforcement Directorate (ED) is probing the auction and the truth will come out after it,” he had said.

“The auction of Jarandeshwar sugar factory was done as per the order of the Bombay high court after the management failed to repay the debts of Mumbai District Cooperative Bank despite two opportunities given to them. A special leave petition filed against the auction was struck down by the high court and subsequently by the Supreme Court. Around 12-15 companies participated in the tendering process and the highest bid was offered by Guru Commodity Private Limited,” he added.

Ajit Pawar also clarified that the CID (crime investigation department), anti-corruption bureau (ACB), economic offences wing (EOW) as well as a retired judge committee probed the allegations of the Bank scam, “but found nothing”.

The deputy CM said that noise was only being made over a few select sugar factories to mislead the people. “There were 65 cooperative sugar factories of which eight were auctioned or given on lease by the respective banks or the state government. Many of these mills were sold during the BJP rule between 2015 and 2019 for a paltry amount, but nobody is talking about it. Even now the MSC Bank has floated a new tender for 11 cooperative sugar mills and textile mills to run for a period of 25 years,” he said.

In October 2020, the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) filed a closure report after its special investigation team probing the alleged bank scam found no criminal aspect against any of the The 76 people named as accused in the case including Ajit Pawar. The ED opposed the move and pointed out Pawar’s conflict of interest: he was a director of MSC Bank. The highest bidder for the mill, Guru Commodity Private Limited, leased the mill out to a company owned by Pawar’s maternal uncle Rajendra Ghadge on an annual lease of 12 lakh only, the ED’s application stated.

“ED had strongly opposed the closure report by filing an intervention application but it was rejected by the court of special judge Ajay Daga,” said Advocate Satish Talekar, who appeared for petitioners such as Anna Hazare and Surendra Arora in the case.

The most recent IT raids however seem to pose another problem for Ajit Pawar.

According to the IT department, it has found highly incriminating documents, evidencing unaccounted income of about 184 crore in the raids that were conducted at Mumbai, Pune, Baramati, Goa and Jaipur and continued for more than five days starting October 7.

“A preliminary analysis of the flow of funds indicates that there has been an introduction of unaccounted funds in the group by way of various dubious methods like introduction of bogus share premium, suspicious unsecured loans, receipt of unsubstantiated advance for certain services, collusive arbitration deals out of non-existent disputes, etc,” a statement by the agency stated.

“The funds, introduced in a dubious manner, have been utilized for acquisition of various assets such as an office building at a prime locality in Mumbai, a flat in a posh locality at Delhi, a resort in Goa, agricultural lands in Maharashtra and investments in sugar mills. The book value of these assets aggregates to about 170 crore,” said Surabhi Ahluwalia, commissioner of I-T (media and technical policy) and official spokesperson, Central Board of Direct Taxation (CBDT).

Responding to the raids, Ajit Pawar said on October 7: “It is true IT has raided a few firms related to me. It is their right… I don’t know whether they were conducted for political purposes or they want more information as we have been paying taxes on time. However, my only grief is that they conducted raids on the premises related to my three sisters. One of them stays in Kolhapur and other two in Pune. If raids were conducted because they are my sisters, then people of the state should think about the level the central agencies are being misused.”

Centre v state

Political analyst Hemant Desai said that the action by central agencies is clearly politically motivated, but the involvement of Ajit Pawar and others must still be probed.

“The way information is leaked in public through BJP leaders before action by the central agencies clearly shows the political intention. Recently, state BJP president Chandrakant Patil indicated that ED will take action against PWD minister Ashok Chavan in Nanded. Since it has failed in toppling the MVA government, the BJP is intent of creating a perception of corruption and irregularities by targeting MVA leaders one by one. Their strategy is to ruin their image and benefit from that in the upcoming local bodies’ polls as well as assembly polls scheduled in 2024,” Desai said.

The MVA government has been rocked with a series of attacks by the Opposition. In March, Fadnavis claimed that state ministers were involved in a money-for-transfer scam in the state police department. The previous month, former Mumbai police chief Param Bir Singh allegations that former home minister and NCP leader Anil Deshmukh ran a 100-crore extortion ring. This allegations were probed by central agencies including the Central Bureau of Investigation and the National Investigation Agency respectively.

Hitting out at the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre over the alleged “misuse of central agencies” against the MVA, NCP chief Sharad Pawar said last month: “The raids on my three nieces are on for the sixth day. The teams of I-T department have not found anything in the raids and the officers want to wind up the operation. But their bosses from Delhi have instructed them to continue the raids. My nieces are apolitical and have nothing to do with the sugar mills or other businesses facing action. Teams of up to 18 members are raiding the houses of my nieces who live in small houses. We are not against the action, but it should not cross the limit.”



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