Mumbai: Reporters were in full attendance on 4 June for the Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) weekly press briefing. The event, which is otherwise thinly attended, saw a surge in interest as informally journalists were told to expect a big expose against a heavyweight minister in the Devendra Fadnavis cabinet.
However what was dished out was banal criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for paying lip service to Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas and ignoring the interests of minorities, and a censure of the Shiv Sena for slamming the state government despite enjoying power, among other issues. The NCP’s chief spokesman Nawab Malik did not utter a word about a scam in his briefing.
Later while informally chatting with journalists Malik told reporters that the party had explosive stuff against rural development and women and child development minister Pankaja Munde but that the party leadership had asked him to wait for a week as former union minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Gopinath Munde’s first death anniversary was observed on 3 June and it will not be in good taste to target his daughter at this juncture.
But in the following weeks the NCP skipped its weekly press briefing as the anti-corruption bureau (ACB) registered a first information report (FIR) against its senior leader and former deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal in what is known as the Maharashtra Sadan Scam and also for accepting a big donation for a trust run by his family from a Mumbai-based real estate firm.
Bhujbal who headed the public works ministry in the previous Congress-NCP government had awarded a huge contract to this firm. The ACB raided 16 properties of the Bhujbal family across the state, including a palatial farmhouse spread over 25 acres of land outside Nashik.
Prominent Marathi newspaper Sakal on 24 June published the story of how Pankaja Munde sanctioned purchases worth Rs.206 crore without calling tenders and listed out various other irregularities in awarding those contracts. On the same day Maharashtra Congress spokesman Sachin Sawant filed a detailed complaint against Pankaja Munde with the ACB as if the Congress had already all the papers in possession and was only waiting for the issue to come out in the public domain.
Even after the story had appeared and the Congress had lodged the complaint, the NCP maintained a curious silence on the entire issue.
This episode raises an obvious question: Why did the NCP keep quiet despite having all the information in its possession? The only answer is that it doesn’t want to antagonize the BJP because not only Bhujbal but also another former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, nephew of party president Sharad Pawar, and state unit president Sunil Tatkare are facing a probe by the ACB for their alleged role in Rs.70,000 crore irrigation scam. They have been issued notices by the ACB asking them to explain their dealings in the scam.
As pointed out in this space earlier, ever since the BJP emerged as the single largest party in last year’s assembly poll, the NCP has been playing the role of a loyal opposition party to the government. Party president Sharad Pawar declared unilateral support to the BJP even before results to all the 288 assembly constituencies were declared.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned the favour by praising Pawar during a public function at Baramati, his hometown, in February this year. Modi said, “I talk to Pawarsaheb at least twice or thrice in a month and take his advice on issues before the country. One must respect and use the wisdom of person like Pawar which he has gained through active public life of more than five decades.”
Whatever might be the reason behind the curious silence of the NCP, one thing is for sure: It has put a spring in the Congress’s step. The party otherwise was rudderless after last year’s defeat in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections. The NCP’s silence has offered the Congress a chance to project itself as the real opposition to the ruling coalition of BJP and Shiv Sena.