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Home / Politics / Policy /  Shallow talent pool forces Fadnavis to pick up controversial names as ministers

Mumbai: Opposition parties in Maharashtra, led by the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party, have targeted as many as 16 ministers in the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena government over corruption charges. Last week, a united opposition took on these ministers in both the houses of the state legislature, which is holding its monsoon session. The opposition demanded the ministers step down and face inquiry. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis hit back, saying no minister will resign in the face of what he called unsubstantiated charges.

Between the opposition attack and the chief minister’s defence lies the stark fact that the BJP and Sena who jointly have 169 legislators have a very shallow talent pool to choose ministers from.

The cabinet expansion which Fadnavis carried out earlier this month looked more like an exercise in balancing caste and regional equations than getting real administrative and political talent on board. In fact, the opposition has raised questions over nine of the 10 new ministers, saying the chief minister had rewarded those accused of corruption and named by investigating agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation. A senior Congress legislator, who did not wish to be identified, said while Fadnavis himself has maintained a clean image, his defence of colleagues seen as corrupt was not only surprising but risky for his political future.

BJP leaders, especially those with clear Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh backgrounds, say Fadnavis is aware of the risks, but has little choice. “We nearly exhausted all the available talent when we formed the government in late 2014. Some got in because they were senior leaders, a few for their administrative abilities. But since then, it has been a struggle for both parties to find the right candidates and that is one of the reasons why cabinet expansion was delayed by 18 months. There is no bench strength," said a senior BJP minister who did not wish to be identified.

Also read: Devendra Fadnavis shows he leads government, BJP in Maharashtra

The BJP suffered a severe jolt when senior leader and number two in the cabinet Eknath Khadse was forced to resign over charges of conflict of interest and misuse of office. Fadnavis has ordered a probe into these charges with a deadline of three months, but few BJP leaders believe Khadse would be able to make a comeback so soon even if the probe clears him. Many in the party believe Khadse was the right choice for the key portfolios of revenue and agriculture. “These are portfolios which require a combination of experience, stature, and administrative authority. Khadse had all of these and his exit was a big loss," said the BJP minister.

Despite being in power in Maharashtra in 1995-99 and at the Centre in 1998-2004, both the BJP and Shiv Sena have faced a dearth of talented second and third rung leaders. The problem worsened for the state BJP after the death of Pramod Mahajan in 2006 and Gopinath Munde in 2014.

When the BJP formed a government at the Centre in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked up the most prominent faces in his cabinet from Maharashtra, which had given 42 seats to the National Democratic Alliance. Apart from Munde who died in June 2014, Modi chose Nitin Gadkari, Suresh Prabhu, (who was with the Shiv Sena but joined the BJP on the day he was made minister) and Prakash Javadekar.

Gadkari showed his administrative talent when he was public works minister in the previous Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra. Later, Gadkari’s stock rose when he became BJP president. Since the best political talent from Maharashtra got picked by Modi, it left a vacuum in Maharashtra. In the current Maharashtra cabinet, only three BJP ministers have had ministerial experience before. And only three Shiv Sena leaders in the current cabinet have been ministers before.

Also read: Pressure builds on BJP to act against Eknath Khadse

After Khadse’s exit, the BJP has had to ensure that caste equations, and not necessarily competence, are taken care of. Khadse was the most prominent Maratha face in the BJP and he also represented the Khandesh region of Maharashtra. Fadnavis, a Brahmin leader from the Vidarbha region, has tried to compensate for Khadse’s loss by accommodating more Maratha names in his cabinet from Khandesh and Marathwada regions. These include some of controversial ministers who are now on the opposition radar for corruption charges.

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