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Minister's resignation over graft claim leaves Indian state in turmoil

Nineteen other NPC members threaten to quit Maharashtra assembly, throwing doubt over future of Congress party-led coalition.

NEW DELHI // The Maharashtra state coalition government has been thrown into crisis by the sudden resignation of its deputy chief minister.

Ajit Pawar, a leader of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), resigned late on Tuesday, after allegations of corruption during his tenure as the state's water resources minister, from 1999 to 2009.

Nineteen other NCP ministers in the Maharashtra government have also offered to resign, reflecting a growing sentiment within the NCP that its politicians are being unfairly targeted by its senior coalition partner, Congress.

In his final months as irrigation minister in 2009, Mr Pawar is alleged to have approved dozens of irrigation contracts, including 32 between June and August 2009.

These projects were intended largely for the region of Vidarbha, often starved of rain and infamous for suicides by desperate, debt-ridden farmers.

A complaint by an irrigation department engineer claimed the contracts had been awarded for inflated amounts, resulting in kickbacks for Mr Pawar and losses to the government of 200 billion rupees (Dh13.68bn).

A petition filed in the Bombay high court by Jan Manch, a non-government official, claims the projects were approved without the mandatory consent of the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation's governing council.

Mr Pawar, who until this week was Maharashtra's finance and power minister, said he resigned out of a sense of moral duty.

He said he was not guilty but that he would not "accept any ministry or post until I am cleared of all allegations … if I do not resign, people will think I am guilty and did not want to give up my political posts".

Praful Patel, an NCP leader, said yesterday: "We are confident that he will come out innocent and then take charge again. The party is with him."

Prithviraj Chavan, Maharashtra's chief minister and a member of Congress, has said on several occasions that claims of corruption in the irrigation ministry need to be investigated.

Last week, Mr Chavan repeated his call for the irrigation ministry to file a report on its performance.

He told the Times of India: "People must know why the cost of these projects rose for no apparent reason … that's criminal. There's nothing political in demanding a detailed report when such cases are cited."

The NCP's public works minister, Chhagan Bhujbal, also faces corruption charges.

Some analysts say that Mr Chavan's perceived crusade against these two ministers may insult the NCP so much that it will abandon the coalition and bring down the government.

Maharashtra's coalition government, dubbed the Democratic Front, is comprised of 62 NCP legislators, 82 Congress politicians and 27 independents.

A withdrawal by the NCP would leave Congress and its allies well short of the majority in the 288-seat house.

But Kumar Ketkar, a political analyst and the editor in chief of the Marathi daily Dainik Divya Marathi, said that the NCP would not risk destabilising the Maharashtra government.

"If the government were to be brought down there would be no chance of the Congress and the NCP being re-elected," Mr Ketkar said. "And every one of these legislators knows which side of his bread is buttered."

He said Mr Pawar's resignation and that of his supporters served only "to show that they matter, to the Congress but also to the [NCP chief] Sharad Pawar".

Within the ranks of the NCP, there has been a conflict developing between Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit - "between the old guard and the Young Turks", Mr Ketkar said.

"This gauntlet has been thrown because of that."

The NCP's legislators met yesterday at the Maharashtra state assembly building in Mumbai to decide on a course of action. Outside, Mr Pawar's supporters called for him to reconsider his resignation.

Fellow politicians also asked him to withdraw his resignation, although an assembly statement said the final decision would be up to Mr Pawar.


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