In a major embarrassment for Maharashtra's ruling BJP, Revenue Minister Eknath Khadse, the de facto No.2 in the state government, had to step down on Saturday after getting embroiled in multiple controversies, including corruption allegations in a questionable land deal and reported links with underworld don Dawood Ibrahim.
Khadse, 63, once a claimant to the chief minister's post and holding nearly a dozen major portfolios including revenue, minorities development and wakf, relief and rehabilitation, excise, agriculture and horticulture, animal husbandry, and fisheries, met Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis on Saturday morning and put in his papers. Fadanavis later announced a probe.
Amid apprehensions of a potential sabotage bid by Khadse's substantial support among the BJP legislators, the development came after the biennial elections to six Rajya Sabha and 10 Legislative Council seats were completed on Friday with all candidates of different parties elected unopposed.
A Raj Bhavan official said following the chief minister's recommendation, Khadse's resignation was accepted.
Bharatiya Janata Party state president Raosaheb Danve told the media that Khadse has quit on "moral grounds" but the party stood solidly behind him and lauded the contribution of the OBC leader from north Maharashtra for building up the party in the state since four decades.
On his part, Khadse defended himself saying he had "committed no wrong" nor "misused his official position". He said he was a victim of "trial by the media" in the past few weeks.
"I have done nothing wrong...when the allegations were made against me, I asked them (those levelling the charges) to provide evidence, which they did not give. I request the chief minister to conduct a thorough probe into the allegations and those making them," he said.
Hitting out at his detractors within and outside the party, Khadse said this was "an attack on the BJP", even as some other worried ministers with different types of allegations against them went to meet Fadnavis.
Fadnavis tweeted this evening that since Khadse has demanded an enquiry into allegations against him, a retired Bombay High Court judge will be appointed for the probe.
Khadse's resignation followed after Fadnavis met BJP president Amit Shah in New Delhi and submitted a detailed report on the issues confronting Khadse.
He then met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and apprised him of the row that was denting the BJP's "clean image" .
Khadse had been under fire for the past few weeks from the ruling alliance partner Shiv Sena, as also the opposition Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, the Aam Aadmi Party and activists like Anna Hazre and Anjalai Damania for various alleged acts of commission and omission.
Among the major accusations against him was allotting a prime industrial plot in Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) complex in Pune at a throwaway price to family members and an allegation by an "ethical hacker" that his name figured on the regular call lists of absconding mafia don Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar from his Karachi home.
The other charges against the minister related to his aide, Gajanan Patil, demanding a bribe of Rs 30 crore in connection with a land proposal file in Thane.
Former AAP activist Damania's allegations linked him to the multi-crore rupee irrigation scam. The latest were graft charges levelled by a fishermen's society.
The opposition Congress and NCP leaders welcomed the resignation and demanded that other scam-tainted ministers should also be sacked.
"Khase should be arrested immediately and booked," Mumbai Congress president Sanjay Nirupam said, while state Congress President Ashok Chavan demanded a judicial enquiry against Khadse.
State Congress general secretary Sanjay Dutt termed the resignation as "a cover-up drama by Fadnavis" and demanded a probe, while senior leader and newly-elected legislator Narayan Rane said the chief minister was playing games and "eliminating all backward classes leaders in the party and doing grave injustice to them".
"First the BJP ruined Khadse's image and after so many days of delay, they forced him to resign. Then, why did the state BJP chief Danve give him a clean chit only yesterday? Khadse is a victim of the internal strife and conspiracy between BJP-Shiv Sena. He should have immediately resigned after the charges were levelled against him."
Leader of Opposition in the Council Dhananjay Munde (NCP) said the MIDC scam was a serious issue and said it would be important to see whether the government would take action against other tainted ministers.
Senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar meanwhile said if the resignation was on "moral grounds", why did he delay it for so long, while the party's Jitendra Awhad said it was shameful that a minister with "connections to Dawood Ibrahim" was in the cabinet.