Ashok Chavan | Chequered Congressman

In Maharashtra’s long season of vertiginous political twists which began in 2019, senior Congressman Ashok Chavan’s switch to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was perhaps the least surprising.

Mr. Chavan’s putative defection had been in the air ever since rebel Shiv Sena leader and current Chief Minister Eknath Shinde’s revolt triggered the fall of the erstwhile Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in mid-2022.

At the time, Mr. Chavan, along with ten other Congress MLAs, had skipped the floor test, implausibly claiming to be delayed in Mumbai’s rush-hour traffic.

Since then, it was a matter of time as to when Mr. Chavan — the former two-time Chief Minister of Maharashtra (2008-09 and 2009-10) whose name became synonymous with the ignominy of the Adarsh Housing Society scam — entered the saffron fold.

Even so, Mr. Chavan’s actual induction into the BJP was a psychological blow to the Congress, epitomising the utter disintegration of Maharashtra’s old Congress stock.

His father, Congress stalwart Shankarrao Chavan, known by his moniker ‘Headmaster’, had been a confidante of former Prime Ministers — Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv.

Besides strengthening the party organisation in Maharashtra, Shankarrao held key portfolios at the Centre, serving as Union Finance Minister and twice as Home Minister.

In Maharashtra, father and son — both influential Maratha leaders — followed a somewhat similar political trajectory: Like Ashok, Shankarrao had also served two brief terms as Chief Minister: during the crisis-ridden Emergency years (1975-77) and then from 1986-88.

As the scion of this redoubtable Congressman, the young Ashok cut his teeth at various positions in the party, starting as a student leader in the University of Pune.

He soon became a force to reckon with in the Maharashtra Congress, particularly the Marathwada region and especially the Nanded district, which became a Chavan family fief. The Bhokar Assembly segment in Nanded became a veritable pocket borough, held several times by both Shankarrao and Ashok.

Ashok was first elected to the Nanded Lok Sabha seat in 1987. However, he lost it in the 1989 general election.

Switching his focus to regional politics, Mr. Chavan worked steadily in the post of general secretary of the State Congress from 1995-99, gaining a reputation as a skilful organiser.

Mr. Chavan’s steady rise in State politics mirrored that of another Maratha leader from the Marathwada region — Vilasrao Deshmukh, who would soon be Chief Minister and Mr. Chavan’s bitter political rival within the Maharashtra Congress.

An unseemly instance of Congress factionalism occurred when both leaders squabbled about control of the Revenue department, with Mr. Chavan moving a proposed revenue divisional commissioner’s office to Nanded against Deshmukh’s wishes, who wanted it moved to his stronghold in Latur district.

The 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai turned to be a silver lining in Mr. Chavan’s political career: Vilasrao Deshmukh resigned and the Congress high command nominated Mr. Chavan for the top post.

Mr. Chavan admirably steered the Congress out of this crucible of fire in the 2009 Assembly election, with the party bettering their 2004 electoral performance to emerge as the largest party in the State and forming the government once more with their ally, the Sharad Pawar-led NCP.

Despite the initial promise, Mr. Chavan’s second term as Chief Minister rapidly turned into a nightmare as skeletons tumbled out of the closet in form of the infamous Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society scam which surfaced in 2010.

The accursed Adarsh high-rise tower, with flats meant for widows of defence personnel, became emblematic of high-level corruption by scheming politicians and bureaucrats, as Mr. Chavan faced allegations of impropriety regarding the ownership of three flats in the name of his family members.

Mr. Chavan’s name became the focal point of the probe as the scandal revealed these flats were part of a more significant accumulation of personal wealth and assets by the then Chief Minister and his family, estimating their total worth to be more than ₹2,000 crore.

In firefighting mode, the party high command urged Mr. Chavan to resign and dispatched Prithviraj Chavan, known as ‘Mr. Clean’ – to clean up Maharashtra’s Augean stables.

Even before Adarsh, scandals have dogged Ashok Chavan. In the early 1990s, he was alleged of nepotism in the allotment of petrol pumps to family members.

Post-Adarsh scam, more contretemps followed after he was named by the State anti-corruption bureau (ACB) in a case of alleged land grab in Yavatmal in 2011.

There followed a period of enforced political oblivion for Mr. Chavan until the party rehabilitated him by fielding him from Nanded in the 2014 general election.

He proved his mettle by winning the seat, being among the handful of Congress leaders to hold their own against the Modi juggernaut.

Mr. Chavan was subsequently made Maharashtra Congress president in 2015 with a view to stem the BJP’s tide in the State. However, his tenure as MPCC chief proved controversial as he was perceived as being ‘soft’ on the BJP and its leader Devendra Fadnavis.

In the 2019 general election, Mr. Chavan lost the Nanded seat to the BJP and resigned as the MPCC chief. Yet, he managed to salvage pride by winning the Bhokar Assembly seat in the 2019 Assembly election.

He was back in Uddhav Thackeray’s Cabinet soon after the formation of the MVA government. However, his differences with present Congress chief Nana Patole only widened schisms within the Congress.

But it is the spectre of the Adarsh scam that has forever rendered Mr. Chavan vulnerable.

His switch to the BJP came days after Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in a Parliamentary ‘white paper,’ listed a litany of UPA-era scams including Adarsh.

Going beyond the improprieties, Shankarrao and Ashokrao Chavan are the only father-son duo in Maharashtra’s history to become Chief Ministers. Together, they have served the Congress for nearly 90 years.

Small wonder the BJP is jubilant to have snared Ashok Chavan, as he becomes one more former Congress knight in their arsenal to pierce the MVA’s cuirass in Maharashtra.

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