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Graft fire unites BJP behind boss

New Delhi, Oct. 17: Arvind Kejriwal today trained his guns on Nitin Gadkari, but the BJP heaved an audible sigh of relief after what it saw as a “less than damning expose” and rallied around its president.

Kejriwal, assisted by India Against Corruption colleagues Prashant Bhushan and Anjali Damania, alleged that Gadkari secured 100 acres of agricultural land in Maharashtra in collusion with the NCP’s Ajit Pawar. The NCP-Congress government bent rules to favour Gadkari, which has compromised the BJP’s role as an honest Opposition, they said.

Gadkari was not only guilty of political impropriety but also of usurping land that should have rightfully been returned to the farmers from whom it was acquired citing public interest, Kejriwal said.

The specific charge relates to a large tract of land the Maharashtra government acquired in Umred Taluka in Nagpur to construct the Lower Vena Vadgaon Dam. Work began in 1982.

Gajanan Rambhauji Ghadge and his family lost 90 acres to the dam, which was completed in 1997. Eventually, only 23.5 acres of their land was used and the family continued to till the remaining 66.45 acres from 1982 to 1997 with government permission.

Nearly 100 acres of acquired land did not get submerged. Ghadge and other farmers requested the state to return their unused land and offered to buy it back.

Meanwhile, the Gadkari-owned Purti Power and Sugar Limited that had a power plant, a sugar mill and a distillery in the same village lost some land after the submergence. The BJP leader requested the state to sell the 100 acres to him and another company.

Kejriwal alleged that the state government, which in 2002 rejected the farmers’ demand, accepted Gadkari’s request days after he made it in June 2005. The district administration asked the farmers to stop tilling the land.

Kejriwal claimed he had letters signed by then irrigation minister Ajit Pawar that prove he influenced the Vidharbha Industrial Development Corporation to make the sale even though its secretary objected, saying it could not be done “legally”.

“To increase his business empire, Gadkari has an understanding with the ruling party. He is not a politician but a businessman,” said Kejriwal.

In the past, when Gadkari has faced a corruption charge, the BJP has kept its hands off. But today it held a news conference, addressed jointly by Opposition leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley and attended by several spokespersons, in his defence.

“We are happy that the cadres and the leadership are with Gadkari,” Sushma said.

Dismissing Kejriwal’s charge as “baseless”, Sushma accused Kejriwal and his associates of converting their news conference into an “election rally”.

“It is not India Against Corruption’s mandate to pronounce what Gadkari should be, a businessman or a politician or both. It is not its mandate to decide if Gadkari should get a second term or not. It is damaging its credibility by crying wolf (against politicians) too often. The next time it howls, nobody will heed its call,” she said.

Jaitley said Kejriwal had made a “mountain of what was not even a molehill”. “Today’s press conference was a failed attempt by Kejriwal to bring a moral equivalence between the Congress and the BJP,” he said.

Gadkari denied the charge of illegal allotment and said he was ready for a probe, adding: “I have got it on lease. I don’t have any extra rights over it.”

Kejriwal’s attack on Gadkari and the BJP’s counter-offensive have made it “easier” for the RSS to work for a second term for the incumbent chief. The RSS leaders had started consultations on this yesterday and a section in the BJP believes the timing of Kejriwal’s “expose” was “pushed” by Gadkari’s internal detractors to scupper the extension.