NAGPUR, Maharashtra — When Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray declared the first round of IAS officers’ transfers last week, most BJP leaders in Nagpur were unworried.
Abhijit Bangar, Commissioner of the prestigious Nagpur Municipal Corporation, had only served 14 months out of his stipulated 36-month tenure.
It was business as usual for the BJP in this municipal body until the evening of January 21, when NMC got a new chief in the second round of IAS transfers.
The announcement sent shockwaves because CM Thackeray named controversial IAS officer Tukaram Mundhe, who had been transferred 13 times in a 15-year long career, as the new NMC chief.
On Wednesday, when this reporter visited, the appointment was being discussed in hushed tones throughout the building on Palm road in the Civil Lines area, which houses the office of this prestigious municipal body.
Mundhe has a reputation for being an upright, no-nonsense officer who frequently locks horns with ruling politicians.
For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled the NMC for 13 years, there is particular cause for worry—after 5 years of heading the Maharashtra government, the party has been relegated to the opposition while former ally Shiv Sena, along with brand-new friends Nationalist Congress Party and Congress, rule the state. BJP workers are worried that Mundhe’s reputation of not clearing a file until he is completely satisfied will impede their hold on the corporation.
“It is an accepted norm that any government contract or file moves with certain understanding which gives benefits to everyone involved. That’s how the NMC works otherwise do you think corporators can sustain on Rs.20,000 per month? Mundhe won’t allow anything,” said a senior NMC corporator on condition of anonymity.
Nagpur, where the RSS is headquartered, is also the hometown of union minister Nitin Gadkari and former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
Both Gadkari and Fadnavis are highly invested in the NMC, which has their key aides as office-bearers and the mayor. Both leaders had campaigned extensively for the 2017 municipal election, in which the BJP won 108 out of 151 seats to retain power for the third time in a row.
Over the past year, the Fadnavis faction has gained more control over the body, and current mayor Sandip Joshi is a close friend of the former CM.
Fadnavis, currently the leader of opposition in the state assembly, began his political career by being elected to the Nagpur Municipal Corporation in 1992, when he was just 21. In 1997, he became India’s second youngest elected mayor, taking charge in the city.
Until the assembly elections last year, BJP had complete control over Nagpur district. Out of 13 MLAs, 12 were from the BJP, which also ruled NMC and the Nagpur Zila Parishad.
But now BJP’s tally is down to six, of which three seats were won with very close margins. A bigger jolt was losing power to the Congress in the Nagpur Zila Parishad elections held earlier this month.
In a clear indication that the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government is aiming to target BJP in its stronghold, three senior cabinet ministers including the home minister are from Nagpur district.
With Mundhe’s transfer to NMC, the situation is likely to get difficult for the BJP and Fadnavis.
The BJP is scared that its corruption scandals of the past 13 years would get exposed with Mundhe as the NMC chief
Mundhe’s last transfer was in December 2018 when he was transferred to the state’s AIDS control society after only 35 day-long tenure as the joint secretary in Mantralya in Mumbai.
He was posted in Mantralya in October 2018 in the Planning department when the BJP-ruled Nashik Municipal Corporation brought a no-confidence motion against him. Reporting on his exit, The Hindustan Times wrote that while Mundhe’s efficient work was welcomed by citizens, his “stern and straight stand” with politicians led to protests.
“I think the objection to my work is because it gives no scope to be individually driven. What I am implementing is only as per the law and not outside its purview. If work becomes process driven it will reduce the importance of people and system and will work efficiently, this is being seen as harming some vested interests,” he told HT.
HuffPost India has reached out to Mundhe for a comment, and will update this story if he responds.
Joshi’s aide told HuffPost India that the Nagpur mayor was unable to comment as he was unwell.
BJP leader Pravin Datke, an NMC corporator and former Nagpur mayor, said Mundhe’s posting is welcome.
“It is good that a strict officer is coming to NMC and we welcome him. We don’t want to discuss what happened in the past. There should be proper coordination between the political administration and officials and work should be carried out as per the rulebook. He is a disciplinarian and we welcome discipline and we hope that he completes his term,” Datke said.
When asked about the perception that Mundhe’s posting would trouble the BJP and Fadnavis, Datke pointed out that the officer has been earlier posted in places where the BJP was in power.
“IAS officers are transferred every now and then. If the government’s motive is clear then it is good but if it’s motive is vicious then they will face trouble, not us,” he added.
Prafulla Gudadhe Patil, a senior Congress corporator in the NMC, alleged that Mundhe’s posting has the BJP worried.
“The BJP is scared that its corruption scandals of the past 13 years would get exposed with Mundhe as the NMC chief,” he said.
On Wednesday, a Congress worker expressed the general mood of the opposition as he hurried off to join his colleagues.
“Ab mazaa aayega,” he said.