NOTHING sticks like a sex scandal and Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde is fighting with his back to the wall over his alleged involvement with Tamasha dancer Barkha Patil. Under normal circumstances Munde's so-called relationship would have been dismissed as a strictly personal affair. Even those levelling the charges admit that they have not unearthed any financial scam or misuse of office by Munde to favour Patil. But since he belongs to the BJP, which has been very vocal about the moral uprightness of its leaders, the Barkha scandal has been politicised. And with elections to nine muncipal corporations due in February, there is no sign of the scandal abating.
Surprisingly, the BJP's big brother alliance partner in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, has chipped in to keep the scandal alive. Just when the entire tamasha had moved to the inside pages of city newspapers, Thackeray referred to the allegations against Munde at a function of party workers in Mumbai on December 22. Said Thackeray jocularly, much to the embarrassment of the BJP: "I told Munde 'pyar kiya to darna kya (why be scared if you have loved).'" This was inferred by many as the Sena chief's admission that there was some truth in the allegations.
The Sena chief followed this up on Christmas at a public rally in Karnajkhed in Aurangabad district, when he called Mahatma Gandhi a jhoota brahmachari whose experiments with celibacy were a "complete farce" since he was associated with women disciples. The Sena chief referred in particular to the two young girls (Gandhi's "walking sticks") who lent a shoulder to the Mahatma when he went for his last prayer meeting, at which he was assassinated. Then Thackeray touched upon the Munde scandal and said: "When Gandhi does it it is not wrong, but when we do it is improper."
This was typical Thackerese and did not go unnoticed. The Congress has expressed outrage and the BJP too is not amused. Gandhi's great-grandson Tushar Gandhi, who had earlier protested against the Nikki Tonight chat show, went on an 18-hour hunger strike before the Mahatma's statue near the state assembly. But Tushar Gandhi says he is not demanding an apology. Says he: "What is the point in talking to people without any culture. That is why I am not even demanding an apology from either Thackeray or the Shiv Sena. What difference would an apology do? People must think twice before making such rash statements."
All shades of Congressmen have reacted with outrage. Youth Congress President Satyajit Gaikwad has announced that his organisation will hold dharnas and agitations unless the Sena chief withdraws the derogatory remarks. The Maharashtra unit of the Congress is also organising protest demonstrations. Sharad Pawar told a meeting of party workers in Pune that it was time Thackeray "sat down and did some thinking about who he is and whether he is in any position to question the morality of a great soul like Mahatma Gandhi".
The Sena chief's remarks about Gandhi and his defence of Munde have left both the BJP and the Sena in Maharashtra speechless. Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, who was present at the Karnajkhed rally, says he did not listen to Thackeray's speech. State BJP President Kirit Somaiyya also bandies the same excuse. And BJP leader Pramod Mahajan does not wish to comment. But privately, a senior Sena leader admits that Thackeray's comments were "most unfortunate and will harm the party's image".
But where does all this leave the deputy chief minister? Whether he is finally pronounced innocent or not is another matter, but considerable damage has already been done. Munde's supposed links with Barkha Patil are nothing new. In the 1994 assembly election campaign the Congress had fired allegations against Munde and in the 1996 Lok Sabha polls a song on the party's promotional cassette had the lyrics: "O sajana Barkha bahar aiye." A passing reference was even made in the state assembly's monsoon session when Congress MLA Dilip Valse Patil came up with the one-liner, "In Pune if it's Sunday it must be Munde." But no one thought it worth their while to probe the romance.
However, this time allegations of Munde's links with the Tamasha dancer came from the Gandhian social worker Anna Hazare, who released to the press documents pertaining to the sale of an 801 sq ft flat costing Rs 3.6 lakh in Chanakya Nagari on the Pune-Sinhagad highway. The flat was purchased in the name of Barkha Gopinath Munde and her son Pratik Gopinath Munde. But the word 'Munde' was later scratched off and 'Patil' put in its place. The implication: the documents were doctored to keep Munde's name out. And predictably, Hazare's revelations attracted much media attention.
BARKHA Patil has outright denied that she has links with Munde. The deputy chief minister is also very categoric that there is no woman in his life other than his wife. He dismisses the documents released by Hazare as a frame-up and sees Sharad Pawar behind the surfacing of the scandal. But no one seems to be fully convinced. And Munde's decision not to file cases against papers which had been reporting the affair has not helped.
Even within Munde's own party there are doubts. The anti-Mahajan/Munde group, which has very pronounced RSS leanings, feels that the deputy chief minister has some explaining to do. What has particularly irked this lobby is that the scandal broke at a time when BJP activists had launched a campaign against theatres featuring Tamasha shows around Pune, saying they were obscene and were corrupting the youth. The Barkha Patil scandal has taken the wind out of their campaign.
With corporation election due next month, the onus clearly is on Munde to prove his innocence. The Shiv Sena-BJP combine's image has already taken a beating because of the Kini case, the Michael Jackson show and the charges Hazare levelled at two Maharashtra ministers. The alliance registered a poor showing in the recent municipal elections; and, with allegations of corruption coming thick and fast, political observers feel that both the BJP and the Shiv Sena have to put their houses in order to survive the onslaught.
But can they? One line of thinking in the BJP is that the Munde scandal will die a natural death once media interest wanes. However, if Thackeray continues to stoke the fire with his abrasive and headline-making statements, it could prove to be a long-drawn affair.