Maharashtra deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis on Thursday wrote to his cabinet colleague and Nationalist Congress Party leader Ajit Pawar opposing the induction of NCP MLA Nawab Malik, an accused in an Enforcement Directorate case, in the ruling 'Maha Yuti' alliance as the Opposition tried to corner the Bharatiya Janata Party and the state government over the issue.
Out on medical bail after the ED arrested him in February 2022 in a money-laundering probe, Malik attended the winter session of the state legislature in Nagpur for the first time on Thursday and was later seen in the office of Ajit Pawar-led faction of the Nationalist Congress Party in the legislature complex.
In the House, he was seen sitting in the last row, next to an MLA of the Ajit Pawar faction.
The Opposition targeted the BJP, which is part of the government, pointing out that it had once dubbed Malik a "traitor" after he faced allegations of doing a land deal in Mumbai with fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim's aides. Malik himself has not yet made clear whether he belongs to the Ajit Pawar faction or the Sharad Pawar-led NCP.
In his letter to Ajit Pawar, who too is a deputy CM, Fadnavis said Malik has the right to attend the assembly as an MLA and added that "we (the BJP) do not harbour any personal animosity or grudge" against him.
"However, considering the kind of allegations he is facing, we are of the opinion that it would not be appropriate to induct him in the Maha Yuti," the BJP leader said while also noting that Malik was out only on medical bail.
"We agree that it is your prerogative (to decide) who should be inducted in your party. But every constituent party (of the Maha Yuti) has to think as to whether it would harm the alliance. Hence, we are opposed to this," Fadnavis added.
He also said that his party could not be on the same page as the "then chief minister" and the previous Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government which had allowed Malik to continue as a minister even after he was arrested.
Malik was a cabinet minister in the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA government at the time of his arrest.
Notably, the issue of Malik 'joining' the government side did not provoke any exchanges in the assembly, but Shiv Sena-Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray leaders Ambadas Danve, Anil Parab and others tried to corner the government over the issue in the legislative council.
Danve, the leader of opposition in the upper house, asked how Malik, once branded as a terrorist and traitor by the BJP, was rubbing shoulders with the MLAs of the ruling alliance.
Excise minister Shambhuraj Desai of the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena said Danve should not be allowed to mention the matter. Parab countered him, saying Danve had raised the issue with the deputy chairperson's permission.
This led to heated exchanges in the House.
Council deputy chairperson Neelam Gorhe then said Danve could speak briefly on the issue.
Without naming Malik, Danve, said, "There is a member sitting in the lower house. The CM and Deputy CM have been saying they will never rub shoulders with someone who is a traitor. The person who was branded as a traitor could be seen rubbing shoulders with the ruling party legislators, sitting on the treasury benches. The CM and Deputy CM repeatedly made public statements about him that they could not sit with a traitor whose dealings with Dawood Ibrahim have come to light. We want to understand the government's stand."
Fadnavis hit back, saying, “The Sena-UBT leaders who initially refused to sack Malik as a minister despite he being jailed for such a serious crime have no moral right to ask this question to the BJP and the ruling alliance partners."
"We had demanded his resignation when he was put behind the bars and there was evidence that he had a terrorist connection. But the Uddhav Thackeray-led government did nothing. So you should first answer why you didn't take his resignation," the deputy CM added.
Congress leader and Leader of Opposition in the assembly Vijay Wadettiwar claimed in a statement that the funds allocation in the supplementary demands presented earlier in the day "would eventually benefit Malik".
“Malik has submitted an affidavit extending support to Ajit Pawar," he claimed, adding that the government wanted him on its side "but not officially."
"Fadnavis has deliberately used the word anti-national against Malik in his letter to keep the NCP MLA at a distance and insulate his party from any further criticism," Wadettiwar said.
Later, Malik was seen sitting in the Ajit Pawar faction's office in the legislature complex with Anil Patil.
Patil, who is the Ajit Pawar-led NCP's chief whip, said Malik himself will throw light as to which faction he was with.
Ajit Pawar told reporters elsewhere that Malik would make his own decisions. “The Speaker of the legislative assembly has the right to decide where anyone should sit in the House....Nawab Malik has come to the House, I called him in the morning,” Pawar said.
Legislature officials, meanwhile, said as the two NCP factions have not been recognised as different entities by the Speaker yet, there is no separate seating arrangement for them.