Sanjay Kumar, a 1984-batch IAS officer of Maharashtra cadre, will take over as Chief Secretary (CS) of the state by July 1. Kumar is currently serving as the Additional Chief Secretary of the Housing Department, and also holds the additional charge of the Home Department. Ajoy Mehta, the current CS, also a 1984-batch IAS officer of Maharashtra cadre, will retire on June 30 after completing his extension period. However, Mehta will stay on as Principal Advisor to the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO). Both the orders were issued on the night of Wednesday, June 24.
The retirement of a CS and a person taking their place, is normal bureaucratic procedure. However, these are certainly not normal times for Maharashtra. Mehta has been an issue of contention not just within the bureaucracy, but in political circles as well. The leadership across the three ruling parties – Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress – had been aggressive in demanding their leadership to not give a further extension to Mehta. In addition, for the first time in history, a number of senior bureaucrats met the Chief Minister collectively and requested him not to give an extension to Mehta. Despite these parleys, the lobbying and backdoor politics, Mehta is being appointed as the Principal Advisor to the CMO.
Mehta was appointed the CS by the erstwhile Maharashtra government led by the Bhartiya Janata Party's Devendra Fadnavis. His retirement was due on September 30, 2019. However, he got an extension of six months as the EC’s code of conduct rules were in place for the assembly elections. As a result, his revised retirement date was March 31, 2020.
In the meantime, Maharashtra was taken over by a new political equation and a new government. There was speculation in February and March this year that the Maha Vikas Aghadi government would consolidate its grip on governance by sidelining a few mandarins close to Fadnavis and the BJP. But, the opposite happened. The new CM, Uddhav Thackeray, cited the COVID-19 pandemic and requested the Centre to give Mehta a one-year extension. As per the request, Mehta's tenure was extended till June 30.
Over the same period, the state of Maharashtra has been battling the COVID-19 pandemic. It has the highest number of patients in India and its capital city of Mumbai has second highest number of patients after Delhi. So, whispers in Mumbai's power corridors had it that Mehta would get an extension of at least three months, again, beginning June 30.
The other reason for this buzz was Mehta’s proximity with CM Thackeray. Mehta was the BMC commissioner before he became the CS of Maharashtra. BMC has been ruled by the Shiv Sena and every commissioner would try and keep good terms with the Sena chief.
But that was not the only reason. Mehta has a history – the relationship with Thackeray went way back, to 1995. Mehta was Private Secretary to Gopinath Munde, deputy CM in the then Shiv Sena BJP government. Munde and the late Pramod Mahajan always had an excellent relationship with Thackeray. "Mehta was in touch with Matoshri (Thackeray's residence in Mumbai) in that period. The current relationship has a history of almost 25 years," said a senior leader in the Shiv Sena.
There was opposition to Mehta's extension among members of the Shiv Sena too. A senior Sena minister Sena met Thackeray and explained how another extension to Mehta would cause damage to the MVA government. Sources told NewsClick that this senior minister gave the CM instances where Mehta interfered in various departments, without a concern for the minister in place. In one of the recent pahijet meetings, two proposals were rejected by senior ministers. One was a matter about the buying of shares and the other was to buy wheat from farmers. The first proposal has serious financial consequences and second proposal was presented before the cabinet without the concerned minister being informed.
Mehta is reportedly also close to another senior politician, the match-maker of the MVA government, Sharad Pawar. Sources said that even Pawar was in favour of Mehta till March. "Mehta was his favorite. But when he heard complaints from ministers from his own party and from the other parties, his support for Mehta waned," said a senior NCP minister.
There were a number of complaints from even within the bureaucracy. An extension for him would have been seen by many as an injustice to other senior and competent officers like Sanjay Kumar (now appointed as CS), Sitaram Kunte and Pravin Pardeshi (both 1985 batch). "Many principal secretaries were also complaining about Mehta's unnecessary interference in their departments. He was also promoting his favourite officers by giving them plum jobs," said a mid-ranking officer.
All of this resulted in Mehta taking up the new post as Principal Advisor, with Sanjay Kumar appointed in place. Whether this new post for Mehta creates another level of decision-making, or remains contentious, is to be seen.