The rise and fall of former Maharashtra Chief Minister AR Antulay

Mumbai, Deepak Lokhande: The man they called the Harun al-Rashid of Maharashtra has passed away. AR Antulay, more known to people for the alleged cement scam during his tenure as chief minister in the 80s, breathed his last at Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai on Tuesday.

The rise and fall of former Maharashtra Chief Minister AR Antulay

Antulay’s career is the case of a classic Muslim politician who started out as a liberal in the 70s and ended as a conservative Muslim at the turn of the century and that, indeed, is a tragedy of Indian secularism.

There will be many who may want to point fingers at the taint of the High Court strictures against him in the cement scam where Antulay was accused of setting up trusts to collect donations in lieu of extra cement for construction activities. The case cannot be dismissed summarily as minor corruption and it was indeed a clear misuse of office, a charge that has been upheld by the courts too. Ram Jethmalani decided to make it an example and fought cases against Antulay for free. The issue was dragged on for far too long and was eventually decided only in 2013. Many had even forgotten what the fuss was all about. There were two interesting angles to the cement scam which went unnoticed though. One, the trust that collected donations was named after Indira Gandhi (Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan), Congress’ supreme leader at the time and two, the leak came from the Maratha leaders in Maharashtra who were uncomfortable working under a Muslim chief minister (the star witness by the prosecution was Shalinitai Patil who was the Revenue Minister in Antulay’s cabinet).

It seems like one can do anything in the Congress and still get away with it in the party as long as the First Family isn’t affected. That Antulay collected donations in the name of Indira Gandhi did not go down well with the so-called high command (again, the Gandhis and the Gandhis alone), and Antulay was asked to step down almost immediately.

The more pertinent matter is that the liberal Muslim politician in Antulay gave way to a conservative one who went to the extent of alleging that Hemant Karkare (who was killed in the 26/11 attack at the hands of terrorist Ajmal Kasab) was killed by Hindutvawadi forces who didn’t like Karkare’s line of investigation in the Malegaon blasts.

What brought about this change in Antulay? What made him so bitter about mainstream politics that he turned into a hardliner of sorts?

It is an open secret that the Maratha lobby in Maharashtra was not happy to see Antulay, a Muslim as the chief minister. That he became chief minister after Sharad Pawar lost the post, should say it all. Beyond that, Antulay was gaining popularity. His midnight raids on hooch dens in Mumbai earned him the title of Harun al-Rashid, an eighth-century caliph who would go around his state to help the poor. He had also announced that he would get back the Bhawani sword — the sword used by iconic Maratha king Shivaji which now lies in the British Museum in London. Antulay understood the nuances of mass politics pretty well and knew what would strike a chord with the people. It was this ability of his that threatened the Maratha politicians, who used the cement scam cleverly to throttle his career.

And then came the crushing defeat in Lok Sabha where he lost to Shiv Sena’s Anant Tare. Antulay lost as Sena repeatedly invoked Antulay’s religion. What was intriguing though was that Sena chief Bal Thackeray shared a great camaraderie with Antulay while he was the chief minister and Antulay’s raids were conducted along with Thackeray’s close aide Pramod Navalkar.

However, the Antulay before these events and the Antulay after, were never the same ever again.