by Abhay Vaidya
The circumstances in which deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar left his sixth floor office on the day of the Mantralaya fire last week and his hint of a conspiracy behind the fire are two of the most controversial aspects of this tragedy which claimed five lives.
Two of these five persons who died were in the chamber of Pawar’s personal assistant and thousands of government documents destroyed in the fire which gutted three floors of Mantralaya- the secretariat of the Maharashtra government.
So did Pawar quietly leave his sixth floor office without instructing those present to vacate immediately even after he was alerted about the fire on Thursday afternoon? Or did he, like a decent human being, ask all present to evacuate the floor just as he was doing?
Media reports have presented sharply conflicting accounts of this situation raising serious doubts about Pawar’s conduct and that of his security staff during the crisis.
The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and Loksatta were among the prominent dailies with similar accounts of how Ajit Pawar quietly left his office after being alerted by a senior police official about the fire.
According to a report in The Times of India on 23 June:
Ajit Pawar made good his escape after he was alerted in time by a senior police officer, leaving officials from the public relations department and visitors, including NCP activists, to fend for themselves.”
According to the report, Pawar had convened a meeting of senior officials of the PR department to discuss the issue of salary discrepancies in view of the six pay commission recommendations. During this meeting with senior officials such as director Pralhad Jadhav, chief minister’s public relations officer Satish Lalit, Aniruddha Asthaputre and home minister’s PRO Kishore Gangurde, a senior police official reportedly entered the committee room and informed Pawar that he would have to leave immediately in view of the fire on the fourth floor.
However the officials and NCP activists who were in the room stayed there expecting to him to return given they weren’t told to evacuate the building.
“After waiting for 10 minutes, when Pawar did not return, the officials came out of the committee room. They were in a state of shock, since by that time the fire had engulfed the entire floor and there was no scope to reach the staircase,” the report stated.
The people who were left behind had to then face the crisis themselves and Baramati Bank’s former chairman Umesh Potekar and Baramati Merchants Chamber secretary Mahesh Gugule, who were sitting in the chamber of Pawar’s personal assistant, were killed in the tragedy.
However, the same report also carried a quote by an unnamed official from Pawar’s office who said, “Pawar was personally monitoring the situation. When it was brought to his notice that PR officials were stuck, he ensured that they were rescued safely.”
The Hindustan Times in its 23 June edition presented a similar account with quotes from a government official, an NCP activist and NCP legislator Vinayak Mete under the headline, “We waited inside without a clue, even as deputy CM was rescued.”
The Loksatta on June 22 also carried a detailed account on similar lines while its sister publication, The Indian Express reported that “Ajit Pawar was led out of his sixth-floor office by security guards even as over 50 assembled in his office were left to fend for themselves.”
The Pune-based Marathi daily Saakal had a contradictory account in its 22 June edition which said that the moment Ajit Pawar stepped out of his office he saw smoke and fire and alerted everyone inside his office and on the way to leave the building.
A DNA report dated 22 June said that on “smelling something burning, Pawar went out of his sixth-floor office to ask the personnel about it. As soon as Ajit Pawar was told about the fire, he immediately ordered his staff to evacuate the building.
It quoted Pawar as saying:
I gathered my colleagues and staff and we all came down the main staircase.
These sharply contrasting accounts raise serious doubts about what really happened and whether the minister and his security staff had shown adequate concern for the lives of those present in his office.
It also brings to mind the extraordinary leadership shown by New York mayor Rudy Giuliani in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 and the bravery and martyrdom of Mumbai police officials Hemant Karkare, Vijay Salaskar, Ashok Kamte and assistant sub-inspector Tukaram Ombale while fighting the Mumbai terrorists in the 2008 terror strike on Mumbai.
Pawar also made himself conspicuous by sparking an unnecessary controversy with his comment that Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s chamber was left intact although all adjoining rooms were destroyed in the fire. The CM poured cold water on this hint of a conspiracy by pointing out that his chamber had thick walls, a thick door and sparse wooden furniture.
Among all the ministers from Maharashtra, it was Pawar’s image that stood compromised in the Mantralaya fire incident. It would do well for him to show better leadership skills and heed his uncle Sharad Pawar’s advise to refine his public speaking that is expected of a person aspiring for high positions in public life.