Cover Story: Maharashtra

Anil Deshmukh case: Thickening plot in Maharashtra

Print edition : December 03, 2021

Former Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh being taken to a special court for remand by Enforcement Directorate officials, in Mumbai on November 6, 2021. Photo: PTI

Former Mumbai Police Commissioner Parambir Singh talking to mediapersons after taking charge on February 2, 2020. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Sachin Vaze, a former police officer, being taken by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for a hearing in connection with the recovery of explosives near industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s house, in Mumbai on March 14, 2021. Photo: PTI

Unable to accept the MVA government in Maharashtra and desperate to reclaim lost ground in the State, the BJP stoops to new lows by hatching plots and launching raids to bring down Ministers and persecute officials.

A supposed terror plot involving a car bomb parked near the residence of industrialist Mukesh Ambani in Mumbai in February this year has ended up as a case that has exposed not just a deep rot in the State administration but a new low in the no-holds-barred politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The bomb scare appears to be yet another attempt by the BJP to destabilise the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, a coalition government of the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

Such has been the success of the bomb story that former Home Minister Anil Deshmukh was forced to resign; he is now under arrest. Former Mumbai Commissioner of Police Parambir Singh is missing and Sachin Vaze, a former Assistant Police Inspector, encounter specialist and lead investigator of the bomb case, is in jail. Several other lower-level government and police officials are also in the net.

Gunning for MVA

Ever since 2019, when the BJP severed ties with its long-term ally Shiv Sena, the party has relentlessly tried to bring down the MVA government led by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. Using dubious strategies and with the advantage of being in power at the Centre, the saffron party created chaos even during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Maharashtra was grappling with the highest number of cases in the country.

Also read: Uddhav Thackeray's staying power amid BJP hostility

Former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who is now the leader of the opposition in the State, has used every opportunity to needle the government, to the point where citizens’ groups in Mumbai had to tell him that the government should be allowed to govern in these difficult times without having to fight ridiculous fires set off by the opposition.

So, why is the BJP finding it so difficult to accept a coalition government of unlikely partners and function as a responsible and mature opposition? The reason is not far to seek. Political analysts said that the BJP is exhibiting such desperation because it is critical for the party to reclaim lost ground in Maharashtra if it wants to win the 2024 general election. After Uttar Pradesh, it is Maharashtra, with 48 seats, that sends the largest contingent of elected representatives to Parliament. In 2019, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine won 41 Lok Sabha seats, of which the BJP won 23.

In 2019, the BJP won 105 out of the 288 Assembly seats but was unable to form the government following the break-up with the Shiv Sena. Analysts said that the party will seemingly stop at nothing to secure victories in the elections to Parliament and the Assembly in 2024.

Use of Central agencies

The attack by the opposition comes in many forms. The most blatant is the use of Central agencies to target the MVA leaders. In the case of the bomb scare, within days of the alleged explosives being discovered, and before the MVA government could even begin to understand the ‘conspiracy’, Central agencies plunged into an investigation. An NCP leader told mediapersons that it was not possible for Central agencies to work at such speed in Maharashtra without sanction from the top.

The probe seemed less about the bomb scare than about going after MVA leaders. Sources said that Anil Deshmukh was an easy target: Parambir Singh was known to be in the good books of the MVA and the agencies used him to bring down the former Home Minister.

Harshvardhan Patil, a veteran Congress politician who defected to the BJP in 2019, made a revealing comment recently when he said that he was getting “sound sleep” as he did not need to fear “inquiries” from Central agencies ever since he joined the party.

Also read: The curious case of Parambir Singh

Obviously, in a case where the Police are complicit in a crime, the Home Minister will face the flak and has to take responsibility. It is speculated that Anil Deshmukh’s proximity to NCP leader Sharad Pawar, who the BJP is unable to touch even though it has tried to, was the reason for his being on its radar.

The case of Anil Deshmukh

NCP insiders said it was Sharad Pawar who handpicked Anil Deshmukh to be the Home Minister. By tarnishing Anil Deshmukh, the BJP seems to have succeeded in hurting Sharad Pawar. The NCP strongman has repeatedly said it is a case of political vendetta and has not budged from his support to the former Minister.

The 71-year-old Anil Deshmukh began his career as an independent MLA, cutting his teeth in the State Cabinet by aligning with the Shiv Sena-BJP combine from 1995 to 1999. He then joined the NCP and held ministerial positions during the Congress-NCP coalition period between 1999 and 2009.

Anil Deshmukh, who resigned on April 5, could not be apprehended for almost seven months. The Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) arrested him in Mumbai on November 2 on charges of extortion and money laundering. The move came after the Bombay High Court refused to cancel an E.D. summons sent to him. With few legal avenues left, Anil Deshmukh had no option but to turn himself in for interrogation.

Anil Deshmukh’s downfall began soon after the bomb plot unravelled. Sachin Vaze was reportedly put on the job to investigate the crime on Parambir Singh’s instructions. When the Mumbai Police discovered that Sachin Vaze was allegedly the mastermind behind planting the bomb, Parambir Singh could no longer continue as Mumbai’s Commissioner of Police, as the incident supposedly took place in Mumbai under his watch. He was shunted to the Home Guards. Unhappy at losing a prestigious position, he retaliated by writing a letter to Uddhav Thackeray accusing Anil Deshmukh of orchestrating an extortion racket that included setting a target for police officials to collect Rs.100 crore every month from hoteliers and restaurant owners.

Also read: High-voltage drama rocks Maharashtra government

Following these allegations, the Bombay High Court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to conduct a preliminary enquiry into the case.

Soon after Parambir Singh’s letter, Sachin Vaze, who was in custody of the National Investigating Agency (NIA), wrote a letter to the agency claiming that Anil Deshmukh had demanded Rs.2 crore to reinstate him. Sachin Vaze was suspended from the police force in 2004 for 16 years for his involvement in a series of encounter killings. The State government asked him to rejoin the police force in 2020 in order to help with the overload owing to the pandemic. He also accused Anil Deshmukh of asking him to extort money from a gutka trader.

Although the special NIA court investigating his case did not accept his letter, Sachin Vaze’s allegations, along with those of Parambir Singh, caused significant damage to the Home Minister’s image.

Both Parambir Singh and Anil Deshmukh dropped out of sight for several months. Parambir Singh continues to remain elusive.

In the E.D.’s remand application to the court, the agency stated that after conducting raids and speaking to Anil Deshmukh’s contacts, including family members, in different parts of the country, it had discovered that he was linked to several money laundering operations. The E.D. alleged that he had floated at least 14 shell companies to conduct benami transactions. The agency said that inspection of the companies’ balance sheets and other documentation showed that little real business has been conducted and that they seemed to have been created to funnel ill-gotten gains. The agency booked the former Minister under several sections of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (PMLA).

In June 2021, the E.D. arrested Anil Deshmukh’s personal secretary Sanjeev Palande and personal assistant Kundan Shinde following search operations at Anil Deshmukh’s residences at Nagpur and Mumbai. At the time of their arrest, the E.D. said that there was proof to show that the duo was involved in collecting and rerouting Rs.4.7 crore from beer parlours in Mumbai. The money was allegedly transferred through the hawala route to various companies, including a non-governmental organisation called Sai Shikshan Sanstha, which is run by Anil Deshmukh’s family members. Shinde was on the Sanstha’s board.

Anil Deshmukh and the MVA have maintained that the investigation was politically motivated. The E.D., however, said that Anil Deshmukh was an “important cog in the wheel” and the “prime beneficiary of the proceeds of crime”. Additionally, the agency said it was looking for “international links” in the case.

Also read: Mumbai bomb scare case shifts focus to allegations of corruption against politicians and police officers

However,the shenanigans of the police and politicians were exposed in September this year when a CBI report giving Anil Deshmukh a “clean chit” was leaked to the media. The CBI said someone had paid a bribe to one of its officials to get the report. But the NCP pointed out that the agency had not denied the authenticity of the report.

Intent to harass

At the time of Anil Deshmukh’s resignation, Sharad Pawar said that the BJP was harassing him out of frustration and that it was a “new trend of using power by those in power”. He added that the coalition would not buckle.

Incidentally, the E.D. had attempted to persecute Sharad Pawar before the 2019 Assembly elections with a case but dropped it case very quickly. NCP insiders said that although Anil Deshmukh might have skeletons in his closet, this case was not about that.

After Anil Deshmukh, the Centre’s next target was NCP leader and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar. In October this year, the Income Tax Department raided several businesses, a sugar factory in Satara as well as the homes of Ajit Pawar’s sisters following allegations by BJP leader Kirit Somaiya. Ajit Pawar said that he was completely in the clear as he pays taxes on his business interests. The BJP had accused him in 2019 too in an irrigation scam. Interestingly, the BJP had made Ajit Pawar Deputy Chief Minister when it made a bid to form the government in 2019.

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