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Power tussle ensues in Maharashtra as MVA government counters BJP

Print edition : Apr 08, 2022 T+T-
Nawab Malik,  NCP leader and Minority Affairs and Skills Development Minister, being taken to court from the Enforcement Directorate office in Mumbai on March 7.

Nawab Malik, NCP leader and Minority Affairs and Skills Development Minister, being taken to court from the Enforcement Directorate office in Mumbai on March 7.

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

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

Devedra Fadnavis,  former Chief Minister and Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly, with BJP MLAs on the second day of the Budget session, in Mumbai on March 4.

Devedra Fadnavis, former Chief Minister and Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly, with BJP MLAs on the second day of the Budget session, in Mumbai on March 4.

Faced with pressure from the opposition BJP and on other fronts, the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra comes up with countermoves in an attempt to strengthen its position.

A pot-boiler is probably the word that can sum up the political antics in Maharashtra. Although its efforts have had no tangible effect, the State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has mounted a relentless attack on the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition comprising the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress. The three parties came together in 2019 to form the government in the State. From its initial predictions that the MVA coalition will not last a few months and that Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray will not be able to hold his government together, the BJP has kept up its attempts at destabilising the government and reclaiming what it believes is its right to occupy Mantralaya, the seat of power in the State.

MVA retaliation

The MVA was slow to hit back, involved as it was with measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 and the lockdown necessitated by the pandemic. But in 2021, the coalition began to retaliate. The BJP upped the ante in the aftermath of the mysterious bomb scare, when on February 25, 2021, a gelatin-laden SUV was found parked near Antilia, the residence of industrialist Mukesh Ambani. An offshoot of that incident was the arrest of Anil Deshmukh, NCP leader and the then Home Minister. In November 2021, Anil Deshmukh was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in connection with a case involving the alleged extortion of Rs.100 crore and money laundering.

While the BJP lauded the arrest saying it showed the Prime Minister’s zero tolerance for corruption, there was little doubt that the party’s crusade against corruption was more a crusade against the MVA. In fact, it was generally held that the State BJP depended heavily on Central enforcement agencies to pursue its agenda. The ED was back in action in February 2022, this time to arrest the NCP’s Nawab Malik, who holds the Minority Affairs and Skills Development portfolios in the MVA government. Nawab Malik was arrested on charges of money laundering and involvement in land dealings with the underworld fugitive Dawood Ibrahim’s sister dating back to 1999. Both Anil Deshmukh and Nawab Malik are in judicial custody.

Nawab Malik, who is also the NCP’s spokesperson, was in the news after the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) arrested actor Sharukh Khan’s son Aryan on October 3. He accused the NCB’s flamboyant chief Sameer Wankhede of falsely implicating Aryan in a drugs case. He called him a “BJP pawn” who was carrying out orders to harass political opponents. A few months earlier, Wankhede had arrested Nawab Malik’s son-in-law in an unrelated drug case.

Also read: Thickening plot in Maharashtra

But it is Nawab Malik’s attack on former BJP Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis that seems to have prompted the BJP’s retaliatory action. Nawab Malik had made public a photograph of Fadnavis and his wife with an alleged drug dealer named Jaydeep Rana. The picture was taken in 2018 during a video shoot in which Fadnavis’ wife was singing. Nawab Malik said Jaydeep Rana had financed the video. When the ED arrested Nawab Malik on February 23, NCP chief Sharad Pawar said it was just a matter of time before the BJP targeted Nawab Malik. “If there is a Muslim activist who is the opponent, it is their habit to link his name to Dawood,” he said.

Support for Nawab Malik within the MVA also came from the Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut, a Rajya Sabha MP. He said: “This is a challenge to the Maharashtra government. The Central investigation agencies, like a mafia, are targeting the BJP’s political opponents who expose falsehood.” Sanjay Raut has been in the line of fire with Kirit Somaiya of the BJP gunning for him. Sanjay Raut had said that Somaiya’s family had benefited from the scam that led to the collapse of the Punjab and Maharashtra Cooperative Bank. Kirit Somaiya hit back at the Shiv Sena, questioning the valuation of a property belonging to Uddhav Thackeray’s wife, Rashmi, in Raigad district.

On March 3, Anil Gote, former BJP legislator who is now with the NCP, filed a complaint with the ED against Fadnavis. He said the BJP had received Rs.10 crore from a developer in 2014, when Fadnavis was Chief Minister, and Rs.10 crore from another builder with alleged links to the Memon family, who are believed to have underworld links.

BJP’s demand

In what is clearly becoming a tit for tat, on March 8, Fadnavis presented the Speaker of the Assembly with a pen drive, which, he said, contained proof that the MVA was framing senior BJP leaders. The proof was a series of recorded conversations allegedly between Public Prosecutor Pravin Chavan and various police officials. They discussed BJP MLA Girish Mahajan, who apparently had been trying to take over an educational institution in Jalgaon and had intimidated one of the directors. A first information report was filed against Girish Mahajan in December 2020 in Jalgaon, and this was shifted to Pune in January 2021 since the intimidation apparently took place there.

After handing over the pen drive to the Speaker, Fadnavis addressed the Assembly and read out parts of the transcripts of the recordings. Names of senior police officials and politicians were mentioned in the discussions about how to frame Girish Mahajan under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act. Fadnavis demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Also read: Searching for scams

A week later, the Public Prosecutor resigned, and Home Minister Dilip Walse-Patil said the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) would take over what he called the case of the “sting operation”. The BJP persisted with its demand for a CBI inquiry, and Fadnavis said the party would move the court, if necessary, for this.

Doubts have been raised about the validity of the recordings. Pawar even raised questions about the recordings. He said if they were genuine then there was the added worry about how the BJP managed to procure the details that should have remained secret.

The MVA has also had to contend with pressure from the Supreme Court. The court recently returned a report of the State government relating to reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in local body elections. In response, the State passed two Bills that enabled it to delay elections to 10 Municipal Corporations, including the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), and 25 zilla parishads.

Local body elections

There is some background to this. In March last year, the apex court had struck down reservation for OBCs in local body elections. Keenly aware of the strength of this lobby and the upcoming elections, the State government tried legal options to restore the quota. In January, the court asked the State to submit a report on the status of OBCs in Maharashtra. The Maharashtra State Commission for Backward Classes submitted the report and recommended 27 per cent reservation for OBCs in local body elections.

Also read: ‘Democracy under threat’

At its March 7 hearing, the Supreme Court rejected the report. A bench consisting of Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and C.T. Ravikumar said: “The report itself mentions that the same is being prepared in absence of empirical study and research by the Commission. Having failed to do so, the Commission should not have filed the interim report.” It concluded that “… it is not possible to permit any authority, much less the State Election Commission, to act upon the recommendations made in the said report. For the time being, we do not intend to dilate on the correctness of each of the observations made by the commission in the interim report. We, however, direct all concerned not to act upon the interim report as submitted.” The court instructed the State Election Commission to notify the election process for local body elections and to treat OBC seats as general category seats.

This was obviously a blow to the State government, which decided not to hold the elections without OBC reserved seats. Since the report was rejected because of poor data, the State is hoping to gather adequate information and present the report again. In order to buy time, it decided to postpone the elections and the only way to do this was by passing the two Bills.

The Assembly was unanimous in passing the Bills that sought to amend the Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act, the Maharashtra Municipal Corporations Act and the Maharashtra Municipal Councils, Nagar Panchayats and Industrial Townships Act, 1965, the Maharashtra Village Panchayats Act, and the Maharashtra Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis Act, 1961. Essentially, the Bills provide the State powers to delimit and reconfigure wards, powers that were earlier vested with the State Election Commission. By doing this, the State has taken over the Election Commission’s right to decide when the election will be held. Until the elections are held, the BMC and other local bodies, whose terms have expired, will be run by an administrator.