Maharashtra

High-voltage drama rocks Maharashtra government following the arrest of policeman Sachin Vaze

Print edition : April 23, 2021

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. He has preferred to let Sharad Pawar handle the twists and turns in the wake of the allegations against Home Minister Anil Deshmukh. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

Sharad Pawar , Nationalist Congress Party leader, addressing the media on the allegations made against Anil Deshmukh of his party, in Mumbai on March 21. Photo: PTI

Anil Deshmukh, Home Minister. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Param Bir Singh, who was removed as Mumbai Police Commissioner. He accused Deshmukh of pushing the police department to extort money from businesses. Photo: Vivek Bendre

What started as a criminal case following the arrest of policeman Sachin Vaze flares into a political crisis for the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government even as COVID-19 numbers reach new highs in the State.

Maharashtra politics touched a new low after the discovery of a vehicle with gelignite, or blasting gelatin sticks, outside industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s Mumbai home, Antilia, on February 25. Soon after that events snowballed to a new point and names—both known and unknown—began to appear in the news. In the chain of events that followed, a hitherto unknown man called Mansukh Hiran, to whom the car with gelatin sticks apparently belonged, was murdered. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Vaze, a man with a chequered career, who was heading the investigation of the Hiran case. And Commissioner of Mumbai Police Param Bir Singh was summarily transferred. The deposed Police Commissioner accused Home Minister Anil Deshmukh belonging to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of pushing the police department to extort money from businesses. All this was manna from heaven for the State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has been trying ways of deposing the government. Emboldened by the Centre’s threat to impose President’s Rule in the State, the BJP has been dancing around what it thought was the ruling coalition Maha Vikas Aghadi’s (MVA) funeral pyre. What started as a criminal case had flared into a political crisis.

For many, the sequence of events was just one more attempt to dislodge the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA. Speaking in strict confidentiality, a former bureaucrat said, “Looks like the Centre is training the big guns on Maharashtra…. A car with gelatin sticks is enough to set off the train of events that you see now. It’s significant that the bomb scare case was taken away from Mumbai Police and handed to the Centre-controlled NIA.”

Nana Patole, who was recently appointed president of the State unit of the Congress, which is a constituent of the ruling MVA, was more outspoken. He said: “Since coming to power in Maharashtra, the BJP leaders in the State have gone on a rampage and are working to discredit Maharashtra. This is an insult to Maharashtra, and people are fed up with the BJP’s action. Opposition Leader Devendra Fadnavis is making baseless, unruly and childish allegations. He has also lied about CDR [Call Detail Record. Fadnavis had said he had the CDR of calls between Vaze and Hiran] in the Assembly and he is constantly lying. They are plotting against Maharashtra by holding the central investigation agency in their hands.”

Patole recalled a similar attempt last year after the actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide. “In the case of actor Sushant Singh’s suicide, too, the BJP defamed Maharashtra for four months by holding hands with the central investigation agency and the media,” he said.

Param Bir Singh’s letter

The BJP almost made a dent in the government after Param Bir Singh’s letter accusing Deshmukh of promoting corruption went public. Param Bir Singh alleged that Deshmukh had asked the police to provide Rs.100 crore to the Home department on a monthly basis via hafta (weekly protection money paid primarily by small and medium businesses like bars, hookah parlours, etc.). The BJP demanded Deshmukh’s resignation. In his defence, the Home Minister tweeted, “Sachin Vaze’s direct links in Antilia case and Mansukh Hiren case are coming forward. Param Bir Singh is afraid that its connections will reach up to him. He has made these false allegations to save and protect himself from legal action.”

Also read: Param Bir Singh, former Mumbai Police Commissioner, moves Supreme Court for CBI inquiry against State Home Minister Anil Deshmukh for corruption

Deshmukh’s place in the government was on the edge until NCP leader Sharad Pawar stepped in. On March 17, following a meeting Pawar held with his NCP Ministers and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, a decision was taken for the MVA to support Deshmukh. After the meeting, when Pawar was asked about the possibility of Deshmukh being sacked, he replied, “This is news to me…. We do not believe that this [arrest of Vaze] will affect the State government.” He also said he believed that the State government had handled the matter well, emphasising that the case was initially investigated by the Mumbai Police before the NIA took over.

Questionable career

Vaze, who has had a highly questionable career in the police, was suspended after the custodial death and destruction of evidence in the case of Khwaja Yunus, a suspect in the 2002 Ghatkopar blasts in Mumbai. During his suspension he joined the Shiv Sena, but the party says he was never an active member. He was reinstated in service last year and also led the team that arrested Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami in the case of alleged abetment to suicide of an interior designer.

Vaze’s Sena connection made the BJP target the MVA even more. Furthermore, Param Bir Singh’s letter accusing Deshmukh of encouraging extortion from businesses threw the MVA’s partners into conflict.

in a quagmire

Conflict has been at the core of the MVA ever since its formation. Over the 16 months of its tenure, this has been low key, but the disparate nature of the three partners—the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress—cannot be denied. A tainted senior Minister brought out all the tensions in the MVA. And, briefly, there were divided opinions within the government about whether Deshmukh should resign or not.

Sharad Pawar’s intervention in the matter brought them all around to support Deshmukh. Jayant Patil, president of the Maharashtra NCP, said there was no question of replacing Deshmukh. Nana Patole said: “Did Ministers in the Fadnavis government resign when there were serious allegations against them? There are allegations against Narendra Modi too. Did he resign? So, what right does Fadnavis have to demand the resignation of Anil Deshmukh? The government will take action against those found guilty in the current case.” The accepted stand in the government is that if Deshmukh is asked to go the MVA will be playing into the BJP’s hands.

Interestingly, though the BJP played on Vaze’s brief political stint with the Sena there has been little or no mention by the MVA of Param Bir Singh’s BJP connection. His son is married to the daughter of BJP leader Datta Meghe. Meghe’s son, Sameer Meghe, is a BJP MLA.

The Congress, while agreeing that Deshmukh must stay, has asked for a probe into the alleged extortion activities the Home Minister is said to have encouraged. Param Bir Singh himself has filed a public interest litigation petition in the High Court seeking a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into Deshmukh’s dealings.

Uddhav Thackeray has been relatively quiet throughout this saga, preferring to let Pawar handle the twists and turns that he seems to grasp more naturally than Thackeray does. Ten days after Param Bir Singh’s allegations of corruption, Uddhav Thackeray set up a high-level inquiry committee headed by retired Bombay High Court judge Kailash Uttamchand Chandiwal. The committee is expected to file its report in six months.

Murky saga

But the saga gets murkier and the already tangled threads between politicians and policemen get knottier. In his letter, Param Bir Singh referred to a report submitted last August by Rashmi Shukla, former Commissioner of Intelligence, to the additional Chief Secretary (Home) through the then Director General of Police Subodh Jaiswal. It dealt with an alleged money-for-transfers scam within the police department. Jaiswal apparently flagged the report as important and urgent.

Rashmi Shukla had apparently tapped the phones of six middlemen who assisted police officials for getting the posts they desired. The phone interceptions were apparently done in the interest of public safety and the recorded calls revealed the names of senior politicians. But the report does not say that the leaders were contacted directly, nor is there any mention of the monies paid going directly to these leaders.

Also read: Sachin Vaze, Mumbai police officer arrested in abandoned vehicle case, to remain in NIA custody

This report by Rashmi Shukla, who is now on deputation with the Central Reserve Police Force, got leaked. Devendra Fadnavis has been using it as a stick to beat the MVA government with. The MVA is considering taking action against Rashmi Shukla since the document was a highly confidential one.

The BJP is not going to let go of what it sees as an opportunity to overthrow the government. So far, the Centre had left this task to the State unit, but Fadnavis has, in the eyes of its leaders, failed. And so, the Centre itself has stepped in. Up to now, this series of events has been the most serious threat to the MVA.It will not be easy for the government to dismiss this like the earlier problems it faced.

The game is now being played by two past masters of political intrigue—Sharad Pawar and Amit Shah. The two reportedly interacted in Ahmedabad at a meeting arranged by a common industrialist friend in the last week of March. So, why is Pawar meeting Shah? Is it to come to some sort of a middle ground over the recent high-voltage incidents? Or is it to broker some political deal?

Sharad Pawar has, in the past, had close dealings with the BJP. His nephew and current Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar even created a splinter group within the NCP and tied up with the BJP in 2019. But that misadventure was brief and Ajit Pawar returned to the fold soon. What the two leaders discussed remains private. One fact that this saga has underscored is that the survival of the MVA government depends almost solely on Sharad Pawar.

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