THE Sachin Vaze controversy, which began with a bomb scare near Antilia, Reliance chief Mukesh Ambani’s residence, has undoubtedly set off a full-fledged political crisis in Maharashtra. As investigations delve deeper into the actions of those arrested in connection with the bomb scare, a complex web of “arrangements” between police officers and politicians appears to be unravelling.
This has the potential of destabilising the already shaky Shiv Sena–led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government, something the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has relentlessly pursued. The threat to one of India’s corporate heads has been cast aside, and the case has shifted to investigators probing allegations of extortion against senior Ministers. Therefore, while Cabinet Ministers are being interrogated in connection with ill-gotten gains, it may be worth a moment to consider what exactly the bomb scare plot was about and what did Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Vaze have to do with it?
In the six weeks after an explosives-laden car was found close to the Ambani mansion, Sachin Vaze and his associate Assistant Police Inspector Riaz Kazi, who worked with him at the Crime Intelligence Unit, have been arrested; Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh has been transferred because of his poor handling of the case; and Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, a senior leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, has resigned in connection with the bomb scare and allegations of corruption. With the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) stepping in to probe the corruption charges, the coming weeks will perhaps see more members of the ruling regime face a certain amount of heat.
A Maharashtra Congress party member said on condition of anonymity: “We are contending with a massive COVID crisis. The State government must be supported on focussing on the alarming surge. The time is to fight the war on the virus, not use it as an opportunity to plunge the State into another crisis. Ever since the saffron party fell out with the Shiv Sena, it has used every opportunity to belittle the MVA coalition. There is no doubt that corrupt Ministers must be exposed, however, the entire episode smacks of a conspiracy, which is not a mature way of governance.”
The case so far
On February 25, a Scorpio SUV parked awkwardly on Mumbai’s Carmichael Road led the police to suspect something was amiss. On further inspection, a bunch of gelatin sticks was found in the car with a note threatening the Ambanis. Sachin Vaze was put in charge of the investigation. However, when the car’s registration was traced to a contact of Vaze, a businessman called Mansukh Hiran, the policeman was taken off the case.
When Hiran went missing and his body was later found, opposition party members demanded an investigation into Vaze. Hiran’s wife claimed that her husband had been in touch with Vaze and accused the police inspector of murdering Hiran. The NIA was called in, and Vaze was subsequently arrested. He has been charged with the murder of Hiran and, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, with planting the bomb.
Vaze, an encounter specialist, had been reinstated into the police force after a hiatus of 13 years. His proximity to the Shiv Sena was known as he had joined the party during the period he was under suspension. Vaze maintained that he was not responsible for the bomb scare or murder and that he was a pawn in the State’s politics. However, in an unexpected turnaround, Vaze started cooperating with the investigating agencies, even leading them to sites where evidence was reportedly buried. He is currently in judicial custody.
Sachin Vaze’s letter
Another curious angle occurred in the case on April 8 when a letter Vaze apparently wrote to Bombay Municipality Commissioner Iqbal Chahal and Mumbai Police Commissioner Hemant Nagrale in which he accused Deshmukh and Transport Minister Anil Parab of demanding money from him was leaked to the media. The BJP immediately demanded the resignation of Parab. In the letter, Vaze alleged that Parab asked him to initiate talks with the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust, which was facing an inquiry. He said the Minister had asked him to seek Rs.50 crore from the trust to close the case. With regard to Deshmukh, Vaze claimed that the Minister had asked him for Rs.2 crore to be reinstated into the police force. So, why is Vaze throwing the coalition under the bus? Perhaps, it is a survival tactic, said a lawyer familiar with the case on condition of anonymity, but these were the people who brought him back into the force. The dots do not join. There is something far more sinister going on, the lawyer said.
When Param Bir Singh was transferred, he accused Vaze of colluding with Deshmukh to carry out extortion raids on commercial establishments in the city. Param Bir Singh, who was furious at his transfer, filed a case in the Supreme Court on March 22 challenging his ouster as Police Commissioner. He lashed out at the State government by writing an explosive letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray accusing Deshmukh of directing police officers to collect a target of Rs.100 crore each month in the form of extortion. Param Bir Singh said that Vaze and a handful of officers would break protocol by meeting Deshmukh at his residence, where they would be given instructions on illegal money collection. The Supreme Court rejected the case on March 25 saying that the matter might be serious but the Bombay High Court could handle it. Param Bir Singh filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the High Court the next day asking for a CBI enquiry into Deshmukh.
In his letter, Param Bir Singh referred to a report by Rashmi Shukla, a former Commissioner of Intelligence, which revealed an alleged money for transfer scam within the police department. Rashmi Shukla claimed that a phone-tapping operation found that several Ministers in the current government were connected to this scam. The government said that phone tapping without the Home Ministry’s permission was illegal and that the BJP was using Rashmi Shukla.
Court orders CBI probe
On April 5, a bench of the Bombay High Court comprising Justices Dipankar Datta and G.S. Kulkarni directed the CBI to begin a preliminary enquiry into Param Bir Singh’s allegations. The bench said this was an “extraordinary” and “unprecedented” case that warranted an independent inquiry. In a 52-page judgment, the judges said that Param Bir Singh’s allegations against Deshmukh put at stake citizens’ faith in the State police. The order said: “Such allegations, made by a serving police officer, against the State Home Minister could not be left unattended, and were required to be probed into if prima facie they made a case of a cognisable offence.” Significantly, the High Court ruled in favour of two more PIL petitions and one criminal petition that were filed seeking an investigation into the corruption charges. Deshmukh and the Maharashtra government have appealed in the Supreme Court against a CBI enquiry.
Two teams from the Central agency arrived in Mumbai soon after the court order and began a series of interrogations. Two of Deshmukh’s staff members, Sanjeev Palande and Kundan Shinde, were questioned in connection with the Rs.100 crore extortion claim. The CBI team has examined Param Bir Singh as well. On April 14, the CBI questioned Deshmukh for close to 10 hours. Reports say he maintained his not guilty stand and said this incident had been created to malign the MVA.
Parallelly, the State government set up a one-member committee of former Bombay High Court judge Kailash Chandiwal to probe the allegations against Deshmukh. He is expected to submit hisreport in six months. A government in power constituting a committee to look into irregularities involving one of its Ministers is part of a regular process of government, said the lawyer referred to above. Deshmukh has maintained that he is not guilty of the accusations and will cooperate in any investigation.
It was Deshmukh as Home Minister who was determined to pursue the alleged TRP scam involving the television anchor Arnab Goswami. Additionally, he was critical of the way the CBI handled the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case. There is no doubt he had several detractors. While by stepping down, Deshmukh took a bullet for the government, the link between police officers and politicians is well known, and only a clean investigation will reveal whether the Minister is guilty.
Meanwhile, the NIA said there was evidence to suggest that Vaze was culpable with regard to the explosives planted in the abandoned Scorpio SUV. The agency said CCTV cameras positioned near the Ambani residence captured a white Innova car accompanying the Scorpio. While tracing the car, the NIA found that the number plates matched a car that Vaze had been driving to work. The number plates were reportedly fake and had been manufactured by Kazi, Vaze’s associate.
Kazi was arrested on April 10 and suspended two days later. The NIA believes he was in the know about Vaze’s scheme and “actively” took part in the conspiracy. What Vaze’s scheme is, is yet to emerge. The lawyer said that Vaze was probably trying to prove his supreme capabilities as a policeman since he had just returned to the force. Yet, the case has taken such a drastic turn that it seems hard to believe such a simplistic explanation. For now, the only obvious plan is the BJP’s attempts at breaking the MVA coalition and toppling the government.