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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The maha-mess in MVA

Much of Maharashtra’s fractious politics is Mumbai centric. This has much to do with the fact that the state’s capital is also the country’s money and movie capital. They multiply its problems. A 150-km coastline and proximity to Karachi and Dubai make it a favorite playground of crime cum terror syndicates. The shadow of the infamous D-Company still looms large. The 1993 bomb blasts and 26/11 remain egregious landmarks in the checkered history of Bharat’s Maximum city.

Almost every major crisis in the state, political or otherwise, has its origins in any one or a combination of the above factors. The primary blame for the hole the feckless Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) regime finds itself in rests with the roguish ways of the Shiv Sena, one of the three parties in the shaky coalition. Even by the worst graft ridden standards of governance, the startling revelations following the discovery of 20 gelatin sticks on February 25 inside a seemingly abandoned Scorpio van in the vicinity of business tycoon Mukesh Ambani’s residence, Antilia, in south Mumbai set a new low.

Fact, as they say, is stranger than fiction. How a suspended sub-inspector who resigned from service 16 years ago in connection with a custodial death was reinstated by a venal police chief at the behest of a chief minister and given virtual charge of the city police’s prestigious crime branch would make for a racy crime thriller and a Bollywood potboiler. Shortage of cops due to the raging pandemic was the ruse employed to explain his return.

The sole motive behind the reinduction in June 2020 of Sachin Vaze, an encounter specialist with a formidable reputation for rubbing out hardened criminals and gangsters, was to use his services to keep tabs, harass, threaten, and bring the Sena’s critics to their knees. High profile cases like the alleged suicide (but probably murder) of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, the fake TRP case against Republic TV, and the suicide of an architect (Anvay Naik) were promptly handed over to him.

The common thread running through each case was the role of Republic TV and its editor, Arnab Goswami, an unrelenting critic of the CM, Uddhav Thackeray. Live videos run by the channel last April showing the public lynching of three sadhus at Palghar in the presence of the police nettled the Sena. His determination to establish that Rajput was murdered also earned him the ruling clan’s ire due to reasons kept under wraps. The circumstances of the actor’s death, which became a cause celebre, remain mired in mystery.

Goswami was not ready to accept the state CID’s bid to dismiss his death as a case of suicide by a drug addict. A sustained campaign demanding that his girlfriend Rhea Chakravarty be arrested and an inquiry be made into other iniquitous details earned him the government’s enmity. There are good grounds to believe that every evidence of foul play was removed before the case was handed over to the CBI on the orders of the apex court, credit for which largely belongs to the pressure mounted by Republic TV.

Vaze’s job was to insure the Thackerays against any uncomfortable truths tumbling out of the scandal. More importantly, devise ways and means to put Goswami behind bars. Which he did, howsoever briefly, by implicating him on a false charge of abetting the suicide of an architect with whom Republic had business dealings in the past.

The encounter cop, however, clearly overplayed his cards in the Ambani-SUV case. The general impression is that the plot was hatched to frighten the business tycoon into coughing out a meaty sum (about Rs 5,000 crore) into the Sena’s coffers. The discovery of gelatin sticks, however, gave the NIA a ready-made reason to take over the case on suspicion of a terror plot, however thin the scope in the absence of an accompanying IED.

The murder of an autoparts shop owner, Mansukh Hiren, with whom Vaze had business arrangements deepened the mystery. Hiren was the owner of the gelatin loaded Scorpio van which Vaze had borrowed. The victim’s wife alleged that Vaze had him silenced to save his own skin in the Ambani plot. The sight of a black Mercedes Benz (which Vaze drove) with a fake number plate parked in the crime branch office of the Mumbai police confirmed his hand. A note-counting machine along with Rs 6 lakh in cash was recovered from its boot along with the original number plate of the Scorpio found near the Ambani residence.

Vaze, quite obviously, was nothing but a tool in the hands of the police commissioner, Param Bir Singh (PBS), who was unceremoniously bundled out of office under the pressure of the state home department run by the NCP’s Anil Deshmukh presumably on the orders of his party boss Sharad Pawar. This, when the Ambani-SUV case became too hot to handle.

The abrupt reversal in fortunes stung PBS to the quick. He, after all, had served the political interests of his masters from either party. Fake cases against Republic TV in the TRP scam and its editor in the suicide case stood testimony to his loyalty. Earlier he had also fobbed off a CBI probe into the Rajput case.

However, since PBS owed his appointment to the Sena, he trained his guns at Deshmukh by shooting off a letter to the CM (with a copy marked to Pawar) alleging that the minister had ordered Vaze to collect Rs 100 crore every month from hotels and bars as hafta-vasooli. Both the CM as well as NCP boss Pawar, he claimed, had been verbally alerted about it several weeks ago, thereby implying that everything was happening right under the nose of the leadership.

Singh’s efforts to paint himself white by petitioning the SC (which redirected him to the HC) seeking protection from further coercive action and the arbitrariness of his transfer do not wash. He was a willing accomplice in the Sena-NCP directed drama to harass their critics. Even the ham-handed SUV plot could not have been executed sans his concurrence and the Sena’s go-ahead. His venal record is too well known to his contemporaries to be ignored. He out-Heroded Herod to prove his fealty to his unscrupulous political masters.

Sound political networking, however, may save him from ignominy. Quite apart from his close links with the Thackerays, he has a line with the BJP too. Ex-CM Devendra Fadnavis who is currently Opposition leader had appointed him Thane Commissioner during his tenure. PBS’ son is married to the grand-daughter of Datta Meghe, a veteran Congress politician from Vidarbha who switched over to the BJP. Meghe, though retired, still rules the roost in Wardha. His younger son is a BJP legislator.

The MVA meltdown is a godsend opportunity for Fadnavis to reclaim the power lost due to the Sena’s betrayal in 2019 despite a pre-poll pact. Lust for power, however, lost him his moral authority. Many are not ready to forgive him for the blunder of falling into the well-laid trap of a simoniacal politician like Ajit Pawar, nephew of his wheeling-dealing uncle.

The rebel NCP leader agreed to defect with his loyalists provided he was made deputy CM. Fadnavis was sworn in by governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari in the small hours of 23 November 2019 only to be betrayed again four days later. Ajit Pawar used the four days to get the Anti-Corruption Bureau to drop nine cases against him in the Rs 70,000 crore irrigation scam, and scooted.

Fadnavis has been in attack mode since the SUV plot imploded on the MVA’s face. But the target of his onslaught has been the transfer-posting racket within the police department rather than the personal venality of Sena-NCP leaders. He said he was in possession of 6.3 GB data containing transcripts of “severe and sensitive allegations” against cops negotiating their transfers and postings. The CM knew about it but did not act.

Unless the NIA investigation makes some startling disclosures, Fadnavis’ demand for President’s rule is unlikely to be met. The MVA regime will brazen it out. Fear of the BJP’s return will keep its constituents together. The party, however, may well have to look beyond Fadnavis to retrieve its mojo.

Nothing, in any case, is likely to happen before May 2. The results of the polls in five states, especially Bengal and Assam, will decide if dislodging the MVA is politically worthwhile.

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Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha.


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