There are several temptations that leaders of the Maha Vikas Aghadi may have to resist if the coalition has to emerge unscathed in what promises to be one of its worst crises since it came to power. This time around, it is not about the numbers in the state legislature but about the credibility of the arrangement that came with a singular purpose of keeping the BJP out of power.
It is natural that those backing the coalition look up to its architect, NCP president Sharad Pawar to take the lead, along with, of course, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to do whatever it takes to restore the confidence of the general public in the police establishment in the metropolis. The Congress too will have to be roped into the damage-controlling exercise by the NCP and Sena burying the differences that have cropped up in the arrangement— if the Aghadi is to be seen as acting in unison.
Firstly, instead of focusing on the finger that is pointing at an affliction, the Aghadi leaders would do well to address the phenomenon that cannot be pushed under the carpet— in the name of threat to the ‘secular coalition’ from the opposition, the BJP. Outright denials may only reinforce the ostrich-like approach even if former Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh’s allegations against state Home Minister Anil Deshmukh could have underlying deeper reasons.
No one could have become the police commissioner of Mumbai without enjoying the confidence of the top leaders of the government. If Param Bir Singh fit the role, it was only because of the confidence that was reposed in him by the government leaders—whether it was CM Uddhav Thackeray or any coalition party leader. That is why no one can deny that the Aghadi government is facing a very serious crisis because the controversy pertains to Param Bir Singh’s letter to the Chief Minister on March 20, in which he alleged that Deshmukh wanted police officers to collect Rs 100 crore every month from bars and hotels.
Apart from a stout denial by Deshmukh of the allegations, we have heard NCP president Sharad Pawar acknowledge that the allegations levelled by the former Mumbai police commissioner are “serious and require an in-depth probe”. But he left it to the chief minister to take a decision on the fitness of things while maintaining that Deshmukh should stay in office.
It is also entirely plausible that Pawar has had good reasons to question the motive of the former Mumbai police commissioner to write the letter after he was removed from the post. He has pointed out that Param Bir Singh was shunted out of Mumbai in the aftermath of the bizarre incident involving a gelatin sticks-laden vehicle found parked outside the residence of industrialist Mukesh Ambani last month.
The incident brought back the spotlight on an assistant police inspector, Sachin Vaze, who was once hailed as an ‘encounter specialist’.
But he had been suspended for several years and had joined the Shiv Sena. He was reinstated during the Covid crisis last year and placed in a key position under Param Bir Singh. No one has denied that Vaze is very close to top Sena leaders even after his arrest by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in connection with the case on March 20. That had to lead to his suspension by the state government.
Right from the beginning, when an SUV laden with gelatin sticks was found near Antilia on February 25, events have been unfolding at an unfathomable rate. The vehicle was traced to Mansukh Hiran, who was found dead later. His wife pointed a finger at Vaze, who was arrested by the National Investigation Agency, which moved in as things got murkier.
Pawar has contended that neither Uddhav Thackeray nor Anil Deshmukh were responsible for the reinstatement of Vaze in the police force last year. According to him, only Param Bir Singh has to answer why Vaze’s induction in crucial roles was so imperative.
Destabilising the coalition
One may be surprised that Pawar thinks that there is no impact on the MVA government because of Param Bir Singh’s allegations though he may also have strong reasons to believe that efforts are on to destabilise the coalition, using this episode.
As expected of him, Devendra Fadnavis, as Leader of Opposition, has been on his toes, coming out with information to corner the government, which seemed to be in the dark initially, concerning the whole episode.
In defence of Deshmukh, Pawar has contended that Deshmukh was in hospital from February 5 to 15 and from February 15 to 27, he was in home isolation in Nagpur— to refute Param Bir Singh’s allegations that Vaze had met the state home minister around this time. The BJP has countered Pawar’s assertion by saying that Deshmukh was active during this period, even holding meetings and even press conferences.
The Centre has been closely watching the developments. It was quick to ask the NIA to take over investigation into the Antilia episode. This may have raised the hackles of the coalition partners.
But for the public at large, the issue is not just about systemic reforms in the police establishment. The allegations by Param Bir Singh against Deshmukh and the Sachin Vaze episode have dented the image of the state government. After all, Param Bir Singh has alleged that Deshmukh used to call police officers to his official residence and give them a ‘collection target’ from bars, restaurants and other establishments.
The apprehensions over the stability of the state government may force the Shiv Sena and the NCP to close ranks. Therefore, the Shiv Sena may say there is no question of the resignation of Deshmukh — though it admits that Param Bir Singh’s allegations of corruption have maligned the image of the state home department.
Earlier, an impression had gained ground that Pawar had tried to distance the NCP from the Vaze episode, instead of standing behind the Sena. But now, the impression is that the NCP and the Sena may do whatever it takes to protect Deshmukh and the state government’s image.
In a new development, Param Bir Singh has also approached the Supreme Court, seeking an “impartial and fair investigation” by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the “various corrupt malpractices” of Deshmukh. He has also challenged his transfer to Home Guards, ordered by the Maharashtra government last week over lapses in the Antilia bomb scare case.
But lurking questions will remain in the minds of most of us. What’s the truth in these allegations? Who is collecting for whom? What will be the price at which the Congress will keep quiet about this episode? At what cost? Can such an arrangement continue without future trouble? As a veteran leader, Pawar holds the key to credible answers and the future of politics in Maharashtra, even as the BJP is entitled to bide its time till the denouement.
The writer is former Senior Associate Editor, Hindustan Times, and Political Editor, Deccan Herald, New Delhi.