Mumbai: From a tug-of-war between the state and the Centre over actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death to the arrest of a news network founder.
From a cop being arrested for allegedly planting explosives outside industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s house to a senior IPS officer levelling graft charges against the then-state home minister.
From the Enforcement Directorate initiating probes into members linked to the ruling parties to the state government getting a Union minister arrested.
In two years of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, central and state law enforcement agencies have been the political battleground for the ruling Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress on one side, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the other. The central law enforcement agencies come under the BJP-led Union government.
The ED has taken some action directly or indirectly against at least half a dozen leaders belonging to MVA parties. Meanwhile, there have been multiple incidents related to the state home department and the Maharashtra Police that have stirred controversy, either raising questions of political masters using law enforcement agencies to meet their own requirements, or simply causing embarrassment to the already shaky three-party government.
While the three allies have not always been on the same page, murmurs of disagreement have hardly turned into open discord, with the MVA having sailed through the stickiest of issues.
“This government is stable. People want to see us in power. The BJP has also realised that an Operation Lotus is not possible here because the gap between 105 (the number of BJP MLAs) and the halfway mark is too large,” former Maharashtra Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan said.
Political commentator Abhay Deshpande told ThePrint that while the home department has always been in focus in Maharashtra, it has been in the news more in the last two years because of the political situation.
“When this government was formed, the opposition was behaving more like a ‘government in waiting’. In the last two years, they (the BJP) have realised that they have to make efforts to dislodge the government,” Deshpande said. “Central agencies are overactive in Maharashtra. So, MVA is also using the opportunity to play the victim card and hit back with the state home department. But, in the end, these are just attacks and counterattacks to win at a perception game.”
‘Bad publicity for govt, Maharashtra’
A senior Congress functionary who spoke to ThePrint requesting anonymity said, “While there were many controversies surrounding law and order, there were three cases in particular where the central agencies also got involved and which dominated the discourse. These incidents brought a lot of bad publicity not just for the state government, but for Maharashtra in general.”
The Congress leader listed out the three controversies as being:
• Actor Rajput’s death and the Narcotics Control Bureau’s (NCB) action against the alleged drug abuse in the film industry
• The involvement of former Mumbai Police sharpshooter Sachin Waze in the Antilia explosives case and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arresting the now dismissed cop, leading up to former Mumbai Police Chief Param Bir Singh’s allegations against the then-home minister Anil Deshmukh of running an extortion racket
• And lastly the NCB’s raid on an alleged rave party aboard a Goa-bound cruise ship involving actor Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan Khan and the slugfest that followed between NCP minister Nawab Malik and the NCB.
“The choice of personnel within the home department, particularly the Mumbai Commissioner of Police (Param Bir Singh) were not the best available options. But they were chosen for political reasons and clearly did not work out,” the Congress leader said.
Sources in the MVA said CM Uddhav Thackeray was not in favour of appointing Singh to the post of Mumbai’s commissioner of police, but the NCP argued that it gets to pick the man for the prestigious post since the home portfolio is with the party. As head of the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB), Singh had given a clean chit to NCP Minister Ajit Pawar in the irrigation scam.
“The CM kept aloof from the controversies. He should have been hands-on through the incidents. But that is not his style. He stayed out of it publicly and let someone else take the flak. The NCP took a lot of the flak amid all this,” an NCP leader said.
What made the CM’s silence over the controversy look worse is that Waze had a Shiv Sena connection. He had formally joined the party in 2008 after resigning from the Mumbai Police force (his resignation was not accepted). Thackeray also publicly defended Waze saying “he is not Osama” for being targeted by the BJP in the Antilia explosives case, though the Shiv Sena later distanced itself from the now-dismissed cop.
Deshmukh eventually resigned in April after the Bombay High Court ordered the CBI to start a preliminary inquiry into the allegations made by Singh against the NCP leader.
“It is not Uddhav saheb’s style to speak a lot. Even when he was handling the pandemic, central leaders would constantly criticise the state government, but Uddhav saheb exercised control. So, it is not that he didn’t speak only in the Waze controversy,” Shiv Sena leader Bhaskar Jadhav told ThePrint.
“The BJP, meanwhile, is doing whatever it can to dislodge the MVA government, sometimes propping up Param Bir Singh, sometimes Sushant Singh Rajput. It is making full use of central agencies and compelling the state government to respond in the same language,” he added.
Incidents such as crowding at the Bandra terminus in the middle of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Palghar lynching incident in April 2020 gave the BJP an opportunity to slam the MVA over law and order in its first few months. However, the real Centre-versus-state scramble first kicked off over the probe into Rajput’s death.
The BJP insisted on the probe being taken over by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), alleging that his death was perhaps a murder. Some BJP leaders even pointed fingers at the possible involvement of state Cabinet Minister and the CM’s son Aaditya Thackeray, while the MVA alleged that the BJP was using the probe as a means to destabilise the three-party government.
Amid the fracas, the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA withdrew the state’s general consent to the CBI to probe cases in Maharashtra without the government’s permission.
While the dust over the political controversy surrounding Rajput’s death was yet to settle, the state home department in October last year stirred a fresh controversy when the Mumbai Police announced its investigation into the alleged fudging of Television Rating Points involving Republic TV founder Arnab Goswami.
The same month, the Mumbai Police filed another case against senior editors and newsroom staff of Republic TV for allegedly “attempting to incite disaffection” among members of the police force.
In November, the Maharashtra Police arrested Goswami for his alleged involvement in the 2018 suicide of Mumbai-based interior designer Anvay Naik. The BJP slammed the slew of cases against Republic TV and Goswami, calling the MVA a government with an Emergency-era mindset for “crushing any voice of dissent”.
Some Congress leaders too had unofficially admitted to ThePrint that the action against Goswami smacked of political vendetta.
“Ultimately, the parties in this government have diverse ideologies. The Congress’ style is very Gandhian. They don’t like to openly attack, take things head on. Moreover, there is always the fear of inviting the wrath of central agencies so many leaders in the MVA have preferred to be low key on these issues,” a Shiv Sena leader who did not wish to be named told ThePrint.
Attacks and counterattacks
Over the past two years, the ED has issued summons or raided properties linked to multiple MVA leaders such as Shiv Sena’s Arjun Khotkar, Bhavana Gawli, Pratap Sarnaik, Anandrao Adsul, Anil Parab, NCP’s Eknath Khadse, Anil Deshmukh, and Ajit Pawar.
In September this year, NCP president Sharad Pawar told reporters that the Centre is using ED as its tool to suppress opponents. To this, BJP’s own leader, Harshavardhan Patil, who defected from the Congress in 2019, said he was getting “sound sleep” ever since he joined the BJP.
Meanwhile, the Maharashtra Police has filed at least 10 FIRs naming 50 accused against critics of the MVA government, Chief Minister Thackeray and his son Aaditya Thackeray on social media, based on complaints filed by Shiv Sena members. The BJP criticised the action as the government “misusing its power to silence detractors”.
In March this year, when the MVA government was under fire for alleged lapses in the Mumbai Police’s probe in the Antilia case, the state government formed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the death of seven-term Dadra and Nagar Haveli MP Mohan Delkar (he died in Mumbai), after the Congress sought an investigation into the BJP’s involvement in the case.
Around the same time, Leader of the Opposition Devendra Fadnavis targeted the MVA on the floor of the assembly with sensitive call data records on the Antilia case, and later leaked a “confidential report” by IPS officer Rashmi Shukla about corruption in police transfers and postings that Fadnavis claimed the MVA government decided to ignore.
In August this year, the Maharashtra Police arrested Union Minister Narayan Rane for the latter’s comments about slapping CM Thackeray, making many even within the MVA whisper about the incident being Shiv Sena’s political agenda, given Rane’s history of enmity with the Thackeray family.
The latest political tug-of-war between the BJP and MVA was the violence in Amravati earlier this month, when Islamist organisation Raza Academy called for protests against the alleged vandalisation of a mosque in Tripura, followed by a one-day bandh by the BJP. Both protests resulted in violence.
“The three parties have come together to form the government not because they have a lot of love for each other, but because it is each party’s need. What the BJP doesn’t understand is that the more it targets our leaders using central agencies, the more the three parties are sticking tightly together,” Shiv Sena’s Jadhav said.
Political analyst Deshpande said after two years, the BJP is finally transitioning from a “government in waiting, to an opposition”.
“The MVA allies will stay hand-in-hand as long as the BJP continues to pull at their feet,” he said.
This, at the end of two years, is the biggest takeaway, he added.
(Edited Arun Prashanth)