Mumbai: The controversy surrounding former Mumbai Police chief Param Bir Singh’s letter, accusing Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh of running an extortion racket, has left the entire ruling coalition red-faced.
But, one of the three parties that forms the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) is especially squirming — the Congress, which finds itself in a tough spot, being collateral damage in the allegations that are mainly centred around partners Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
A senior Maharashtra Congress leader who did not wish to be named told ThePrint: “The sense in the party now is that the Congress has damaged itself within the MVA.”
Last Saturday, Singh emailed a letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, alleging that NCP leader Deshmukh had instructed his officers, including arrested Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Waze, to collect Rs 100 crore from Mumbai’s bars and restaurants every month. The CM’s office has raised doubts about the veracity of the email but the leaders of the ruling coalition say the government is ready for a probe.
The letter came two days after the Maharashtra government transferred him as DG, Home Guards, following Waze’s arrest for allegedly planting explosives outside industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s house, Antilia, in south Mumbai.
Waze’s arrest had embarrassed the Shiv Sena as the cop had briefly joined the party in 2008, after being suspended from the force for an alleged custodial killing. The NCP was uneasy as the letter spelt out serious charges against party leader Deshmukh.
Congress gags leaders
A day after Singh’s email landed at the CMO, Maharashtra Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant held a press conference saying it was a conspiracy by the opposition BJP against the MVA government. The NCP and later the Shiv Sena took the same line.
Sawant had said: “The government should not fall prey to the conspiracy of the BJP and the pressure being created through the godi (slang for partial towards the BJP) media.”
But as of Monday evening, the central Congress leadership has issued a gag order, restraining party leaders from commenting on either Singh’s letter or Waze’s arrest, multiple party sources said.
Congress leaders now privately talk about the quandary the party faces — they worry that on the one hand, inaction on the allegations will not go down well with voters, while on the other, raising their voices will give an advantage to the BJP.
A state Congress leader who did not wish to be named said: “We are caught between one controversy, which is primarily the Shiv Sena’s headache, and the other, that is the NCP’s.”
The leader added: “One thing is clear — it is not possible that Param Bir Singh would have written such a letter without support from Delhi. But, we can’t afford to do anything that will give the BJP a boost.”
Keeping up appearances
Another senior Congress leader told ThePrint that the party is helplessly watching the situation.
“If we don’t do anything, people are going to blame us for staying silent. The Congress should ideally demand Anil Deshmukh’s resignation, but it is not likely to happen as (Sharad) Pawar saheb has given him a clean chit,” this leader said.
NCP chief Sharad Pawar Monday shielded Deshmukh, saying Singh’s allegations that the minister met Waze around mid-February are baseless as Deshmukh was out of commission for almost that entire month because he contracted Covid-19.
The second Congress leader quoted above added: “For optics, at least, our leaders are having meetings with the CM on the issue.”
Monday, as the BJP’s demands for Deshmukh’s resignation grew, the Congress’ in-charge for Maharashtra, H.K. Patil, released a statement saying he had discussed the current situation with the state’s senior party leaders. He added that Congress cabinet ministers Balasaheb Thorat and Ashok Chavan would meet CM Thackeray about it.
“The core group of Maha Vikas Aghadi members will meet chief minister today (Monday) evening and deliberate. It is the chief minister who will take final decision in the matter as soon as possible,” Patil’s statement said.
Thorat and Chavan did meet Thackeray early Monday evening, following which the former, who holds the revenue portfolio, said: “It is clear that this is a conspiracy and the letter seems to have been written under political pressure. In this backdrop, it is not appropriate to press for Deshmukh’s resignation.”
Congress leaders have always seemed uncomfortable in the three-party government, often complaining that they feel like a “third wheel”.
The party’s senior leadership was not in favour of allying with the Shiv Sena when the MVA was formed, but it joined the coalition to keep the BJP away from power.
When the controversy over Param Bir Singh’s letter broke, a few Congress leaders even raised questions over the MVA. Party spokesperson Anant Gadgil had told ThePrint Saturday: “I had suggested that when the government was formed we should support this government to keep BJP the away, but we should not join the government. If Congress had not joined the government, it wouldn’t have been in this situation.”
Gadgil had also said: “My sense is that closer to the Mumbai and Pune civic body elections next year, the BJP wants to bring in President’s Rule in the state.”
Former Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam had also tweeted that the party needed to take a stand.
If at all, whatever Parambir Singh is saying is truth, question should be asked from Hon Sharad Pawar ji because he is the arcitect of current Maharashtra Govt. Is it what the so called third front is going to do finally ?
Congress must take a stand on this issue.#AnilDeshmukh
— Sanjay Nirupam (@sanjaynirupam) March 20, 2021
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)