Opinion

Param Bir Chakra

An explosives-laden SUV, an even more explosive letter. The unfolding drama is threatening to blow away the multi-party government.

Param Bir Chakra
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The letter by former Mumbai police commissioner Param Bir Singh to Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, accusing the state home minister Anil Deshmukh of running an extortion racket, has everything wrong about it. It has caused national sensation, also inevitably rocking Parliament. But apart from the technical, grammatical and other errors in the letter that do not sit well with an IPS officer of his stature, the allegations themselves seem highly ridiculous, exaggerated, motivated and simply fantastic.

Anybody, even a rookie crime reporter or police officer who knows how extortion rackets are run in the metropolis, would spot instantly the unsustainability of a home minister dem­anding just two to three lakh rupees from a dance bar or hookah parlour every month. A home minister, and even pol­icemen, would know that the Mumbai hospitality industry is capable of coughing up a hundred times as much every month. Then again, a collection target of just Rs 100 crore per month is almost an insult to a potential extortionist in Mumbai—the city far surpassed that figure years ago and such collection rackets have been known to run into multiples of thousands of crores in recent years. Bars are a minuscule part of such rackets—there are far jucier sources for fund collection in a city like Mumbai. Real est­ate, builders, business enterprises seeking fav­ours, underworld etc., would all consider a target of Rs 100 crore a month as petty cash to be written off under miscellaneous sections in their books. And then there is the all-pervading racket of police transfers, postings and ­appointments that could rake in far more every month than any bar in the normal course of things.

So Deshmukh, if he was aiming for only Rs 100 crore from bars, was clearly underestimating both himself and his clout as Maharashtra’s home minister and, perhaps, also doing a disservice to his own party. It stands to reason then that Deshmukh would not have invited lesser cops to his official residence and put forth such a brazen demand as Singh alleges. Also, Singh will not make such allegations against either the Shiv Sena or the BJP. For, he has family connections with powerful leaders of both through GenNext marriages.

However,  now that the dust is settling on the drama, it is clear that Singh’s letter has the stamp of  the BJP IT cell all over it, including getting the dates of Deshmukh’s alleged talks with the police officers wrong—he was hospitalised for Covid on those dates. Deshmukh is on the BJP’s hitlist for his determined effort to weed out officers in the force who continue to owe all­egiance to the previous government headed by Devendra Fadnavis. Deshmukh, less than a week before the ­letter, had accused Singh of lapses in the case of an explosives-­packed car found parked near Antilia, the residence of Mukesh Ambani; there is a suspected terrorist link through inmates of Tihar Jail and to Pakistan. And that is where Deshmukh’s charges of lapses and the BJP pressure on Singh come in. The National  Investigation Agency (NIA) has already ­arrested his protègè Sachin Waze, an assistant police inspector, in the cases, including for alleged involvement in the death of Mansukh Hiran, the businessman whose car was in possession of Waze until a month before it was found with exp­losives.  He has been charged under various sections, but the question is—under whose patronage was Waze, a small-time officer earlier ­suspended for a 2002 custodial death case, reinstated and handed over investigation of important cases, including the TRP scam and, ironically, this one? His arrest pointed towards the imminent arrest of his patron, Param Bir Singh. By all ­acc­ounts, Singh is now playing the BJP game to bring down the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government by moving the Supreme Court and hoping it will order a dismissal.

So, it is not just a simple case of an ext­ortion or collection racket or a criminal conspiracy or possible terror plot. If his protégé Waze had been asked by the home minister to extort from bars, Singh could and should have raised the red flag earlier. The timing of his letter is most suspect and also the fact that he has left many loopholes, including not signing the missive, in order to escape any legal action by the government.

But if the BJP was hoping the MVA would force the ­resignation of its home minister, it was mistaken. In the ­three-party government, the Shiv Sena chief minister has no authority over NCP, which alone can ­decide whether Deshmukh stays or goes. He was not Sharad Pawar’s first choice for home minister, but Pawar acceded to his nephew Ajit’s insistence on someone who could be trusted not to outgrow the Pawars in the office of home ­minister and would be more easily ­manageable than one of the NCP’s multitude of Maratha leaders from western Maharashtra.

Deshmukh hails from Vidarbha where the NCP has hardly any presence and thus seemed to fit the bill for a benign, ­unambitious incumbent who would nonetheless be competent in that office. Deshmukh had, by and large, met all those expectations, including taking on the BJP IT cell for its role in not just att­empting to destabilise the state government, but as ­recently as last month for compelling celebrities to tweet against Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and others supporting the farmers’ agitation in India.  So, while the BJP would greatly love to see him go, ideally along with his government, Pawar is now backing him to the hilt and refusing to replace him. Even Uddhav Thackeray may not wish to act against Deshmukh for he was one of the independents who had propped up the Shiv Sena-led government in 1995-99 (in alliance with the BJP, one might add) and has had a good rapport with Sena leaders ever since. But a probe will be done—Thackeray has alr­eady ­activated the law department for the purpose to res­olve the crisis of credibility for his government.

But there are other aspects to the crisis that indicate internal tussles within the MVA. Of late, the two fac­ilitators of the MVA government, Sharad Pawar and Sanjay Raut,  Shiv Sena  MP, seem to be somewhat miffed at the manner in which Thackeray is all­owing extra-constitutional authorities, including friends and better halves, to interfere with his governance. While the government was reeling under the allegations, both Pawar and Raut were happily ensconced in New Delhi and seemed in no hurry to rush back to rescue or guide the novice chief minister out of the crisis. By all accounts, their purpose has been to let Thackeray stew a bit and understand that he needs veterans like them and not domestic aut­horities to keep his government running smoothly. While the Congress watches from the sidelines, offering no comment on this power play within and outside the government, it is obvious that the administration has been shaken but not enough to bring about a downfall of the alliance.

It goes without saying that never in the history of Maharashtra has any off­icer made such sensational allegations against his own home minister. Very rec­ently, there were similar allegations made in Uttar Pradesh about a transfer racket, but no heed was paid to it by the authorities concerned. However, Maharashtra is not Uttar Pradesh and Param Bir Singh is no Vaibhav Krishna who blew the whistle on the UP racket. Singh is the officer, among other things, accused by ­terror-accused and BJP MP Pragya Thakur of brutalising her in custody. Clearly, he has much to fear of the ruling party at the Centre and not much to lose by playing along with them. Maharashtra expects he will be another Satyapal Singh, the former Mumbai pol­ice commissioner, who ended up as BJP MP and minister in 2014. The fruits of betrayal are obviously very sweet. But it is the MVA, like the UPA à la former CAG Vinod Rai, who must be blamed for picking the wrong man for the job and handing him the opportunity to stab it in the back.

(The writer is a senior journalist and author. Views expressed are personal.)

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