Troubles come in threes, goes the old wives’ tale. Even if Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray were to dismiss this as apophenia – tendency to look for patterns in random events – he must contend with three troubles pounding on his door at this time. How he rides them out, if he does at all, will determine the lifespan of the state’s three-party government and Thackeray’s political authority.
First, the Bombay High Court on Monday allowed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the alleged extortion and corruption of home minister Anil Deshmukh that former Mumbai police commissioner Param Bir Singh and lawyer Jayshree Patil had demanded.
Second, as a consequence, Deshmukh, of Nationalist Congress Party, resigned from Thackeray’s council of ministers allowing the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to draw first blood in a no-holds-barred political battle.
Third, the mounting COVID-19 caseload in Maharashtra – nearly 24% of India’s total load and over half of the country’s daily cases in the last few days – has put Thackeray’s pandemic management under a lens.
Anil Deshmukh and Extortion in Mumbai
Calling it “an unprecedented case” before the high court, the two-judge bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice GS Kulkarni allowed the CBI to conduct “a preliminary inquiry”, complete it in 15 days, and then decide the future course of action.
Maharashtra government had instituted a judicial inquiry by retired judge Justice KU Chandiwal last week. The court order gave a shot in the arm to Param Bir Singh who, in a letter to chief minister Thackeray last month, had alleged that Deshmukh had instructed police officials including assistant police inspector Sachin Vaze to “collect Rs 100 crore a month” from hotels and bars.
Singh wrote the letter within days of being transferred from his post as Mumbai’s police commissioner. This followed the controversy over Vaze’s involvement in the gelatin sticks-laden SUV parked near India’s wealthiest industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s house in late February.
Singh has since made it appear as if he was unaware of Vaze’s alleged extortion network despite the latter functioning from the police headquarters complex in south Mumbai and Singh entrusting him with some of the cases that made headlines last year.
Singh then approached the Supreme Court for a CBI inquiry against Deshmukh which sent him to the Bombay HC.
CBI Gets Foothold Back in Maharashtra Through Deshmukh Case
It’s telling that his allegations came days after he was transferred and his moves since then have allowed the BJP, led by former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, to ramp up its political game to destabilise the Thackeray government. It could be mere coincidence – or not – that a top cop and opposition party move in tandem. Incidentally, Singh, in his capacity as DG of Anti-Corruption Bureau, had given a clean chit to NCP’s Ajit Pawar in the multi-crore irrigation scam case in December 2019 telling the HC that “…no criminality has been found”.
Two months later, he was appointed Mumbai commissioner by a government in which the home department was handled by NCP’s Deshmukh. It’s also telling that the CBI now gets its foothold back in Maharashtra via Deshmukh’s case.
As home minister, he had withdrawn the “general consent” it had till October last year after the state-centre tussle over investigation into actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide.
Once the HC allowed the CBI inquiry, it was untenable for Deshmukh to continue as minister. He resigned, flew to Delhi and prepared to take his battle to the SC. He was replaced by Dilip Walse Patil, also from the NCP, known for his no-nonsense approach and stronger grip over administrative affairs than his colleague. If Patil is able to steady the police force and cap controversies, it would help Thackeray. For the moment, the BJP is revelling in “a moral victory”.
BJP has Scored a Political Goal in Maharashtra
In this, lies the challenge to Thackeray’s political authority. When the controversy first hit the headlines, Thackeray was reportedly in favour of Deshmukh stepping aside till his name could be cleared so that the government would not be hurt. However, his advisor and NCP chief Sharad Pawar apparently asked him to retain Deshmukh and brazen out the controversy as the BJP usually does. Pawar had a point; on the day that Maharashtra’s home minister resigned on an allegation, Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa, also accused of corruption by his minister and brazening it out for weeks, got a reprieve from the SC.
Pawar is believed to have told Thackeray that the BJP would score a political goal if Deshmukh resigned. Thackeray came away convinced then but has conceded a goal to the BJP now.
To be sure, extortion or nexus between politicians and police officers is not new or exclusive to Maharashtra, but it attracts more attention than in other states.
Fadnavis’ tenure as chief minister also saw serious allegations against a senior IPS officer who was accused by three people of spear-heading an extortion network; one of the three accusers was a retired cop.
Fadnavis, also state’s home minister, did not take action against the cop. However, far from stirring a political controversy, it did not even make headlines.
Uddhav’s Pawar Problem
Meanwhile, Pawar and NCP’s Praful Patel are believed to have had a below-the-radar meeting with union home minister Amit Shah in Ahmedabad about ten days back. Shah has hinted at changes in Maharashtra politics after election results of West Bengal and Assam on 2 May.
Thackeray is understandably worried about his mentor switching allegiance.
He has won brownie points for being non-dramatic and straight-forward, consulting experts and taking decisions by consensus, communicating with science and logic about the pandemic, being steady at the wheel. However, this is his first experience in a job, something he too jokes about. The rough and raw edges have shown now and then, nowhere more than in appointments to key positions and handling the pandemic.
COVID-19 Pandemic Not Going Anywhere
Beyond the galloping absolute numbers, Mumbai and its metropolitan region accounted for nearly 35% of all cases in the last few days. Pune and its neighbouring areas contributed 24%. The doubling rate which was 455 days in February now stands at 68 days. From the outside, reading only data which is more worrisome in the second wave than last year when the pandemic gripped the state, it does seem as if Thackeray has lost the plot.
However, it would be unfair to trace the rapid rise in numbers solely to the administration without factoring in the pressure to restart the economy and people’s behaviour patterns.
As April dawned, Thackeray took to the media to warn Maharashtra’s residents of strict action to control the second wave. Two days later, after wide-ranging consultations, he rolled out a rather complicated programme to “Break the Chain”. It effectively meant a calibrated or mini lockdown till 30 April. Besides, the cap on vaccinations and the limited allocation to the state hasn't helped either; no state needs to vaccinate its citizens more than Maharashtra. Thackeray wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday to lower the age limit to 25 years to help curb the rising COVID-19 incidence in the state.
Uddhav’s Mumbai Mobility Conundrum
Under great pressure, Thackeray had okayed the resumption of Mumbai’s suburban train system for almost all commuters, with few restrictions, from 1 February. Large markets were allowed to resume, marriage and religious functions were permitted, elections and campaigning happened in rural Maharashtra, and district borders were fully opened.
COVID-19 cases began spiking later in February; within five weeks, Mumbai had registered more than 10,000 cases a day for three days in a row. By early April, Mumbai registered daily caseloads higher than during the peak of the pandemic last September and Maharashtra recorded the highest per day figures during the second wave so far.
Urban mobility has no substitutes and its overloaded systems make it difficult to monitor crowd behaviour. Mumbai’s trains carry a total of 7.5 million at peak load, buses ferry another three million. Even with restrictions, this would still be several millions. In train compartments, on railway bridges and escalators, in the buses, at bus stops and elsewhere, physical distancing is a joke. To add to this, commuters have been lax in not using masks or sanitisers. It became a common sight to see people without masks or wrongly-worn masks in public places. The fine has been increased from Rs 200 to Rs 500 per violation in the new mini-lockdown.
Will Uddhav be Able to Manage COVID and His Chair?
A three-member central team which visited in early March noted that people’s behaviour had remarkably changed compared to last year. There was a perceptible “pandemic fatigue” and a “lack of fear of the disease”, the report pointed out. Across Mumbai and Pune, it’s common to hear people rue that their lives are ruined both ways – either by the coronavirus and threat to life, or by isolating themselves which will lead to further job losses and starvation.
Maharashtra’s health minister Rajesh Tope points to more tests done in the state compared with other states which results in a high number of COVID-19 positive patients.
However, the union health ministry stated that Maharashtra is among the states that have lower tests per million than the national average; Maharashtra’s test positivity rate too continues to hover around 22%. It will take Thackeray’s best efforts and then some more for Maharashtra to turn the corner on COVID-19 – and for him to retain his chair.
(Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based senior journalist, writes on politics, cities, gender and media. She tweets @smrutibombay. is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)