Mumbai Crime Story: ‘Advantage’ BJP Against Maharashtra Govt?

Maharashtra CM Thackeray is not running a tight ship; his control over the bureaucracy is far from firm.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Image of Sachin Vaze (L) and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray used for representational purposes.
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‘Mumbai Crime’ is not a gripping thriller on any streaming service yet, taut episodes to be binged on, unlike the one that bore Delhi’s fair name. This is a real story — it's turning into an unparalleled reality show.

It involves India’s wealthiest industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s residential tower, an SUV with gelatine sticks, and a badly-composed threat letter, subsequent disappearance and the death of a car dealer who owned that SUV, the arrest of an assistant police inspector with a controversial past, Mumbai’s top cop shunted out, and India’s anti-terror investigation agency probing it all.

The skeins of this story that have been uncovered do not add up, nor does it make sense; there’s no saying how many remain unknown at this time.

Ambani Bomb Scare Case: The Crime ‘Route’

The story which began in the dead of the night on 25 February on Mumbai’s Carmichael Road – India’s billionaire borough as it were – has traversed many terrains:

  • the city’s far suburbs of Thane-Kalwa and its creek, where SUV owner Mansukh Hiren’s body was found thanks to a low tide that prevented it from being carried to the sea
  • to Mumbai Police’s elite Crime Intelligence Unit where Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Vaze – reinstated into the force after 16 long years of being suspended in an encounter killing – called the shots till the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested him last week
  • to Delhi’s Tihar jail cell housing a terror accused who let out on a Telegram channel that little-known Jaish-ul-Hind was behind the gelatine sticks conspiracy

Was Sachin Vaze Investigating ‘Himself’?

What’s a crime thriller without political angles muddling the script? Vaze had joined the Shiv Sena after his suspension, set up businesses allegedly with Sena leaders, and was reinstated into the force last year after the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government took charge in November 2019. He got a most coveted posting, handled headline-making cases – Ambani’s gelatine sticks case, Sushant Singh Rajput suicide, architect Anvay Naik suicide case in which he arrested television anchor Arnab Goswami – and, according to the NIA, may be the man who parked the SUV near Ambani’s Antilia.

This means Vaze had set it all up and was investigating himself — till the NIA took over the case.

The Politics of It

The MVA government that the Shiv Sena leads, with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress as allies, has been the target of Sena’s former ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose Maharashtra leaders famously keep setting dates when they will unseat chief minister Uddhav Thackeray’s government to form their own.

NCP Chief Sharad Pawar continues to have a mysterious now-on-now-off relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi; his party had, after all, offered support to the BJP in Maharashtra in 2014. The 20 gelatine sticks were from a Nagpur-based company whose owners had reportedly donated to the BJP. In the first few days after the SUV was found, BJP-affiliated social media handles linked the ‘bomb threat’ to Congress MP Rahul Gandhi’s public tirades against Ambani and co-industrialist Gautam Adani.

What Was the Actual Motive Behind the Mysterious Crime?

It’s significant to note that the SUV with gelatine sticks and the note did not have a detonator; strictly speaking, it was not an IED set to go off.

Initial investigation inferred it was a warning from the Jaish-ul-Hind but that track seems to have gone cold without anyone noticing it. Assuming Vaze himself planted the gelatine sticks-laden SUV, why would a Mumbai assistant police inspector do so knowing well that Carmichael Road has more CCTV cameras than most streets in India, and when caught, the matter would rock the highest offices? It’s known that Mumbai has a flourishing ‘industry’ of extortion – vasooli, as it’s called – in which sections of policemen, politicians, builders-developers, film and entertainment professionals, hotels have their hands in.

If Vaze was fronting for his ‘political bosses’, as BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis put it, does it mean that the Sena wanted to ‘extort’ the Ambanis — and in this school-boy manner? Or did Vaze go rogue?

The intent, it appears, was to make it appear as if the Ambanis were targets of an international or Islamist conspiracy, not to endanger them in the real sense. Who would want this, to what end? Who stood to benefit from this so-called conspiracy?

The answers to these questions have an inescapable political imprint. As in crime thrillers, so in political thrillers — motive is all. In this case, the motives are many.

Ambani-Vaze Case: Another Attempt to Destabilise the Uddhav Thackeray Govt?

This could be another attempt to destabilise Uddhav Thackeray’s government and end the unlikely alliance which has kept the BJP away from power in Mumbai and Maharashtra. The BJP’s top brass has a dim view of Thackeray; he returns the compliment. At a recent meeting of chief ministers to discuss COVID-19-related matters, Thackeray and Union Home Minister Amit Shah apparently went head to head with accusatory words flying thick and fast.

Sena’s leaders smoulder at the Centre’s continuing efforts to allegedly strip Mumbai of its commercial-financial importance in favour of Ahmedabad, a lingering sore from 60 years ago when the newly-created Maharashtra and Gujarat both wanted Bombay as their capital.

It also goes back to when the BJP was a forgettable party in Bombay, riding piggy-back on Sena’s popularity and clout.

The tables turned in 2014 when the BJP began to call the shots in their alliance; neither party reconciled and made peace.

The BJP believes that Thackeray, with help from Pawar, ‘stole’ the 2019 state election and created hurdles for the government at every opportunity – or created such opportunities to pile on the pain. It's shadow battles with Thackeray have used people from the Hindi film industry, real estate lobby, television anchors, and more. The Ambani-SUV case could well be one more attempt.

Politics Within the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi Govt

There’s politics within the Maharashtra government too. Thackeray’s tone and tenor towards the Ambani-SUV case changed after his meeting last weekend with Pawar – Vaze was quickly suspended from service, Mumbai’s Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh replaced by Hemant Nagrale, Thackeray’s confidante and Sena MP Sanjay Raut acknowledged that some mistakes may have happened in handling the case. Thackeray’s government then distanced itself from the murky revelations from and about the police. Pawar is believed to have advised Thackeray that running a state government requires more smarts than what the latter had displayed so far.

Once again in the last 15 months, Pawar demonstrated that he can pull Thackeray out of a crisis. It’s a piquant paradox: the more Thackeray knots himself into crises from either administrative inexperience or insecurity, the more Pawar cements his role as the saviour, the trouble shooter.

Those who know Pawar’s politics will aver that he rarely allows people to be completely comfortable; it must carry over to Thackeray too. Pawar propped up Thackeray as chief minister but may well want to eventually appoint one of his own to the post. It strengthens Pawar if Thackeray’s public profile is dented.

Was Sachin Vaze ‘Picked’ For His ‘Utility’?

There’s politics within the Sena too, with different factions not seeing eye to eye, senior leaders unable or unwilling to reach Thackeray, the coterie around Thackeray – often derided as his ‘kitchen cabinet’ – falling short of the demands of his job.

Maharashtra’s chief ministers have traditionally managed the state home department and therefore the state’s police force. In his bargain to be the CM, Thackeray conceded this to Pawar’s NCP but continues to play the force through individual officers; Vaze is a prime example.

There’s no denying that he was picked for his utility value to the Sena or Thackerays. He seemed to have gone overboard in the Ambani-SUV case. What did Mansukh Hiren, with whom Vaze had business arrangements if Hiren’s wife is to be believed, know about the gelatine sticks? More importantly, did Vaze want him silenced and why?

Among the other inexplicable pieces is the black Mercedes Benz which he reportedly drove around and was found in the parking lot of the Crime Intelligence Unit at Mumbai Police headquarters with fake number plates, cash worth nearly Rs 6 lakhs, and a note-counting machine.

Who’s the Scriptwriter of this Mumbai Crime Thriller?

The BJP is on a roll now; Fadnavis repeatedly referred to the Sena-Vaze connection in the Assembly to embarrass Thackeray and revealed information about the case that shocked ministers. Sensitive information that should have reached Thackeray or Home Minister Deshmukh was with the leader of Opposition. This is more evidence that Thackeray is not running a tight ship; his control over the bureaucracy is far from firm.

Also, sections of the bureaucracy keep Fadnavis in good humour not knowing if – or when – he will be back as CM. This cannot end well unless Thackeray effects immediate changes.

There's no denying that CM Thackeray has suffered a setback.

More plots and sub-plots about the Ambani-SUV case will, no doubt, unravel in the coming weeks. It is poised to be a political reality show or a political thriller – not merely a crime thriller – but its mastermind script writer may well remain a mystery.

(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based journalist and columnist, writes on politics, urban affairs, gender and media.

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