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Mumbai Crime Story II: How BJP Used Ambani Drama to Hurt Maha Govt

At the heart of this saga lies the oldest trope in attacking or toppling governments — corruption and venality.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
From left to right: Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray, NCP Chief Sharad Pawar and former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis. Image used for representational purposes.
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(This is Part II of a series by senior journalist Smruti Koppikar, on the Ambani-Sachin Vaze crime ‘thriller’ unfolding in Mumbai. You can read Part I here.)

What started as a threat to the Ambanis with a gelatin sticks-laden SUV parked near their residential tower in tony south Mumbai nearly a month ago, has turned into a full-fledged multi-pronged attempt to destabilise the Uddhav Thackeray-led government in Maharashtra. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would love nothing more than a stint of President’s Rule in the state, followed of course, by its government.

At the heart of this lies the oldest trope in attacking or toppling governments — corruption and venality — that can be demonstrated to touch the top of a hierarchy, in this case, state Home Minister Anil Deshmukh and Chief Minister Thackeray.

This calls for a central character that can capture public imagination and exploit the anti-incumbent sentiment — former Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh plays that role. Singh taking on Deshmukh is unfolding as an open war between the administrative and political wings of the government — except that Singh’s moves carry impeccable political timing and appear to march to the BJP’s beat.

BJP’s ‘Attempts’ to Taint Thackeray Govt & Dislodge It

The perception created is that there’s only rot in the Thackeray government and it reaches the very top — that this government cannot be trusted to function in accordance with law, and these conditions demand the imposition of President’s Rule.

Will it come to pass? All bets are off the table, for now. Should it happen, it will mark a new low in federal relations and could leave the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) — comprising the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and the Congress — in tatters. If it does not, it would go down as one more attempt that BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis made to dislodge Thackeray; a meme even mocked him as ‘Desperate Devendra’.

Singh, about 14 months away from retirement, has played a high-stakes game here. His sensational letter to Thackeray on 20 March — after he was transferred — about Deshmukh’s ‘venality’ was a bombshell; it took public attention away from the Ambani-SUV case that’s now being probed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

Two days later, as he took charge of his new post as Commandant General of Home Guards, Singh filed a petition in the Supreme Court saying his transfer was “arbitrary and illegal”, sought protection from further coercive action against him (read on to know why this is important), and demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry against Deshmukh. Barely six months ago, Singh had vehemently resisted CBI probe into actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide case and praised the Mumbai Police.

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Param Bir Singh Is ‘Proof’ That the Men at the Top Choose to ‘Ignore’ Systemic Rot

Singh’s letter stated that Home Minister Deshmukh had asked Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Vaze to ‘collect’ Rs 100 crore a month from hotels and bars and that he, Singh, had verbally alerted Chief Minister Thackeray and NCP President Sharad Pawar about this.

The implication is clear: the men at the top knew of the rot but chose to ignore it.  The implication also was that Singh was an ‘honest and clean cop’ without his fingers in this.

He assumed that in the sensation created, people would overlook the obvious: that it was he who had signed to reinstate Vaze after 16 years of wilderness, political work and business, that it was he to whom Vaze often directly reported, bypassing at least four levels of police hierarchy — that it was his decision as Mumbai’s police commissioner to allow Vaze control of high-profile cases such as Rajput’s suicide, the TRP scam, and TV news anchor Arnab Goswami’s alleged involvement in architect Anvay Naik’s suicide.

Was Singh unaware of how Vaze functioned from the Crime Intelligence Unit — with a currency counting machine and fake number plates in his Mercedes parked right there — or did he choose to overlook it?

Did his conscience awaken only after the NIA arrested Vaze in the Ambani-SUV case to perhaps protect himself? To do so, he would have had to redirect the fire at Deshmukh — and thereby, to the government.

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How Does the ‘Hafta-Vasooli’ System Work in Mumbai?

Deshmukh has defended himself, his party boss Pawar and the NCP have defended him, and he threatened Singh with a defamation case for the “Rs 100 crore a month” allegation. But he is now the weak link in the government; his place in the Cabinet lies in Pawar and Thackeray’s sagacity and willingness to weather the political storm. Whether he brazens out this controversy to remain a minister or resigns to save the government, he will find it difficult to shrug off the taint. This, the BJP says, has revealed the rot and venality in the force.

Fadnavis upped the ante by stating he had “6.3 GB data and all (these) transcripts of severe and sensitive allegations” against cops negotiating their transfers and postings; he claims Thackeray had this data but did not act.

This, however, is only a slice of Mumbai’s ‘hafta-vasooli’ reality — ‘hafta’ used more often as protection money given to gangsters, ‘vasooli’ is more general and means recovery or extraction by any authority.

This is money collected to overlook or ‘pardon’ violation of a law; the bigger the violation, the higher the ‘vasooli’. Or the richer the target, the higher the ‘hafta’ demand, as it used to happen when gangsters ran amok in the 1990s.

There is a system for ‘hafta-vasooli’, as IPS officer Sanjay Pandey — considered an honest and no-nonsense officer, overlooked twice for Mumbai Police Commissioner’s post — explained on actor Aamir Khan's show a few years ago. Casual collection happens when people want to escape the fine for breaking a traffic signal, or a street vendor wants to secure his place in a no-parking zone and so on, while institutional collection from commercial establishments — including hotels and bars — is systematic, structured, predictable, and involves politicians.

A strong or straightforward commissioner discourages it and keeps it in check, but no one has eradicated it. Also, no political party can claim to be above it.
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IPS Officer Sanjay Pandey’s Letter

Pandey also wrote a letter when Singh shot his off, but it hardly got media attention. In it, Pandey refers to the enquiry he was entrusted with of fellow IPS officer, Additional Director General Deven Bharti, whose last active post was the state’s Anti-Terrorism Squad chief. “In this enquiry against Deven Bharti, I have had severe hurdles to face with non-cooperation from CP Mumbai (commissioner of police) and the then DGP of Maharashtra. Witnesses were threatened on record by CP Shri Param Bir Singh, a fact which was reported to the government,” the letter stated.

He added that the then chief secretary too intervened to stop the enquiry. Now, why would that have happened?

AAP leader Preeti Sharma Menon verbalised what was known. “A retired assistant commissioner sent a letter and pen drive to Thackeray in February about Mr Bharti’s criminal associations; the pen drive has a video confession of a gangster who details the extortion modus operandi which involved the top cop,” she claimed.

The contents of the pen drive are reportedly explosive — way more than the 20 gelatin sticks found near Ambani’s tower — and lays bare the nexus between the top cop and gangster on ‘hafta-vasooli’, how they operated, and how the spoils were split, including money sent to Nepal.

Mr Bharti was joint commissioner of police (economic offences wing) — oh, the sheer irony of this — and was then appointed state ATS chief during Devendra Fadnavis’s tenure as chief minister. Was Fadnavis, as the state’s home minister, unaware of his top cop’s shenanigans and modus operandi?
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The Rot is Systemic & Runs Deep

Why did Param Bir Singh not cooperate with Pandey on the enquiry (refer to his plea to SC against ‘coercive action’)? The answers are bound to make both men more than worried.

The rot, as Pandey said, is systematic and deep.

The crime-politico thriller is spinning wild now, its plot lines going berserk. There’s no telling what and how much Vaze will sing to the NIA. Singh is looking for ways to protect himself, project himself as the good-clean cop amidst the venality in the Mumbai Police.

The letter to Thackeray, the subsequent petition in the SC, Fadnavis releasing sensational information to support him — are all parts of a piece; also a part of this is the proceedings in the Parliament on Monday where BJP MPs raised the “Rs 100 crore collection” charge against Deshmukh and demanded that the Thackeray government be dismissed.

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Why Param Bir Singh Need Not Worry About ‘Protection’

But Singh may not have to try hard for protection. Fadnavis is clearly on his side in this battle and, ironically, firing from his shoulder too. Also, it helps that Singh already has a connection with the BJP. His son is married to the grand-daughter of Datta Meghe, a veteran politician from Vidarbha who spent the better part of his career as a Congress MP but switched over to the BJP. Meghe, now retired, still calls the shots in Wardha; his younger son is a BJP MLA.

How this layered and complex story eventually plays out, whether President’s Rule is invoked or not, depends largely on how Thackeray, with help from Pawar, checkmates the sub-plots within this murky story.

(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.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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