Gondogol in Maharashtra politics

We are in the midst of the election campaign season in West Bengal but it is the politics in the status of Maharashtra that is hotting up. The best way to explain the current situation in Maharashtra is by using the Bengali word “Gondogol” which denotes confusion and trouble. The Vazegate scandal has exploded and having consumed the main protagonist Assistant Police Inspector (API) Sachin Vaze and ex Mumbai police commissioner Parambir Singh, now it looks set to consume the first political victim – the state home minister Anil Deshmukh.

Maharashtra Home minister Anil Deshmukh
Maharashtra Home minister Anil Deshmukh

Anil Deshmukh has always been a lightweight politician in a state that has had big political stalwarts. He has been a minister from 1995-1999 (as a Congress rebel who supported the first Sena-BJP yuti government) and later in the 1999-2014 timeframe as a NCP minister. But he hardly had an achievement worth noting in these 19 years. So it was surprising that Anil Deshmukh was made the state home minister in the MVA government in 2019. It is believed that he is just the face and actual powers of the home ministry rested with the senior Pawar.

The MVA government has been brazen in its approach since coming to power especially while dealing with dissenters like Arnab Goswami and Kangana Ranaut, ever since the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide/ murder scandal broke out. Probably it is the intoxication of power that caused them to arrest Arnab and raise Kangana’s bungalow. The main actors of these high profile cases as well as in the TRP scam have been API Sachin Vaze, ex Mumbai police commissioner Parambir and home minister Deshmukh. Now it seems that the very same people have been implicated in another case viz. the threat provided to billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani and the explosive laden car found outside his home. Now that these individuals have come under suspicion in this case, it is but natural that the other cases like the TRP scam will come into focus again and the intention of these individuals will be questioned. The fire of the “threat to Ambani” case has now reached the political fraternity and that is giving sleepless nights to the MVA leaders.

With home minister Anil Deshmukh being accused of giving Vaze a collection target of 100 crores per month by extorting from business establishments especially bars and restaurants in Mumbai, Sharad Pawar’s NCP and the MVA government has come under the shadow of corruption. It is an open secret that bars and restaurants in Mumbai (and indeed throughout the state and country) give monthly payments to the police and civic authorities, in lieu of being allowed to keep their establishment open beyond the permissible hours. This is the classical give and take between those in power and business. But the open accusation by the ex police commissioner has put Anil Deshmukh under the cloud. It is unlikely that he would survive this accusation and may be asked to resign pending investigation. Even if the NCP tries to shield him, the entire opposition in the state like the BJP, Bahujan Vikas Aghadi and the NCP (remaining parties big and small are part of the unholy MVA alliance) will become more aggressive on this matter. The cardinal rule in politics is not to get caught doing corruption, because after that your political masters would throw you under the bus. But this matter does not look like it will settle with the resignation of Anil Deshmukh.

The political dynamics in the state and within the MVA coalition need to be considered in this regard. The MVA alliance has no specific ideology (though they claim to have a common minimum program). This ragtag alliance is in existence only and only to stop the BJP from coming to power in the state of Maharashtra. BJP already controls the financially and politically important states of Karnataka, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat and is in a tough fight to win the state of West Bengal. So letting the BJP rule Maharashtra is like signing a blank cheque for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and giving it to Modi. Hence the Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar conspired to form this coalition with the Shiv Sena supremo Uddhav Thackeray. Pawar had to stay in power somewhere to maintain the relevance of his party and keep his ambition of the Prime minister post alive. The NCP itself is a coalition of sub regional satraps and has no compulsions on allying with the supposedly Hindutva party Shiv Sena. To get majority, the Congress was drafted in as the third and minor partner of the MVA. This was a major ideological compromise for the “secular” Congress. However, the Congress party is currently like the proverbial beggar and hence it cannot be the chooser. They are happy with the few scraps of power they have got in the state and jubilant that they have been able to keep BJP out of power in the state.

If these allegations of 100 crore collection per month and extortion threats to Mukesh Ambani are true. what was the purpose behind it? Was the Sena trying to build a war chest for the BMC and other important civic elections? Or was it Pawar trying to fund the third front at the national stage? We may never know for sure. However the case of trying to threaten Mukesh Ambani seems to be either a deep conspiracy or simply a case of overreach by some political players in the state. This has opened the pandora’s box and allowed the centre to intervene via the NIA and possibly ED in the future. The BJP smarting from having won the assembly election in Maharashtra but having lost power post the election, will use this case to find chinks in the armour of the MVA alliance. Also there could be potential subterranean battles between the NCP and the Sena in laying the blame on each other.

The damage to the reputation of the MVA alliance would be severe, however much the alliance tries to brazen it out. Threat to a billionaire businessman in the financial capital of India would always be taken seriously by the centre and security agencies. No invocation of regional pride or targeting of the state government can provide public sympathy in such cases. This latest development could hurt Sharad Pawar much more than the Sena, as he is working to build a third front minus the Congress. This scandal has potential to derail Pawar’s national ambitions. Would the Congress be secretly rejoicing in Pawar’s discomfort? Likely as they never want another challenger within the opposition space to their scion Rahul Gandhi.

My opinion is that there is no immediate threat to the MVA government led by Uddhav Thackeray. The three parties are sticking together for power and for keeping the BJP out of power in the state. Unless the BJP melts down in the state, they will stick together. The two scenarios in which the MVA government could implode from within are,

  • Bad blood within the top leadership of the NCP and Sena on laying the blame at each other’s door for this scandal. Currently there is no concrete evidence for the same though on whose behest Parambir Singh accused Deshmukh of corruption is yet to be known. Was he acting to save his skin or is their another puppeteer behind him? We may known from the events of the coming days.
  • The political costs for the Congress become unbearably high of bearing the cross of the MVA government. The BJP and other local opposition parties will target the Congress nationally of being guilty by association with the MVA. Any decision to cut their losses by leaving the MVA will likely come from Delhi as the state Congress leadership is unlikely to give up the perks of power which they have got fortuitously. If Sonia or Rahul decide that it is not worth damaging its reputation further, then they might leave the MVA or put pressure on Pawar to abandon the MVA experiment.

For now the BJP will pursue the case strongly and if more political personalities are dragged in the mud, there could be a threat to the MVA government in the immediate term. Anyways reputation is not something which the Sena and Congress think about. Even Sharad Pawar would weigh power over reputation until his threshold of perceived damage to his party and image is not crossed.

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