Hiren episode opens Pandora’s Box in Maharashtra politics

The Sena image has been damaged, but the stability of the govt is not in doubt so far; a more challenging situation would, however, emerge when campaigning would begin for civic body polls due next year

A considerable amount of ammunition was found at Vaze's house, according to NIA, who sought to extend his custody to further question the suspended cop.

The Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra is going through a rough weather, though NCP’s Sharad Pawar has rushed in for the firefight post Mukesh Ambani security scare at the billionaire’s residence last month. The government problems got more complicated as the Thane sessions court on Wednesday (March 24) ordered the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad to stop its investigation into the death of Mansukh Hiren and hand over the probe to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

On February 25, an SUV laden with explosive gelatin sticks was found abandoned outside Ambani’s Antilia residence in south Mumbai. Investigations soon opened Pandora’s Box for the state government.

The purported owner of the SUV, Mansukh Hiren, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in Thane and his body was taken out from a creek on March 5. The role of Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Waze surfaced only after Opposition leader Devendra Fadnavis, a former CM, raised the issue in the Assembly on March 9. Fadnavis repeatedly asked the treasury benches why Waze was being “protected”.

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Waze was booked in 2004 in a custodial death case involving an engineer, Khwaja Yunus, and was suspended. He was reinstated in the police department 16 years later after the change of guard in the state. Waze was arrested by the NIA on March 13 in connection with Hiren’s death. The deceased was the owner of the abandoned SUV.

After the Assembly session was over, Sharad Pawar addressed the media at his hometown Baramati and referred to the Waze episode as a small issue. He called on chief minister Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai the very next day and also held a meeting of his party legislators to take stock of the situation. Subsequently, Mumbai police commissioner Paramvir Singh was removed from his post and transferred after which came a letter bomb: An email to the chief minister’s office, purportedly from Singh, claimed that Waze was given a monthly target by Home Minister Anil Deshmukh of collecting ₹100 crore from hotels and bars in Mumbai. Deshmukh is the NCP leader.

The Waze episode, a “small issue” in the understanding of the NCP chief, is now denting the image of the alliance government. The NIA has taken charge of the Hiren case, and a lot has happened since then.

Also read: Mukesh Ambani bomb scare: NIA books Sachin Vaze under UAPA

Political perspective

After the 2019 Assembly polls, the Shiv Sena joined hands with the Congress and the NCP to keep the BJP at bay, and Uddhav Thackeray become the chief minister. He is the first person from the Thackeray family to helm the state. His father, late Balasaheb Thackeray founded the Sena, which in its early years essentially espoused the cause of the son of the soil – the Marathi Manoos (the Marathi language-speaking population or natives of Maharashtra). The party befriended Hindutva groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation reached a flash point.

The Sena as a political party has dominated Mumbai for over five decades. In its early years and in late 1960s, the party was used against the powerful trade unions influenced by Leftist ideology. The Mumbai heartland was known for textile mills with trade unions feverishly working for the labour force. The unions were controlled by charismatic leaders such as SA Dange, George Fernandes and others. It was during the tenure of Congress chief minister late Vasantrao Naik that Shiv Sena was used to confront Left-dominated unions. The mills gradually shuttered and the chunks of land thus made available were eyed for minting money.

The increasing land prices coupled with the exit of unions gave rise to land mafia and gang wars in Mumbai with builders being threatened for extortion. Shiv Sena in those days was against “outsiders” — especially south Indians, most of whom were in government jobs, besides the Gujarati Marwadis, the trading community.

The BJP and the Shiv Sena struck an alliance in the 1970s and came to power in 1995 after which Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena was made the chief minister by Balasaheb Thackeray. Late Gopinath Munde of the BJP was the deputy chief minister and home minister. The 1995 Assembly elections were fought with criminalisation of politics as the central theme. Munde, after coming to power, gave a free hand to the police to eliminate the underworld and gangsters. Mumbai saw a series of encounters. It also gave birth to a fleet of ‘encounter specialists’.

Waze episode may mot affect govt stability

The current 288-member Assembly has the BJP as the single-largest party with 105 MLAs. The Shiv Sena has 56 MLAs, while NCP and the Congress have 54 and 44 MLAs, respectively.

Even though the state government has received a setback with the Waze episode, its stability is not affected. Even though the former Mumbai police commissioner has made serious allegations against the state home minister and the Opposition has alleged a “scam” in police officers’ transfers, the situation cannot be seen as a failure of the constitutional machinery to warrant President’s rule in the state, at least at this juncture.

The stability of the government can come into question if there are alarming revelations by the NIA’s investigation in the Hiren death case and something tangible comes out of the alleged police transfer scam.

Also read: Maharashtra ATS says Vaze ‘chief conspirator’ in Mansukh Hiren murder

There are 10 municipal corporations, including the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), where polls are due in February 2022. The BMC is vital for the Shiv Sena since it has been ruling the civic body for three decades. With an annual budget of around ₹40 thousand crore, the BMC is the wealthiest civic body in the country.

The Waze episode can damage the Sena’s chances in the BMC elections. The BJP will sharpen its attacks soon after the monsoon months. It would be very difficult then for the Sena to counter the BJP allegations in a situation where the NCP has a limited existence in Mumbai and the Congress is weak.

In that backdrop, it is advantage BJP in the state, for now.

 

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