In Rathod and Vaze’s cases, the action appeared to have been taken only after Pawar’s intervention. This has been creating a poor picture for Thackeray, who is behind the steering wheel, say analysts. (HT File)
In Rathod and Vaze’s cases, the action appeared to have been taken only after Pawar’s intervention. This has been creating a poor picture for Thackeray, who is behind the steering wheel, say analysts. (HT File)

Spate of criminal cases puts Maharashtra govt in tight spot, leaders wary of image

The three cases – two pertaining to the ministers and Vaze – have damaged MVA government’s image, according to its own ministers
PUBLISHED ON MAR 15, 2021 12:50 AM IST

In the past 15 months that it has been in power, the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government has received more flak for crimes than it did for the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic or the cash crunch owing to the slow economy.

Beginning with Palghar mob lynching to the death case of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, to the allegations against its two ministers in connection with alleged crimes against women, the government has been at the receiving end. Now it is facing flak over the death of businessman Mansukh Hiran, whose SUV was found outside industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s home with explosives last month. Hiran’s death came at a time was Opposition leader Devendra Fadnavis in the Assembly said that the businessman needed to be protected, as he could throw some light on the case. The issue has become the latest headache for Uddhav Thackeray after Mumbai Police officer Sachin Vaze was arrested for his alleged involvement by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Saturday night.

The Palghar lynching case, in which two seers and their driver were beaten to death, as well as Rajput’s death, led to an uproar in social media over the state’s handling of the cases, with Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accusing MVA it of suppressing the facts.

While the government kept insisting that the probe in both the cases was being conducted in an impartial manner, it was the allegations against its two ministers that caused it major embarrassment.

Social justice minister and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Dhananjay Munde, in the second week of January, faced allegations of rape by a budding Bollywood singer, who was also younger sister of a woman with whom the minister had admitted to be in a relationship. Though the singer later withdrew her complaint amid much political drama, the minister had almost lost his chair. A month later, Shiv Sena leader and forest minister Sanjay Rathod’s name cropped up in a case related to the suicide of a 23-year-old Pune woman. About a dozen audio clips of the mobile conversation related to the case went viral with the Opposition alleging that one of the voices in the clips was that of Rathod. The minister had to resign from the cabinet on the eve of the budget session that started on March 1.

The 10-day long session ended under the shadow of the controversy over Vaze’s alleged involvement in the explosives case, with Fadnavis alleging that the cop was directly connected to Hiran’s death. Buckling under Opposition’s pressure, the assistant police inspector was shunted out of the crime branch, though chief minister Uddhav Thackeray had defended him by saying that Vaze should not be “hanged” before the trial. Fadnavis had taunted Thackeray and said Vaze does not need any lawyer as CM has himself taken up the job to defend him.

Three cases in two months

The three cases – two pertaining to the ministers and Vaze – have damaged MVA government’s image, according to its own ministers. The government faced many controversies during its 15-month tenure, but these two months are believed to be really troublesome for it, they said.

“The wounded BJP left no opportunity to corner the Thackeray government ever since it was formed on November 28, 2019, after the decades-long Sena-BJP alliance came to an end. Be it Rajput’s death case, the Palghar lynching, handling of the Covid-19 pandemic or loan waiver, power bills, BJP leaders were very aggressive while raising the issues.

However, in Rathod and Vaze’s cases, the Opposition succeeded in pushing the government to the wall. Deputy CM Ajit Pawar had to admit that it was the pressure from the Opposition that led to Vaze’s transfer, said a senior NCP minister.

The minister said that Munde could save his ministership because of the political strategy adopted to turn around the perception against him.

“At one moment, NCP chief Sharad Pawar had admitted it to be a serious case, hinting that the minister will have to resign. But as more people, including a former legislator, coming to Munde’s rescue by claiming that the woman had blackmailed them too, helped the minister save his chair.”

Some behind-the-curtain damage control was reportedly done by NCP and Munde, which helped him retain his position.

However, Rathod’s damage control management was poor, and getting linked in a woman’s death case proved to be problematic for him.

Political analyst Hemant Desai said, “The immoral relations of politicians outside their wedlock are not accepted by women in the society. Women voters have been playing a major role in elections, as was seen in Bihar and other states. These two [ministers’] cases may cost dear to ruling parties in the coming elections. The Vaze case was mishandled by the state government. There was no reason for CM to give loaded statements like ‘Vaze can’t be hanged before trial’. Secondly, in Rathod and Vaze’s cases, the action appeared to have been taken only after Pawar’s intervention. This has been creating a poor picture for Thackeray, who is behind the steering wheel.”

Shiv Sena’s south Mumbai parliamentarian Arvind Sawant said: “I do not think the MVA government has suffered any setback because of these cases. There have been more serious cases in the country, be it Karnataka minister’s latest sex scandal or Hathras-Unnao cases in Uttar Pradesh. Rathod and Munde’s cases are their personal matters. In Vaze’s case, NIA is conducting a probe. Let the truth come to the fore and action will be taken. Also, why are questions not raised on [MP] Mohan Delkar’s suicide, which is a more serious case? We should also remember that there was ruckus created in Rajput’s death case, but the CBI found nothing.”

State minority affairs minister from NCP Nawab Malik said Munde’s case was a family matter and it had nothing to do with public perception. “The case was withdrawn by the complainant. In Rathod and Vaze’s cases, the investigations are on, and truth will come to the fore once the probes are completed. In a democracy, the Opposition has its own importance, but Vaze’s transfer was not because of the Opposition’s pressure.”

Poor handling, lack of coordination

Insiders said that the major difference between cases related to Munde and Rathod was their handling and that the former forest minister’s case was an example of the poor crisis management by the ruling parties. Leaders from the ruling alliance said that Munde responded to the allegations within hours and ensured that the charges were withdrawn in the next few days.

“On the contrary, Rathod sulked for two weeks after the controversy broke out and emerged only to commit another mistake by gathering a huge crowd at Poharadevi temple [a religious place of his Banjara community] when his party chief and CM Thackeray had banned social gatherings. BJP raked up the issue in these two weeks to a level that the general perception went against the government, said a former Sena minister.

The three ruling parties are also not found to be on the same page on many occasions, and it was made evident during Vaze’s case.

When Fadnavis levelled allegations of Vaze’s involvement in Hiran’s case on Tuesday, NCP leaders had initially agreed for Vaze’s transfer, but the CM put his foot down and refused any action against the officer. This led to several adjournments in the Assembly and pandemonium. The house proceedings resumed only after the government announced Vaze’s transfer.

Insiders feel that the criticism and controversy could have been avoided had the officer been shunted out immediately after the issue came up.

“The ruling parties, in retaliation, raised the suicides cases of interior designer Anvay Naik and Delkar, who was Dadra and Nagar Haveli MP. In the 2018 Naik case, the victim’s family had blamed the Fadnavis government of suppressing the case, while Delkar had named a BJP leader from Gujarat, holding him responsible for the suicide. This may have helped us in pushing BJP on the back foot, but the seriousness of the Hiran case does not recede,” the former Sena minister said.

The leader said that ruling parties fail to pre-empt the controversies and plan accordingly.

“BJP has an edge over us in picking up the issues. They miss no time in strategising and attacking the government. Be it Palghar lynching, Rajput or Rathod’s cases, the Opposition has always been aggressive. But the over-aggressive approach seems to going against them, and is playing as an advantage of the MVA government,” he said.

The Congress, the third MVA partner, has distanced itself from all these issues to avoid any embarrassment. A Congress leader said that the damage to MVA’s image is unlikely to be reflected as there are no major elections anytime soon.

“Moreover, these cases are mostly related to the other two ruling parties. By maintaining distance, we made sure that they directly do not hamper us,” the leader said.

Malik said that the ruling parties will take more precautions for better coordination in future.

“Some of the issues such as the one related to Rathod are to be tackled at the party level as it’s their internal matter. But yes, when it comes to MVA, we need to have better coordination in future,” he said.

Maharashtra BJP vice-president Madhav Bhandari said, “We have been raising issues of public interest from beginning, be it Palghar lynching, SSR death or but till then the general public had sympathy for this government. Now, the people have realised the failure of the MVA government. They have realised that people here are not safe and the government is not interested at all to ensure it. Vaze’s is not the only case to establish that the law and order in the state has completely collapsed.”

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