Bombay’s going to the dogs

In recent years, Chhagan Bhujbal has been Maharahstra’s toughest Home Minister, even willing to take on Bal Thackeray and throw the Sena supremo into the slammer. He brooked no nonsense from even top cops in the state and it was during his tenure that underworld gangs had to beat a hasty retreat from Bombay.

Yet, when the offices of Zee TV were attacked by some activists in 2004, his party boss, Sharad Pawar, was quick to seek his resignation. Now it has been almost a week since the murder of senior journalist Jyotirmoy Dey in broad daylight last Saturday. But all that we have had from Maharashtra’s current Home Minister RR Patil is cheap insinuations against Dey and just a repeat of his standard phrases when Bombay is under attack: we will not tolerate such nonsense and we will bring the criminals to book. But when has he ever done that?

Patil was also Home Minister when 26/11 happened and at the time all that he could say was, “aise bade bade shehron mein aise chote-bade haadse hote rehte hain (big cities should expect to face such big or small incidents)”. If he lost his job for that comment, that is because it suited Pawar very well at the time – he wanted to shame the Congress into taking similar action against then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. For an election was due within a few months and, with Deshmukh at the helm, Pawar thought he would have very little chance at gaining the upper hand over the Congress (which he still did not – because Deshmukh, out of government, proved more dangerous than he would have been had he had a chair to protect).

How little Pawar thought of the need to have an effective Home Minister in the state and how much he had thought of only his personal gain when he had Patil removed as Home Minister in 2008 was amply evident when, despite designating Bhujbal as Deputy Chief Minister, he had Patil reinstalled as Home Minister in 2009 – as though 26/11 was of no consequence.

But Pawar has always thought more about himself than he has even about his own state. Despite the wide canvas that he paints on today (union agricultural ministry, cricket, etc), Pawar has always had this fear that his supporters in Maharashtra might grow bigger than him one day. When he first made Bhujbal the Home Minister, he had thought that, with his Other Backward Class background, Bhujbal would not upstage either Pawar or the other Marathas in the Nationalist Congress Party. Marathas have traditionally ruled Maharashtra even in the democratic set up and, while Bhujbal may have been unable to overcome this caste equation, he did prove to be a tough home minister who might have gone places. So, even a comparatively insignificant thing like an unarmed attack on a television channel’s office was good enough reason to dump Bhujbal into the boondocks. But with Patil being the most blindly obedient of Pawar’s supporters, and also the most ineffectual of home ministers that Maharashtra has had so far, the killing of a journalist in broad daylight or the return of underworld gangs to Bombay on his watch (as is evident from the armed attack on Dawood Ibrahim’s brother a month earlier) is not reason enough to sack Patil and replace him with a more effective person. Kyonki aise bade bade shehron mein aise chote bade haadse hote rehte hain, right?

Why Bombay is doubly cursed by the continuation of Patil on the job is also because of his poor control over the cops. The last time that the police had had such a free hand was when the BJP’s Gopinath Munde was in the job. But one could at least make the excuse for him that he was a greenhorn and still learning on the job. But Patil, now in his third term, has no such excuse: he is simply too dumb to see how he is being misled by the police and is always ready to toe their line rather than make his own independent judgments.

When Dey was shot dead on June 11, some top cops tried to “plant” some misinformation on the media – that Dey, who was as honest a crime reporter as they come probably fell foul of real estate sharks (they alleged he was into real estate deals for which there was no evidence) or that he had outraged some in the underworld for having an affair with a gangster’s moll (again, absolutely no evidence). Now, instead of asking the cops to verify those rumours and produce some concrete evidence to support both those allegations, Patil, just a day after Dey’s murder, was blindly parroting those unsubstantiated rumours to the media – it is only the media outrage against those statements and the demand for the dismissal of both Bombay’s police commissioner and home minister that they were silenced and did the probe begin in the right direction.

That kind of mindless behavior, amid pressure from the media, prompted Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan to take charge of monitoring the investigations himself — that relentless pressure included a morcha, a relay hunger strike and a PIL in the Bombay High Court, accompanied by a demand that the case be transferred to the CBI because they did not trust the cops to do a fair investigation.

The last time that a chief minister had similarly intervened was when Vilasrao Deshmukh received a bamboo from the Prime Minister’s office demanding to know why no action was being taken against Raj Thackeray despite the beating up of so many North Indians by his party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, across the state. That is when Raj was arrested and embroiled in so many cases that he has been unable to catch his breath ever since and, by and large, laid off the North Indians in Bombay.

Ever since, I have been making a case for the return of the job of the Home Minister to the Chief Minister. Bombay has been going to the dogs for years now precisely because of such dual authority in the state. The chief minister is the person at whose door the buck must stop vis-vis law and order. But having another man in charge, that too from another party and one who does not consider the CM his boss, gives room to the policemen to play one against the other. The bifurcation of the two offices was done during the Shiv Sena-BJP regime in the Nineties essentially because Munde, who belonged to the senior party, needed to feel equal to the CM, Manohar Joshi, who was from the Shiv Sena. When the NCP does not have enough efficient men to decisively command the police force – and it is this reason why there is a deep divide and factional wars between Bombay’s top cops, apparent during 26/11- there is no reason why the state should be weakened just because it suits a particular politician to have no one grow bigger than himself.

I believe this is the right opportunity for the Congress to seize the initiative and tell Pawar that the state is in need of an effective Home Minister and if his party cannot provide a suitable candidate for the job, the Congress might find one from it’s own ranks. At least that will solve the problem of dual authority and compel the cops to fall in line.

Then, perhaps, the police might be able to concentrate on the job of keeping law and order in the state rather than upstaging one another and attempting to solve cases through cheap innuendo and gossip, even as Bombay goes to dogs – and the underworld raises its ugly head once again, using faction wars in the Bombay police to divide a house against itself!

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