The Union government’s decision to hand over the Elgar Parishad and Bhima Koregaon cases to the National Investigation Agency could turn into a long-drawn fight with the Maharashtra government as the state plans to challenge the move legally. The Maharashtra police had arrested nine activists—Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Sudhir Dhawale, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Rona Wilson and Varavara Rao—in 2018 for allegedly delivering inflammatory speeches at a meeting of the Elgar Parishad in Pune on December 31, 2017. According to the police, the speeches had led to the caste violence in Bhima Koregaon the next day.
Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar, who has for long maintained that the case was politically motivated, had written to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray demanding reinvestigation by a special investigation team (SIT). Even before Thackeray could respond, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar and Home Minister Anil Deshmukh held a meeting on January 23 to review the cases and initiate steps to set up an SIT. But the Union home ministry stepped in the very next day and handed over the case to the NIA.
Pawar has been pressing for a fresh probe into the claims of the Pune city police, which had blamed the nine activists for the Elgar Parishad conspiracy. A separate investigation into the Bhima Koregaon violence by the Pune rural police, however, had pointed fingers at hindutva activists said to be guided by their leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhajirao Bhide. Ekbote was arrested and was granted bail by the Supreme Court. Bhide, known for his proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was never arrested.
Senior BJP legislator Atul Bhatkhalkar said Pawar was playing a petty political game. “The NIA can take action whenever it feels necessary. The Shiv Sena should not walk into the trap set by him,” he said. Bhatkhalkar’s views were supported by Shiv Sena leader Deepak Kesarkar, who was minister of state for home affairs in the Devendra Fadnavis government. “A judicial commission [comprising retired chief justice of the Calcutta High Court J.N. Patel and retired IAS officer Sumit Mallik] is probing the case. All evidence is with the commission,” he said.
A source close to Uddhav said Pawar was using the case to widen his base among dalits. “He [Pawar] feels that the demand for an SIT probe will send a positive signal to dalits who have shifted their allegiance to Prakash Ambedkar and his Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA),” he said. The NCP has also been lobbying hard to expedite the construction of the proposed memorial for Dr B.R. Ambedkar at the Indu Mills compound in Mumbai. Pawar has set a two-year deadline for the project. “The NCP’s image has always been that of a Maratha-dominated party. By taking up issues like Bhima Koregaon and Dr Ambedkar memorial, it is trying to reach out to dalits and emerge as a stronger option than the VBA,” said a political analyst.
Even as the NCP tries to set the governance agenda, the Shiv Sena is quietly working on its key promises. Uddhav’s son Aditya, who is in charge of tourism and environment portfolios, has launched his pet project of keeping malls, shops and eateries in Mumbai open round the clock. To avoid alienating the party’s middle class vote bank, he has made sure that bars and pubs will be closed by 1am, like it used to be in the past. Other popular measures championed by the Shiv Sena include loan waiver up to Rs2 lakh for farmers and the 010 per plate meal scheme. Next on the agenda is affordable medical care for the poor.
The Congress, meanwhile, is missing in action. Unlike the NCP and the Shiv Sena, it is yet to announce any major schemes or policies. Instead, its ministers have been busy with making controversial statements. Former chief minister Ashok Chavan, who handles the PWD portfolio in the Uddhav cabinet, likened the Maha Vikas Aghadi government to a multi-starrer movie, hinting that Uddhav and Ajit Pawar were the heros from their respective parties, while he represented the Congress. Former Union minister Milind Deora, meanwhile, has demanded better coordination and effort from Congress ministers. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Chavan justified the Congress’s performance and said the media was not giving the party enough space.
A senior leader said the Congress ministers had not expected to be in power, so they were just happy to be back as ministers. “They are not at all interested in pushing party programmes and agenda,” he said. “Not a single minister protested when the Shiv Sena announced that Uddhav will go to Ayodhya upon completing 100 days in power. How can it be allowed when there is a common minimum programme? Our leaders are not being assertive. They are happy to be led by the Shiv Sena and the NCP. Such an attitude will do a lot of damage to the Congress in the long run.”