Even the most seasoned Bollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have crafted the political thriller now playing out in Mumbai. A rogue cop who plants an explosives-laden SUV outside the house of India’s richest individual and then investigates the same case. His accomplices who are found allegedly complicit in the murder of the vehicle owner. A former police commissioner who accuses the state home minister of sanctioning a sophisticated extortion racket with targets of Rs 100 crore per month. And, finally, a 2020 letter by a Maharashtra police officer produced by the leader of the opposition, alleging that politicians were making money off police transfers and postings. The 16-month-old Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government is staring at its worst political crisis.
Over a decade ago, Mumbai’s problems were external. Dubai and, later, Karachi-based organised crime syndicates terrorised the film world and business fraternity and sent contract killers to enforce their writ.
The Bombgate revelations now suggest that Mumbai’s crime problems are strictly within. Grievous, they are of a magnitude not seen anywhere else in India. What is unfolding in Mumbai has exposed the ugly underbelly of India’s worst-kept secret—the cosy nexus between Khaki and Khadi. The Constitution mandates law and order as a state subject but, over the years, state control seems to have degenerated to a point where the best man or woman for a job is someone who is willing to do the bidding of a political party or politician.
India Today Magazine April 5, 2021 cover, Bombgate
In Mumbai, this nexus seems to be of a greater order than any seen in recent years. The reasons are not far to seek: the stakes in ‘maximum city’ are far higher. Maharashtra is India’s most industrialised and urbanised state, contributing 20 per cent to the national industrial output. India’s financial capital Mumbai accounts for 30 per cent of the state’s GSDP. A March 2019 report by Knight Frank ranked Mumbai as the world’s 12th richest city in terms of wealth, bettering its previous position of 18th in 2017. The report highlighted ‘significant wealth creation’ in the city.
There, clearly, is a lot of money to be made from the bars, restaurants and nightclubs that cater to a population of 12 million in one of the world’s most densely-packed metropolises. It is perhaps what has engendered India’s first organised crime syndicates that scaled up from smuggling rackets to extortion. When a government’s tenure is precarious, it lends a certain urgency for a corrupt politician to line their or their party’s pockets.
Over two decades ago, the city police fielded a set of ‘encounter cops’, special police squads that operated on the margins of the law to neutralise these syndicates. While performing their duties, a few of them seem to have crossed over and become extortionists themselves.
Encounter cops reached a nadir when a shocking 2006 case revealed that policemen may have kidnapped and killed a gangster at a rival’s behest. The case led to a Supreme Court judge calling the guilty policemen contract killers. The encounter squads were disbanded soon after, but their methods, as the strange nature of recent events reveals, seem to have continued. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) probe could throw up more surprises.
The case and its revelations threaten the stability of India’s largest opposition-ruled state—the shaky three-party MVA. The government has dug in its heels and refused to remove the home minister. The opposition BJP, which briefly flirted with the prospect of an NCP alliance in November 2019, has embarked on a campaign to wear out, discredit and, ultimately, topple the government. In India, nothing sticks like the stain of corruption, and no one knows this better than Sharad Pawar, who, as Congress chief minister in 1995, was defeated by a Sena-BJP coalition that fought on an anti-corruption plank. The Congress party’s rout was most pronounced in Mumbai—it won just one of the city’s 34 assembly seats. The longer it delays action on the allegations of corruption and the longer the investigations continue to dredge out more revelations, the tougher it will be for the government to survive.
Our cover story, ‘Bombgate’, by Executive Editor Sandeep Unnithan and Senior Associate Editor Kiran D. Tare, pieces together this incredible story and explains its ramifications.
A government whose existence is threatened by a ticking time bomb cannot inspire confidence. Nor can a police force whose credibility has been so severely dented. The Uddhav Thackeray government has to find the truth of this bizarre tale. At the moment, nothing is clear. We do not know the motive for the crime, and accusations and counter-accusations between the politicians and the police are making the case even murkier. Mumbai’s role as India’s growth engine is critical, especially when the Indian economy is on a slow path to recovery. Bombgate needs to be dealt with all the urgency and seriousness that it deserves.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, ‘Bombgate’, for Aprill 5, 2021)