IN EMBARRASSING the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government in Maharashtra, Leader of Opposition and former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has weaponised sensitive and confidential information including call data records (CDRs), telephone intercepts, video footage, and even statements made to the police. Such information is normally accessible only to law enforcement agencies.
There have been about half-a-dozen instances over the last one year when Fadnavis â€œexposed the governmentâ€ using otherwise classified information. Parties in power in Maharashtra â€“ Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party â€“ claim it is not possible to access such information without help from investigative agencies. NCP leader Sharad Pawar had on March 9 said some of this information can be obtained only by agencies under the Central government.
Fadnavis does not reveal how he obtains this information. To a question at a media briefing on March 14 how he managed to dig out such sensitive information that he often shared on the floor of the House, he said, â€œYou can say that in Maharashtra there is Fadnavis Bureau of Investigation.â€
The Uddhav Thackeray-led government was caught unawares for the first time during the Assembly session last year following a terror scare outside the Mukesh Ambani residence in south Mumbai on February 25 when gelatine sticks were found in a Scorpio vehicle. Armed with the CDR of Scorpio owner Mansukh Hiran â€“ who had later claimed that it had been stolen â€“ Fadnavis told the state Assembly, â€œThe person who had lodged a missing complaint for the Scorpio car has made calls (before the terror scare) to a number that is registered in the name of a person called Sachin Hindurao Waze.â€
Why this raises eyebrows
Devendra Fadnavis, former CM and Leader of Opposition now, has time and again put the Sena, Congress, NCP government on the mat by revealing information which is classified, and normally obtained only by investigative agencies. This has led to suspicion and may lead to further souring of Centre-state relations.
The fact that the owner of the Scorpio car had calls with Waze (Assistant Police Inspector, now suspended), who was the investigating officer of the case, even before the incident took place reeked of foul play. An embarrassed MVA that was in the dark about the links between Waze and Hiran transferred the probe to the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS). The probe revealed Waze and Hiran knew each other and Waze was involved in using Hiranâ€™s Scorpio to create a terror scare outside the Ambani residence.
Fearing Hiran would spill the beans on his involvement, Waze allegedly got him murdered. Four days later, speaking in the Assembly session on March 9, Fadnavis again surprised by claiming access to the statement of Mansukh Hiranâ€™s wife in which she had alleged that Waze was responsible for her husbandâ€™s death. Hiranâ€™s body was fished out from the Mumbra creek on March 5.
How did Fadnavis manage to obtain the CDR of Mansukh Hiran? Only law enforcement agencies have such access. As Chief Minister from 2014 to 2019, Fadnavis held the Home Department portfolio and enjoyed the confidence of some IPS officers; but then he is now just the Leader of Opposition.
Later that month on March 23, Fadnavis held a press conference where he claimed to have in his possession call recordings that exposed how IPS and non IPS officers in the state lobbied with the then state Home Minister Anil Deshmukh for postings. He claimed to have had 6.3 GB worth of data in a pen drive which he then produced before the Ministry of Home Affairs. This too left the government red faced â€“ calls had been recorded during the MVA tenure itself by Maharashtra State Information Department (SID) headed by Rashmi Shukla.
Fadnavis said in the press conference that Shukla had shared the report with the then DGP Subodh Jaiswal who had intimated Thackeray. Fadnavis alleged Thackeray did not take any action. The fact that sensitive call recordings by SID were shared with the Leader of Opposition led to the registration of an FIR by the Mumbai Police under the Officials Secret Act. In this case, the Mumbai Police recorded the statements of Shukla and Fadnavis.
A year later during the current Assembly session on March 8, Fadnavis came armed with a pen drive again. This time his target was special public prosecutor Pravin Chavan who he alleged was working with the MVA to frame cases against opposition leaders. Fadnavis speaking in the house claimed that the pen drive had 125 hours of footage allegedly from the office of Chavan where he is seen talking about issues related to framing of BJP leaders.
The fact that a video camera had been installed in Chavanâ€™s office stealthily and his conversations were recorded and made public also raised eyebrows. NCPâ€™s Sharad Pawar said, â€œYou need to have the support of powerful agencies to execute this act. Such agencies are available only with the Central government. They have managed to enter the state government office and carry out hidden recordings for hours. I am sure the state government will probe the incident.â€ Earlier this week, state Home Minister Dilip Walse Patil informed the session that Chavan had resigned from his post.
The same day Fadnavis came to the Assembly session armed with yet another pen drive containing audio recordings of phone conversations allegedly between Waqf board members Mohammad Arshad Khan and Mudassir Lambe. Fadnavis alleged that Lambe claimed his father-in-law was an associate of Ibrahim, while Khan said his uncle was part of the underworld. Khan is in jail, while Lambe is out despite facing rape charges, the BJP leader alleged.
When contacted, an official from the security establishment said, â€œObtaining access to phone conversations between two people is not possible without the help of law enforcement agencies which are permitted to undertake surveillance work. Some officers still maintain relations with Fadvanisâ€¦ A certain section believes sooner or later the BJP will return to powerâ€¦ hence these officers want to be in the good books of BJP.â€
Congress Spokesperson Sachin Sawant said, â€œFadnavis was the CM of the state and also the Home Minister of the state for five years and he has used his good relations to access information. However as the Leader of Opposition, he should act in a responsible manner by not revealing it and giving it to the concerned authority. The Modi government at the Centre takes action against those violating the Official Secrets Act and Fadnavis should ensure he doesnâ€™t violate it as well.â€
Shiv Sena spokesperson Manisha Kayande said, â€œInstead of providing the information available with him to the government in a constructive manner, Fadnavis has exploited it for political purposes which gives the impression that some of these things happened in his directions.â€
Pointing out that in October 2013, Fadnavis presented a bullock cart load of documents in Aurangabad to the Chitale committee set up by the Congress-NCP government to probe alleged financial irregularities in award of irrigation projects, NCP spokesperson Clyde Crasto said, â€œHe was unable to prove any scam thenâ€¦ he is now using a pen drive. This is the only Vikas we have seen from him and the BJP. Also the methods used to get these details are the subject of an ongoing investigation. The truth and the law will eventually prevail.â€