In yet another slugfest between the Centre and the Maharashtra government – this time over alleged drugs usage on a cruise liner and the arrest of Aryan Khan and others on October 2 – the state appears to have got the upper hand by exposing what it claimed were loopholes in the case.
The Aryan Khan arrest case is the fourth instance of the state and the Centre locking horns in the past two years.
The Elgar Parishad probe and the case of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death were taken over by the Centre. Even in the matter of the security threat to Antilia, the residence of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, involving former police officials Parambir Singh and Sachin Waze, the Centre prevailed over the state.
The case of Aryan Khan, son of actor Shah Rukh Khan, has some parallels with Rajput’s death. Both have been linked to an alleged drug racket among Bollywood celebrities, and have added to the perception that Mumbai is India’s drug capital.
The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) alleged that Aryan Khan was involved in drug supplies, based on messages said to have been recovered from his mobile phone. That was much like the charges against actor Rhea Chakravarty, Rajput’s girlfriend. Today, more than a year after Rajput’s death and six months after filing charges, nothing concrete has come out of the case.
It may not be mere coincidence that Sameer Wankhede, the NCB’s Mumbai zonal head who is spearheading the cruise liner case, had also investigated the Rajput case. Wankhede had crossed paths with celebrities in his earlier stint as a customs officer at Mumbai International Airport, and later in the Service Tax Department.
The narrative in the Aryan Khan case changed only after Maharashtra minorities minister Nawab Malik questioned the motives of the arrest, and levelled allegations against Wankhede, including a claim that he had framed others in previous cases.
More trouble came Wankhede’s way after Malik claimed he fraudulently altered his caste. A claim of extortion by a witness in the case forced the central agency to set up an inquiry against Wankhede, and put it on the back-foot.
It’s often alleged that the ruling party at the Centre uses entities such as the National Investigation Agency, the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation to interfere in state matters.
In Maharashtra, the Centre-vs-state conflict was perhaps inevitable after the Shiv Sena, a one-time ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), went with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress to form the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) after the state election in 2019. The question was how they would fight this political battle, and stick together as alliance partners.
In West Bengal, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee took the BJP head on, setting an example for anti-BJP parties to follow. She opened the battle from the grassroots, and was prepared to pay the price.
In Maharashtra, the Centre has been singling out ministers of the MVA, alleging corruption and misconduct. NCP leader and former home minister Anil Deshmukh, transport minister Anil Parab of the Shiv Sena, Shiv Sena MP Bhavana Gawali, and senior Shiv Sena leader Anandrao Adsul are embroiled in battles with central agencies.
With his interventions in this case, Malik, who is also the NCP spokesperson, has emerged as a prominent leader for the anti-BJP group. Malik’s allegations have raised several questions about central agencies, their functioning, their operations, and the accountability of officials heading these agencies.
He did not bow down before social media trolls despite allegations about his religion and his son-in-law's arrest earlier this year in connection with a drugs case. He fought the battle in court, and his son-in-law got bail this month.
This is the time for the MVA to support Malik and leverage its powers as the state government. Only a combined endeavour by the anti-BJP camp can help stave off getting crushed by the Centre.
Shruti Ganapatye is a Mumbai-based journalist. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.