The dusty, army-green SUV, parked on a leafy street a few hundred metres from the Mumbai skyscraper that houses India’s richest man, did not look like much.
Inside, however, police made an alarming discovery: a number of explosives and a letter that local media said warned Mukesh Ambani, the billionaire chair of conglomerate Reliance Industries, that this was just a “trailer” for what was to come.
The twists and turns that followed the bomb scare in late February have escalated into one of India’s most dramatic scandals.
The man to whom the SUV was linked was found dead, floating in a creek. A policeman said to have political ties — and an allegedly violent past — was arrested. Mumbai’s police chief was ousted and went on to accuse the state home minister of running an elaborate extortion racket in the city.
The metropolis of Mumbai has long held a reputation as a city of extremes, its gleaming offices and film studios built atop a notorious underbelly of brass-knuckled politics and gangsterism.
But analysts said there was little precedent for the way in which the latest controversy had brought the messy inner workings of India’s financial capital and the behind-the-scenes dealings that bind politics, police and crime across much of the country out of the shadows.
“The real takeaway is the gross decay of the institutions,” said Suhas Palshikar, a political scientist formerly of Savitribai Phule Pune University. “It doesn’t remain merely a story of administrative decay. It also means there’s a complete failure of politics . . . The dramatic aspect is new but all the elements have always been there.”
After Mansukh Hiren, the small-time suburban businessman to whom police had linked the SUV — and who had reported the vehicle missing — was found dead, investigators arrested police official Sachin Vaze for his alleged role in the bomb plot.
Vaze said in court that he was “a scapegoat”, according to a lawyer representing him, and was not involved in the crime.
The scandal might have died down were it not for the intervention of Param Bir Singh, Mumbai’s former police commissioner, who was transferred from his post days after Vaze’s arrest.
Singh alleged in a widely circulated letter that the home minister for Maharashtra, the state that is home to Mumbai, wanted Vaze to help collect Rs1bn ($14m) a month in payments from businesses such as restaurants and bars.
A lawyer for Singh confirmed the authenticity of the letter. A case filed by Singh, demanding a central government probe into his allegations, is being heard in the Bombay High Court.
Anil Deshmukh, the home minister of Maharashtra, responded in a letter posted on Twitter that Singh’s allegations were “absolutely false and baseless”. He called it part of “a conspiracy” to deflect attention from the bomb case and undermine the state government.
Among the many questions that remain unanswered is what, if anything, those behind the bomb plot wanted from Ambani. Reliance declined to comment but previously said it was confident police would “complete their thorough investigation quickly”.
The scandal could also have broader political ramifications. Maharashtra is run by a coalition led by the rightwing nationalist Shiv Sena party, which broke with prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party after state elections in 2019.
The events have revived memories of 1990s-era Mumbai — previously known as Bombay — when the city’s underworld was at its height. Larger-than-life police officials with a reputation for ruthless tactics, including extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals, were lauded as heroes and enjoyed political support.
Vaze, according to media reports, was reputed to be one of them. Of his alleged victims, he reportedly told the Guardian in 2011: “I don’t think about it ever. Every one of them deserved to go and they went.”
Vaze was suspended from the force in 2004 for his alleged role in a custodial death, though he called it a “false case”, according to his lawyer. But he subsequently joined Shiv Sena and was reinstated to the police last year, according to media reports. Vaze could not be reached for comment.
“This is a quintessential Bombay story,” said a journalist in the city. “It’s a typical Bollywood masala thriller. There’s as much masala as you can put into a typical Bollywood script.”
Former police officers said the scandal underscored the need to curb the politicisation of law enforcement, which allows politicians to decide appointments and transfers, leaving police beholden to ruling parties.
“In a way, it is good that it has brought out the alleged nexus between police and politicians [into the open], though an inquiry is required to prove the charges,” said Meeran Chadha Borwankar, who previously held high-level positions in the Maharashtra and national police forces.
“Political parties in power generally expect police to toe their line and act for them in grey and sometimes totally illegal black areas, as alleged in the said letter of the former commissioner,” she added. “We should pursue an independent police organisation instead of the current system where we are at the mercy of politicians.”
The grim affair could have national implications if it upsets the balance of power in Maharashtra, considered one of the country’s biggest political prizes for its size and economic heft.
The BJP has maintained a fierce rivalry with the Shiv Sena-led government, and has decried its alleged conduct. Political analysts said this could ultimately give Modi’s party another shot at power in the state if the coalition was sufficiently weakened.
“For the BJP, this is a tailor-made political opportunity,” said Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank. “Even if they don’t get back to power, they can go to the bank on this when elections come around.”