October 12, 2012

The rise and fall of Sonia’s son-in-law — Ajaz Ashraf

Yet all the legal quibbling cannot dissuade people from believing that Vadra's marriage into India's most powerful family facilitated his emergence as a businessman

The Gandhis and the Bhuttos share 
similar traits and fate in many astonishing ways. At least two generations of their families have ruled their respective countries, their members command indisputable charisma and an enviable following, and some of them have met tragically violent deaths. To this list we can now add the questionable business dealings of their sons-in-law, which have besmirched the reputation of the two families.

Now ensconced in the President's House, Mr Asif Ali Zardari, you could say, has been punished to an extent because of a spell he served in jail. In contrast, Robert Vadra's problems have only just begun. Married to Priyanka, the charming daughter of Sonia Gandhi, who decidedly commands power comparable to that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Vadra was caught last week in a maelstrom of corruption charges that is likely to clip the wings his ambitions were growing to soar in the sky.

Firing thunderous volleys against Vadra were the two activists of India Against Corruption (IAC), lawyer Prashant Bhushan and former Indian Revenue Service officer Arvind Kejriwal, who have over the last two years shaken and stirred the political class as never before. Yet all their past activism cannot match their audacity of accusing Vadra of corruption, for it also implicitly tars the Gandhis and the Congress with the same brush and throws awry the political calculations pundits were busy toting for a general election still nearly two years away. There cannot be any doubt that the IAC, which is to now participate in electoral politics, is setting the country's agenda, irrespective of what its own performance in elections might eventually be.

Kejriwal and Bhushan's accusations underscored the symbiotic relationship between Vadra and DLF, India's realty giant. They cited public records to wonder how Vadra's five companies with a total share capital of Rupees five million, and not engaged in any commercial activities, could have acquired during 2007-2010 property worth Rs 3,000 million, the value of which at the current market price is now well over Rs 5,000 million. The irrepressible duo then went on to unravel the modus operandi, claiming Vadra's transactions were financed through an unsecured, interest-free loan of Rs 650 million DLF granted to him. Not only this, the realty giant sold him prime properties at a heavily discounted price. Thus, for instance, Vadra acquired a 50 percent share in a Delhi hotel from DLF for a little over Rs 300 million, as against the prevailing market value of Rs 1,500 million; a 10,000 square feet apartment worth Rs 250 million, for less than Rs 10 million. The list of properties Vadra owns includes not only acquisitions, which the aspiring class pines for, but also agricultural land in towns on Delhi's fringes, including a whopping 160.62 acres in one particular district.

These accusations against the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi had the big guns of the Congress booming. They claimed that any two entities were entitled to enter into business agreements on whatever terms they wished, and it is legal for a realty firm to sell at prices lower than the prevailing market rate. It was not a loan, chimed the DLF Group, but "business advances", a common industry practice. But the change in nomenclature for describing the Rs 650 million given to Vadra raises serious issues of corporate governance. Independent directors of DLF claimed the issue of loan or advances to Vadra was never brought to the board for discussion, nor were the controversial transactions between him and the construction company. Should DLF not be accountable to its shareholders?

Nevertheless, the plot soon thickened, and both Vadra and DLF seemed sucked deep into it, as Kejriwal and Bhushan harped on the gains DLF reaped from the Congress government of the state of Haryana. They pointed out that it acquired land from farmers for public purposes but subsequently transferred it to DLF to build residential complexes; that 30 acres of land earmarked for a hospital were transferred to DLF for creating a Special Economic Zone; and how rules for bids for a parcel of government land were changed to ensure DLF became its owner. DLF denied these allegations, yet all the legal quibbling cannot dissuade people from believing that Vadra's marriage into India's most powerful family facilitated his emergence as a businessman. 

The Vadra-DLF controversy has highlighted other important aspects of the Indian polity. For one, most opposition parties initially responded tepidly to the charges the IAC levelled against Vadra, in sharp contrast to the furore they generate every time a scandal comes tumbling out of the Congress cupboard. This was partly because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is India's principal Opposition party, grew nervous at the IAC's declaration that it next planned to expose the BJP managers.

Their fear stems from the IAC's agenda of exposing the venality of the Indian political class and the tacit consensus among its members to desist from scrutinising the businesses of even their rivals. The BJP is particularly vulnerable to this charge: it forfeited the opportunity to raise the DLF-Vadra sweetheart deal that a business newspaper reported a year ago. Then the BJP felt the code of ethics operating in Indian politics demanded that they should not cast aspersions on a non-political member of the Gandhi family, particularly as the business conduct ostensibly did not result in losses to the state exchequer. But their refusal to even demand an inquiry suggests the BJP was chary of the Congress exposing dubious deals party luminaries or their children were rumoured to have hammered during the six years they were in power, beginning 1996.

The Vadra controversy has also trained the spotlight on the media's role. Usually, it unearths scams to reveal incriminating evidence against state functionaries belonging to the ruling party. Political parties raise the issue in Parliament, as also outside it, demanding discussions and probes. Precisely the opposite has happened now — civil society activists, now nursing political ambitions, have raised the Vadra-DLF issue that the media and non-Congress parties are highlighting. Is the Indian media too close to the political class to pursue investigations inimical to India's bigwigs? Or has its edge been blunted because of its corporatisation? These questions assume importance as a newspaper flagged Vadra's acquisitions a year ago, albeit in a neutral, even laudatory tone. Yet no one cared to probe or ask questions until Kejriwal and Bhushan decided to hurl their barbs against him.

Indeed, IAC activists are playing several simultaneous roles. They expose the political class as well as ferociously enact the role of a democracy watchdog. They have assumed the mantle of the Opposition, setting the agenda for India as well as launching campaigns to win popular endorsement for it. They have chosen to enter the electoral arena not through just rhetoric and promises but through political action that displays their intent and resolve to extricate India from the cesspool of corruption. It is said the best advertisement for any publication is the story it publishes. You can now say that the best advertisement for an emerging party, as is the IAC, is to expose the sheer hollowness of the existing political class.

The author is a Delhi-based journalist and can be reached at ashrafajaz3@gmail.com

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