The Sleight of the Congres Hand
and the BJP's Deafening Silence
Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath, thus went the catch-line of the Congress campaign in 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Everybody however knows that the hand of the Congress has been busy doing anything but giving some succour to the common man, now mockingly rechristened as ‘mango people’ by the country’s most well-connected son-in-law. For the common man, all that Manmohan Singh has is the warning “money does not grow on trees”. Yet, Manmohan Singh knows very well that it just takes a casual sleight of the Congress hand to conjure money out of virtually anything. The scams from 2G and CWG to Coalgate have been a testimony to the great magical qualities of the Congress hand. And if we needed to learn more about the diverse magical qualities of the hand, we now have enough revelations on the Vadra-DLF-Congress triangle.
When Robert Vadra had got married to Priyanka Gandhi in 1997, he was known to have a modest family business, dealing essentially in brass handicrafts. In recent years he began diversifying into a whole spectrum of ventures ranging from hospitality to realty and IT, with wonderful names like “Sky Light”, “Blue Breeze”, “Real Earth”, going on a massive property-and-land acquisition spree. In the last four years alone he has bought at least 31 properties and hundreds of acres of land, all in and around Delhi and in areas of tourist/commercial interest like Bikaner in Rajasthan. From just Rs. 7.95 crore in 2008, the declared value of Vadra’s fixed assets and investments jumped to Rs 60.53 crore in 2010, and the current market valuation will only be several times higher. Asked about the possibility of Robert Vadra making a political debut in Uttar Pradesh, a beaming Priyanka Gandhi told the press in February 2011 that her successful businessman husband would not like to change his occupation.
What Priyanka Gandhi did not say, and is now anyway known to the whole country thanks to Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan, is that the ‘success’ of Robert Vadra’s business lies precisely in his political connection. If Vadra can get a huge overdraft from a nationalised bank, if a real estate giant like DLF gives him an unsecured loan of Rs 50 crore, it’s all because he is Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law and Sonia Gandhi is the UPA chairperson. The Congress attempt to defend Vadra as just ‘a private individual’ and the Vadra-DLF deal as a transparent transaction between two private entities has already fallen flat. If Mr. Vadra was just a private individual, why did the Congress find it necessary to try and defend him? If the deal was really transparent, why did the Hooda government have to transfer Ashok Khemka, the upright IAS officer who ordered a probe into the Vadra-DLF deal?
The gains that DLF made are obvious. Why should DLF, which borrows money from the market, give interest-free loan to Vadra (on which he has apparently earned some 2.5 crore as interest!) and sell prime DLF properties at throwaway prices? After decades of steady growth and a spectacular boom in the era of liberalisation, DLF had hit a rough patch by 2008 and there are reports that DLF may well be heading the Kingfisher way. An alliance with Vadra helped DLF lay its hands on land that it might have otherwise found difficult to acquire in the post-Singur period of heightened resistance to defend agricultural land. Vadra with his Z-plus security is not frisked like ordinary ‘mango people’ at Indian airports, he gets similar VVIP treatment in all Congress-ruled states where standard rules and regulations are routinely waived to satisfy the greedy whims of this ‘successful businessman’ who has set his eyes on everything from ‘Sky Light’ to ‘Real Earth’.
The Vadra-DLF deal and the subsequent Salman Khurshid episode have further damaged an already heavily dented Congress. But the BJP too finds itself faced with any number of questions. One is not talking here of Kejriwal’s findings regarding Nitin Gadkari showing how the Congress-NCP government favoured him violating all rules and norms. The revelations have of course forced the voluble Gadkari coin a new euphemism to introduce himself – he now calls himself a ‘social entrepreneur’. It is the BJP’s deafening silence over the Vadra-DLF deal which actually speaks volumes for the party’s anti-corruption credentials. The Vadra-DLF deals were first reported by the Economic Times in March 2011. At that time Sushma Swaraj had said that Arun Jaitley has asked to examine the papers. Didn’t Jaitley manage to gather in the last eighteen months as much Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal have now exposed?
Evidently, the entire BJP, the Sonia Maino-bashing Narendra Modi included, preferred to keep silent and let it pass. Why? Is it because Vadra is ‘Indian’ enough compared to Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origin? The reason for the BJP’s deliberate silence perhaps has nothing to do with Vadra, it has everything to do with DLF, the ‘private entity’ at the other end of the deal. The BJP cannot afford to question India’s biggest real estate giant. DLF doesn’t operate only in Congress-ruled states, it has interests in BJP-ruled states as well, Gujarat included. And it is DLF’s stocks which have fallen after the revelations, Vadra does not yet have that kind of stocks, and the value of the stocks of the Congress will be known when the people vote for the next Lok Sabha. Indicators are of course already there, Uttarakhand CM’s son lost the Tehri by-poll, and Pranab Mukherjee’s son won the Jangipur by-poll by a wafer-thin margin.
The BJP is going by the dictum which says people living in glass houses cannot afford to throw stones at others. The BJP has its own share of Vadras, Ranjan Bhattacharya (Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law) has not been forgotten (only the other day his name came up in the Radia tapes), and many have already established some sort of equivalence between Vadra and Gadkari himself. But the problem with the BJP is much deeper than that. The BJP is willing to fight against the Congress, but it will not risk antagonising or damaging any big business house in the process. This is why the BJP can fight – one is not talking of the BJP’s moral right, only of its political will or ability – the old Bofors-type corruption cases, but it cannot fight against corruption that thrives on business-politics nexus. The BJP needs and represents this nexus as much as the Congress does.
The challenge today is not just to cleanse politics, as Kejriwal seems to suggest, but also to control big business, and end the economics and politics of corporate plunder and business-politics nexus. The battle this time has to be fought on till the ruling political dispensation and policy regime are both overturned.