Gandhi family rocked by 'sweetheart deals' scandal

Robert Vadra - the son-in-law of India's most powerful woman - is accused of amassing a fortune by trading corruptly on family name

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 2:43am

An unfolding scandal involving the son-in-law of India's "first family" is finally casting light on a near-immutable rule of politics in India - the enrichment of relatives of those in power.

Anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal has alleged Robert Vadra was given interest-free loans and property at throwaway prices in Congress-ruled states by real estate firm, DLF.

Vadra, long thought to be a rare exception to the enrichment process, is the businessman husband of Priyanka Gandhi and son-in-law of India's most powerful woman, Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi.

Kejriwal alleges that DLF handed these sweetheart deals to Vadra in return for favours to benefit their business. In one case, Vadra bought land in Haryana from DLF for US$151,000 in 2008. Just 65 days later, he sold it back to DLF for US$1.95 million.

Kejriwal's organisation, India Against Corruption, is asking how Vadra came to be worth US$100 million when his assets in 2007 were valued at a mere US$100,000.

At the time of his marriage to Priyanka Gandhi in 1997, Vadra ran a small brass goods business. The union surprised many because of his modest origins.

Vadra has denied any wrongdoing but has refused to explain his fortune. His only public comment on the scandal was on his Facebook page, where he referred to India as a "banana republic". He quickly deleted the comment when fury erupted.

The Congress Party has defended the land deals as legitimate, rejected Kejriwal's demand for an investigation, and described Vadra as a "private individual". But cabinet ministers rushed to television studios to defend him.

"If Vadra is a private individual, then why is the entire government bending over backwards to defend him?" asked one television anchor.

The Economic Times newspaper first reported Vadra's surprising wealth 18 months ago. Since then it has been a staple topic of gossip in New Delhi.

But the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party kept quiet about the Economic Times report. It took Kejriwal's recent allegations to push the story into the limelight. "It shows politicians are all in it together. The BJP won't attack Vadra because they don't want the Congress to attack the relatives of their leaders who have also got rich overnight," said columnist Parsa Venkateshwar Rao.

Critics have also noted the failure of other Indian media to dig deeper into the original newspaper report, attributing the reticence to an unspoken code to treat the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty by a different standard.

"Have you seen journalists who happen to have met Sonia or Priyanka? Their powers of interrogation vanish. They fall under such a spell that they lose their hormonal balance," said social activist Madhu Kishwar.

In the latest twist to the case, Ashok Khemka, a civil servant in Congress-ruled Haryana, was transferred on October 15 after he ordered a probe into Vadra's controversial land deals with DLF. Kejriwal called the transfer a brazen bid to stifle an investigation.

The irony of Vadra being accused of using his position to amass a fortune will not be lost on the ghosts of his father, Rajendra, who was found dead in a seedy Delhi guest house in 2009, or on his late brother Richard, who committed suicide in 2003.

In 2001, four years after his marriage, Vadra placed a notice in newspapers publicly disowning his father and brother for allegedly using their proximity to him to promise people jobs.

Now he stands accused of abusing his own position in the "first family" on a far grander scale.