The Congress president’s son-in-law, Robert Vadra, is facing heat over murky land deals. what made it possible for the Gandhi family to enter into the lucrative property market?
By Vishwas Kumar
The last ten years have seen a meteoric rise in the fortunes of the Gandhi family. This has been lin-ked to large-scale property deals. Before this, no Gandhi family member was involved in property deals to the extent seen now. So, what happened post the 2004 electoral success of the Congress party that saw the Gandhi family’s entry into murky land deals?
Speaking to a cross-section of people who know the Gandhi family or have watched it closely, India Legal tried to piece together the story of its son-in-law and the disrepute brought to it.
Documents released by India Against Corruption and the BJP reveal that UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, Robert Vadra, entered into land deals after the Congress came to power in 2004. So lucrative was this business that it saw his companies’ real estate value growing from a few lakhs to around `300 crore in less than ten years. It naturally attracted the attention of other political parties who mocked it by calling it the “get-rich-quick model of the damaad shree”.
In fact, with the heat on him increasing, Vadra is in the process of winding up some of his businesses. According to official filings with the Registrar of Companies, he has moved to shut down six of the 12 companies that he controls as director. And these controversial land deals are obviously a touchy issue with him. Recently, when a reporter asked him about it, he lashed out asking: “I mean, Are you serious? Are you serious? Are you serious? Are you serious?” As he scowled at the reporter, he shoved the microphone away, and walked off saying: “Are you nuts? What is wrong with you?” All this was captured by camera and repeatedly shown by news channels.
Though the Congress may insist that these deals had nothing to do with the party itself, political opponents allege that it was because of “10 Janpath” (Sonia’s official residence) that Vadra’s could earn “super profits” in ten years through land deals carried out in Haryana and Rajasthan, the Congress-ruled states.
Let’s go back in time to examine the factors that prompted the Gandhi family to enter the property business. During the general elections of 2004, Sonia, as Congress president, led it to a resounding victory. She showed political maturity by cobbling together a coalition government and tactfully anointed Dr Manmohan Singh as prime minister, brushing aside her party’s overwhelming call to occupy the prime minister’s (PM) chair.
Nonetheless, she kept an iron-like grip over the party and through it, the government. It had been 15 years since the last Gandhi was in power—her late husband Rajiv Gandhi was PM till 1989—and she was now at the helm of affairs.
Did DLF, along with the Hooda government in Haryana, help Vadra in his lucrative land business in 2007?
Meanwhile, Sonia’s family members too had grown up. Her son, Rahul, and son-in-law, Robert Vadra, were settled in business, while Priyanka was raising her two children. While Rahul was running an outsourcing firm (called Backops, now closed), Vadra was exporting brass products through a company named Artex Exports. With Sonia firmly in control of the Congress party, it was time to make future “succession” plans and chart a course of action for her immediate family members—Rahul, Priyanka and Robert. She consulted a few of her close friends to settle the knotty issue of who should be her “anointed” political heir? What role should Priyanka play? Where would Robert fit into the scheme of things?
Sources say she was keen to settle these issues in such a fashion that there would be no room for confusion and rivalry later. She zeroed in on Rahul to be her political heir. It was also decided that he would never join the government and would wait till he could become prime minister in case the party got enough seats. Priyanka’s immediate priority, sources say, was to remain with her two children. She was also given the responsibility of helping Sonia and Rahul in managing their respective parliamentary constituencies in UP whenever she could find time. It was also made clear to Robert, sources say, that he should not nurse any political ambition. However, the family would lend all “support” to his business activities. This, as was later found out, included
Vadra’s company exporting brass products did modest business, but was enough for him to lead a decent life
However, a full-fledged real estate business would require land to be first purchased either from farmers, government or private parties. Then, it would require construction of residential or commercial projects on them, which would be sold to customers. But as that would be cumbersome and take time, Vadra entered the property market in a more simpler way, hoping it would be anonymous and where he didn’t need to deal with too many customers.
But this was easier said than done. Land deals require political clout to avoid legal disputes arising out of ownerships issues. Moreover, to quickly multiply the value of agricultural land, it would need to be changed to residential or commercial. Infra-structure around the land would also need to be developed by the government to make it suitable for “commercial exploitation”.
A combination of three factors—luck, money and connections—would see the fruition of these dreams. And Vadra, it seemed, had all three.
In 2004, property prices were sky-rocketing, fuelled by the construction boom. Stories of land-owners becoming millionaires and billionaires over-night were common. The big-gest construction boom was going on in Gurgaon and near-by areas and was spearheaded by DLF, one of the largest real estate developers, headed by KP Singh, an old Gandhi family friend. As luck would have it, the Congress party came to power in Haryana in 2005 with a full majority and Bhupinder Singh Hooda became the CM.
As Vadra’s fortunes soared, his land deal businesses became very profitable. From 2007 onwards, his companies purchased lands near Gurgaon at dirt cheap rates from farmers through “local property dealers”. While Haryana government obliged him by changing the “land use” of these properties, DLF purchased these lands from Vadra’s companies. The money thus earned was used to purchase more land and commercial and residential properties in DLF-constructed projects.
Documents reveal that Vadra established his first real estate company within three years of the Congress Party coming to power at the center. His Skylight Hospitality Private Ltd was started on November 1, 2007, with `1 lakh equity capital. In February 2008, the company registered its first purchase—3.531 acres of agriculture land in village Sikhohpur, Gurgaon, for `7.5 crore—by making payment through cheque. It later turned out to be a sham transaction. (see box: “How to be a Richie Rich”).
But Vadra’s goose seems cooked now as the new BJP government in Haryana of Manohar Lal Khattar is now looking into his land deals, along with several others carried out during Hooda’s regime. However, it is a moot question whether Vadra carried out the land deals without the knowledge of the Gandhi family. The Congress party has tried to keep its distance from Vadra’s deals by saying that he is a “private citizen” and his business dealings were not part of the Gandhi family businesses.
It is true that Vadra was in business—exporting brass products through his company Artex—even before he married Priyanka in 1997. The company did modest business, but it was enough to lead a decent life. But was it lucrative enough for Vadra to enter into the highly profitable land business in 2007? Documents reveal that he could not have done so without “help” from the Hooda government and DLF.
There are too many coincidences which link these deals to the Congress party. Firstly, sources allege, a property dealer who would accompany Vadra during the survey of lands to be purchased, belonged to the Congress party. Secondly, none of Vadra’s companies ever carried land deals in any non-Congress-ruled state. This is contrary to normal business practices of any property or real estate company, said a property expert, as such companies would do business wherever their projects have buyers.
It is believed that Vadra was assured full support in all his business activities by the Gandhi family, and these included land deals
CROSSING THE LINE
Nonetheless, when Vadra married into the Gandhi family, his relatives were told not to misuse the “family’s name”. When some of his family members crossed the line, they were publicly declared persona non grata. In 2001, four years after his marriage, Vadra placed a notice in newspapers publicly disowning his father, Rajinder Vadra, and brother, Richard Vadra, for allegedly using their proximity to him to promise people jobs. Both are now dead. The notice left everyone shocked, including Congressmen, but this was Vadra’s way of proving his loyalty to his in-laws.
The Gandhi’s have been very sensitive to their family name or connections being used by people known to them. As one businessman closely associated with the family pointed out: “No one can get away by using the Gandhi’s name for profit, until it is authorized. However, even those authorized to use the name or their influence should be prepared to be dumped, at least publicly, so that the family’s name keeps shining.” But what happens when such a person is the son-in-law?