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Above: Robert Vadra

In an effort to put the Congress on the back foot in the run-up to elections to the Lok Sabha and Haryana Assembly, the Haryana government has resurrected a “sweetheart deal” land scam allegedly involving the Gandhi son-in-law

~By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, there was hardly any election rally organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) where party representatives did not mention the alleged land scams involving Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Vadra was depicted as the face of corruption and nepotism, to run down the Congress.

While Vadra denied any wrongdoing in the deal struck between him and land major DLF, BJP leaders vowed to punish the guilty involved in the deal and probe a multitude of other alleged scandals occurring during the decade-long UPA rule.

It was believed that the BJP-led NDA government would immediately make Vadra one of its first targets and order a time-bound investigation into the deal. Nothing of that sort happened.

Four years down the line, the Haryana BJP government, led by Manohar Lal Khattar, has registered a case against Vadra and former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda. With only a few months left for elections to the Parliament and Haryana Assembly, the government has at last found a man with a ‘conscience’ as a complainant in the case. Clearly, the timing is suspect and seems intended to keep the pot boiling before the elections. It could be the proverbial “brahmastra” to be used at the appropriate time.

Besides Vadra, the FIR has been lodged against Sonia Gandhi, Hooda, DLF, and Omkareshwar Properties under Sections 420, 467, 468 and 471 of the IPC and Section 13 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.

The alacrity with which the police acted is reflected in the registration of the FIR. As per police records, the complaint was lodged around 10 am on September 1. By afternoon, the FIR had been registered.

The brief facts are: Vadra’s company, Skylight Hospitality, purchased about 3.5 acres of land in Shikohpur village near Manesar from Omkareshwar Properties for about Rs 7.5 crore. However, the cheque provided by Skylight Hospitality to Omkareshwar Properties was never encashed and the deal was considered a “sweetheart deal”.

A few months later, the same land was sold to real estate giant DLF at a whopping Rs  58 crore. In the interim period, the status of the land changed from “agricultural” to “commercial” and permission was granted by the Hooda government to develop a “commercial colony”. Evidently, the Change of Land Use (CLU) permission had made all the difference.

On the face of it, the chronology of events suggests that Vadra had approached Hooda who was indebted to the Gandhi family as he had been appointed chief minister over old warhorse Bhajan Lal. It is quite possible that, to return the favour, Hooda granted the permission without any due diligence or scrutiny. The deal was redflagged during Hooda’s regime by controversial Haryana IAS officer Ashok Khemka who cancelled the mutation of land. However, his objections were overruled by the Hooda government. Even the State Comptroller and Auditor General’s report had pointed out certain irregularities in the deal.

The Khattar government, however, continued to soft-pedal on the issue and did not initiate any action. It woke from slumber only last week when it took cognisance of a complaint lodged by a medical shop owner from Gurugram, whose political background is not quite known. The complainant, Surender Sharma, is a resident of Rathivas village in Nuh district of Haryana although the complaint pertains to Manesar tehsil of Gurugram district. He claims to be a “social worker” and owns about 10 acres of land.

In the complaint forming part of the FIR, Sharma has alleged that “the accused conspired with influential builders, ministers and top government officers (who) misused their positions and committed a scam worth Rs 5,000 crore”. He said that the 2008 deal caused “huge losses to the public exchequer”. The complaint further alleges that Vadra and Hooda helped DLF in other ways too, such as “wrongful” allotment of 350 acres of land near Wazirabad.

Having grabbed the media spotlight and earned praise from Chief Minister Khattar for raising his voice against corruption, Sharma has reportedly gone into hiding. TV news channels and newspapers in Chandigarh which tried to contact him reported that he was nowhere to be seen and that his phone was switched off. One newspaper got in touch with his father, a former village sarpanch, only to quote him saying that “He went out two days ago and has not returned. I do not know anything about the complaint. My son is an honest man who cannot stand corruption.” Congress leaders in the region say that the affiliation of the complainant with the BJP is well known in Mewat. “The complaint was filed at the behest of the BJP government to malign our image. Truth will prevail soon and Khattar should abstain from seeking cheap publicity,” one Congress leader was quoted as saying in the local media.

The Khattar government had earlier appointed a Commission of Inquiry under Justice SN Dhingra to probe land dealings during the previous Congress government but Hooda had declined to testify before it. The Commission submitted its report to the Haryana government on August 31 this year. The details of its findings have not been disclosed because of a stay by the Punjab and Haryana High Court after Hooda had challenged the constitution of the Commission. The High Court is likely to take a decision on it later this month.

Going by the facts of the case, it appears that the accused may get into trouble although the case may take an inordinately long time. The first impediment, ironically, has already been created with the police filing the FIR without obtaining consent from the government! According to Section 7A of the amended Prevention of Corruption Act, the police cannot investigate any offence alleged to have been committed by a public servant under the Act, where the alleged offence is relatable to any recommendation made or decision taken by such public servant in discharge of his official functions and or duties, without the previous approval of the state government or central government (as the case may be) or the competent authority. This faux pas may delay the investigations but there may be little respite for Hooda who is facing a probe in at least three other serious cases involving land deals.

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