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November 23, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Don bad man

I first heard of Romesh Sharma in 1984. I lived in Bombay then and so did Sharma. At that time, Indira Gandhi was perceived as being on her last legs. An election was due at the end of the year and most people believed that the Congress would lose. One sure winner -- or so the press kept insisting -- was her estranged daughter-in-law, Maneka Gandhi. Once the Congress was defeated, the media said, Maneka Gandhi would come into her own.

I did not know Maneka Gandhi but I did know some of her lieutenants. In the summer of 1984, one of her aides visited Bombay. He told me that his party had great hopes for its Bombay unit. I was startled. As somebody who always thought that the Sanjay Vichar Manch was an oxymoron --Sanjay had no vichar so how could you have a party dedicated to it? -- I refused to accept that any sensible Bombay person would vote for this bunch of thug worshippers. No, said the Maneka aide, they had a very powerful chap as leader of their Bombay unit.

The chap in question was, of course, Romesh Sharma. He looked even sleazier then than he does now and wore thin, translucent muslin kurtas, the pockets of which would bulge with bundles of hundred rupee notes. "Who is this man?" I asked the Maneka aide. "How does it matter?" he retorted. "Saale ke paas bahut paise hain."

I lost touch with Romesh Sharma after that. Occasionally he would crop up in the pages of Sunday's Delhi Diary. After Maneka Gandhi's electoral humiliation (Indira Gandhi's assassination made us rewrite all the assumptions about the election), he split her party and "expelled" her from his faction. A Delhi Diary item referred to his past with Charan Singh: Apparently he had occupied a large office in the Lok Dal headquarters and installed a throne-like chair for himself. Then there were stories to the effect that he had joined the Congress and more recent reports that he was hovering around Laloo Prasad Yadav.

I must confess that I never gave his career much thought. But I do remember thinking: what is it about this guy? Why do so many political parties offer him their patronage?

At first I thought it was money. In the Maneka days, her aides had been candid. They would back anybody who could finance a state unit. But Romesh Sharma was not particularly rich. Oh yes, he could spend two to three million rupees for an election campaign or organise posters to welcome Maneka Gandhi to Bombay. But that was about it. In terms of money, he had nothing to offer the Congress. Sharad Pawar could buy out a hundred Romesh Sharmas before breakfast and not notice. Even Laloo Yadav did not need Sharma's money.

So, if it wasn't money, then what was it? Was it a political base? Sometimes parties tolerate sleazeballs because they control vote banks (which is why everybody wants to align with Kanshi Ram for instance). But Sharma had no base. His mentor in Bombay was the late unlamented Varadarajan Mudaliar who briefly emerged as the city's chief gangster during the underworld's transition from the Haji Mastan period to the Dawood Ibrahim era. When the Bombay police ran Varadha out of town, Sharma shifted to Delhi. There is no evidence that he developed any base in the capital. He never won an election at any level -- not even a municipal poll -- and nor did anyone he sponsored.

The more I read about Romesh Sharma, the more I am reminded of another Sharma: Sushil Sharma, the tandoori murderer who was a staple of the headlines a couple of years ago. Like his namesake, this Sharma had no money and no political base. Like Romesh Sharma, he stood no chance of winning even a municipal election. Despite this, he rose effortlessly through the ranks of the Delhi Congress.

When Naina Sahni's body was discovered in the tandoor at the Ashok Yatri Nivas, the press concentrated on the horrific nature of the crime. At the time I wrote that while the murder was particularly grisly what was important was this: how did this man get so far in politics? I think that point needs to be repeated. Once again, the media are focussing on stolen helicopters, seized properties, underage whores, Abu Salem and Dawood Ibrahim. Perhaps these stories are true; it would certainly make sense for a former Varadha acolyte to now owe allegiance to Dawood. But to concentrate on that would be to miss the point. The key question is: why do goondas with no money and no political base find such success in Indian politics?

Politicians like to tell us that we get the ministers we deserve. If we didn't elect them, they say, then they wouldn't be in office. But who elected Sushil Sharma? Who elected Romesh Sharma? Neither of these men had any interest in winning the approval of the people or of earning any democratic legitimacy. They survived because India's political parties needed them, not because we deserved them.

The tawdry reality of Indian political culture is that there is always room for dirty men who will do dirty tasks. There are always rivals to be beaten up, women to be supplied, rent-a-crowd mobs to be organised, properties to be procured, money to be raised/extorted and bribes to be channelled. The significance of the Sharmas is that they are always willing to do the jobs that nobody wants to talk about. And as long as politicians need these jobs to be done, they will need the likes of Romesh Sharma.

If you look the man's career, you will note that there is no consistency in his loyalties. He started out opposing Indira Gandhi, joined the Congress, pledged loyalty to Charan Singh, was plugged into Chandra Shekhar's government, was granted government security by the P V Narasimha Rao regime, became Laloo Yadav's pal and hobnobbed with leaders of the Delhi Bharatiya Janata Party. Everybody found some use for him.

Small wonder, then, that the political establishment has joined hands to keep the case under wraps. As long as Romesh Sharma is treated as a mere gangster everyone is safe. The police will drop such names as Abu Salem, Chhota Rajan and Dawood Ibrahim. There will be much talk of phone calls to Dubai and salacious details about Sharma's sex life will be leaked to the press. Magistrates will deny him bail, and his land-grab activities will be the subject of investigation after investigation.

After six months, the media will lose interest -- just as we have forgotten about the other Sharma, the tandoori murderer -- and the cases against Romesh Sharma will probably be dropped for lack of evidence. It will be back to business as usual. Even if the police do manage to convict Sharma, it will not make much difference. Another 10 Sharmas will spring up to perform the dirty tasks that had become his speciality.

India's politicians get away with all this because we, the voters, never demand accountability from them. Nobody has asked the Congress to explain why the tandoori murderer got so far within its ranks. And now nobody is asking any of the Delhi politicians (to say nothing of Laloo Yadav and the other Biharis) who sponsored Romesh Sharma, why they extended patronage to a hoodlum and a pimp. Can Maneka Gandhi tell us whether her concern for cats and dogs extends to human beings? And if it does, then why did this thug head her party's Bombay unit? Can the BJP's Delhi leadership tell us whether it opposes corruption? If so, then why did it patronise and protect this gangster?

Sadly, nobody asks these questions. Politicians offer no explanations. And the Sharmas of this world go from murder to murder, from rape to rape and from minister to minister.

Vir Sanghvi

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