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The controversy around Messrs Gadkari and Vadra

October 29, 2012 09:43 IST

We should not judge the Congress or BJP by a Robert Vadra or a Nitin Gadkari. We must measure them by the standards set -- or claimed -- by the top leadership, namely Sonia Gandhi and the RSS.

If one claims to be a moral exemplar, the other is the chief political leader in this country, says T V R Shenoy.

Why was Al Capone finally jailed?

He cheated on his taxes.

Capone was responsible for scores of murders. He bribed public servants. He extorted money. He ran prostitution rings. He probably did more than any other single person to derail Prohibition in the United States. Yet for over a decade he could not be touched by the law. And all uncomfortable questions would be brushed aside with 'I am just a businessman.'

Capone's power was broken only when he tried to violate the tax code. That, apparently, is the most heinous sin a man may commit against civilisation.

There are several people today -- each 'just a businessman' -- that are making the headlines for the wrong reasons. While the names of Virbhadra Singh and of the Pawar clan make the rounds, right at the top of the list are the president of the principal Opposition party and India's best known son-in-law. Let us focus on them.

An unbiased observer might come to the conclusion that the sole difference between Messrs Gadkari and Vadra is that one had better financial consultants than the other. Or, more accurately, not 'better' as much as 'less incompetent than'.

A single question faces both Nitin Gadkari's Purti Power & Sugar and Robert Vadra's Sky Light -- 'Where did the money come from?'

There is a tangled heap of outfits behind Purti Power & Sugar. Two major stakeholders are Ideal Road Builders and Dattatraya Pandurang Mhaiskar (a promoter of Ideal Road Builders). Ideal Road Builders won contracts for major projects in the period when Nitin Gadkari was Maharashtra's public works minister. That is not illegal, but was there any conflict of interest?

In 2010, when it was in a bit of a bind, Purti Power & Sugar received a loan of Rs 164 crore (Rs 1.64 billion) from Global Safety Vision. Dattatraya Pandurang Mhaiskar is said to be a director of this firm too. When quizzed, Mr Mhaiskar reportedly said that the money had come from his 'personal savings', after he had sold some shares.

There are several other interesting names on that list of principal shareholders in Purti Power & Sugar -- 'Seven-Eleven Sales and Marketing', for instance, or 'Ashwami Sales and Marketing'. The names of the supposed directors of these companies make fascinating reading.

One such director is Manohar Panse, who turns out to be Nitin Gadkari's driver. Another director reportedly sitting on the board of one of these companies is a certain Vishnu Sharma whose wife told journalists that he was a pandit-astrologer who barely made ends meet. A third such director is Rajesh Shantaram Khanzode, who claims that he is working in a bakery.

All of which begs the question: Are these actual firms that invested in Purti Power & Sugar, or were they shell companies?

The Union ministry of corporate affairs was quick to order a probe into Nitin Gadkari's business interests. That is in contrast to the same ministry's reluctance to react to reports concerning Robert Vadra. In fact, the corporate affairs minister, M Veerappa Moily, stated that he had himself examined the relevant papers and was satisfied that everything was above board.

Was it?

The 2007-2008 audit report for Sky Light Hospitality -- whose directors were Robert Vadra and his mother, Maureen -- claimed that it had received an overdraft for Rs 7.94 crore (Rs 79.4 million) from Corporation Bank's New Friends Colony branch in Delhi. This would have been amazing given that Sky Light Hospitality's paid-up share capital was then just 100,000.

In other words, we would have to believe that a bank gave an overdraft that was worth 794 times the total resources claimed by Sky Light Hospitality.

This was the money that Sky Light Hospitality used to buy land in Manesar in Haryana. The government of Haryana then permitted the land usage to be changed, allowing commercial use. This land was then sold to the real estate giant DLF for a reported Rs 58 crore (Rs 580 million).

Can we make Robert Vadra the finance minister of India? Here is a man who started with Rs 100,000, and ended up making 5,800 times that amount!

Now, here is the twist in the tale. Corporation Bank denies extending any such overdraft facility to Sky Light Hospitality.

So, where did the money come from with which Sky Light Hospitality bought land in Manesar? And is it, or is it not, a crime to make a false statement when filing returns?

What has been revealed is a single real estate transaction, in a single Congress-ruled state, over a three-year period. How many more transactions are under wraps in the list of documents now collectively called the 'Vadra Files'?

There are rumours that the transactions in Haryana were a drop in the bucket compared to even larger land deals in another Congress-ruled state, namely Rajasthan, around Bikaner. And, in terms of value rather than acreage, there are whispers of even bigger deals in a third Congress-ruled state, Delhi.

Robert Vadra can claim that everything was above board when it came to governments sanctioning changes in land usage. It was ministers in Haryana that did so, not Robert Vadra; he committed no crime unless someone proves that bribery was involved. (Can you imagine any Congress leader stupid enough to demand a bribe from Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law?) But Vadra is definitely responsible for statements filed by Sky Light Hospitality.

Purti Power & Sugar was apparently funded by companies, whose directors barely had any money themselves yet somehow invested crores. Sky Light Hospitality was apparently funded by a non-existent line of credit by a public sector bank. I leave it to readers to figure out which firm had worse financial advisors to release such statements in the public domain.

We should not judge the Congress or the BJP by a Robert Vadra or even by a Nitin Gadkari. We must measure them by the standards set -- or claimed -- by the top leadership, namely the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Sonia Gandhi. If one claims to be a moral exemplar, the other is the chief political leader in this country.

A picture is proverbially worth a thousand words. Let me offer two.

The first was a newspaper photograph of Sonia Gandhi, railing against corruption at an election rally in Mandi in Himachal Pradesh. On the dais by her side was Virbhadra Singh.

The second was footage of Dr Mohan Bhagwat making the Sarsanghachalak's foundation day speech to the RSS on Vijayadashami. He too spoke against corruption. By his side was Nitin Gadkari.

Al Capone was brought down by the taxman. But whom do we turn to if the taxman's political masters tie his hands?

News is coming in as I write that the comedian Jaspal Bhatti had a fatal accident. The last time I saw him was in Connaught Place in Delhi, where he was leading an 'election procession' for the 'Bhrashtaachaar Party', pointing out with mock solemnity that voters could trust such an outfit to deliver on its name.

Jaspal Bhatti is dead, and we are laughing no longer. The joke is on us poor fools.

Read more columns by Mr Shenoy here.

T V R Shenoy