In an interview to Playboy magazine in
1981 1971, the iconic American actor John Wayne, who has played a cowboy hero in countless Hollywood films, offered an original alibi for white settlers in America, who have been accused of “stealing” land from the Native Americans.
"I don't feel,” Wayne said, “we did wrong in taking this great country away from them... Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves." (Transcripts here.)
In other continents too, the usurping of land – which was the primary source of wealth in an earlier time – happened in similar deceitful circumstances. The South African church leader and human rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to channel the old joke that when the missionaries first came to Africa “they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray’. We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
Robert Vadra, our own cowboy hero who too boasts of six-pack abs and walks with a swagger, doesn’t have to go through soul-harvesting proselytization ceremonies or be accused of “stealing” land from the villagers of Rajasthan.
Instead, in the banana republic over which his family presides, Vadra can use the ruse of “marketplace operations” to buy over 10,000 acres of wasteland on the cheap from villagers, and sell them for several multiples of profits within just two short years – as a Firstpost investigation by Raman Kirpal established on Thursday.
Unlike the white settlers of America, Vadra actually paid villagers the then prevailing market price for the wasteland that they held in the immediate neighbourhood of power sub-stations in Rajasthan. In fact, the villagers were even beholden to Vadra’s companies for buying land that was practically useless, since no agricultural activity could be practiced on it.
But within two years, in some cases, after the Central government announced the National Solar Mission Policy, the value of the wasteland that Vadra had procured multiplied manifold. Under the policy, subsidies of up to 40 percent were to be offered to set up solar power plants tied to existing grids, and the wasteland around the sub-stations became virtual goldmines overnight. And Vadra had acquired a near-monopoly on such land, because he had been cornering them on the cheap.
Robert Vadra bought land, which he later sold for a profit: what’s illegal about it? That’s the likely alibi that will be trotted out by Congress leaders, and even senior Cabinet Ministers who came out swinging on his behalf when the allegations around Vadra’s ‘crony socialist’ nexus with real estate giant DLF was exposed late last year.
What Vadra did, in its crudest form, is enrich himself unjustly from insider knowledge that the land-use pattern of the wasteland was about to change, which would dramatically push up prices. And he gained that insider knowledge solely on the strength of the fact that he had access to power by leveraging his status as the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, arguably the most powerful woman in India today.
But the most delicious irony of the Robert Vadra Unjust Enrichment Scheme is that the Solar Mission Policy, which he rode to corner vast fortunes, was named after Jawaharlal Nehru, his wife’s great-grandfather. It’s always nice to keep it all in the family, of course.
The American billionaire John D Rockefeller once offered his deep insight into the secret of success: “get up early, work late and strike oil.” In Vadra’s case, he didn’t even have to leave things to chance by prospecting for oil: all his land dealings were fully securitised to succeed - because they came with the sovereign guarantee of the Congress governments, at the Centre and in Rajasthan state. The goalposts had been set up for him to score easily. All he needed to do was turn up and walk away – with a John Wayne swagger - with the cash hoards.
Just how much land can one man corner without feeling even a pang of guilt that he is gaming the system to his advantage, robbing poor villagers of what ought to have been their share of windfall profits from a change in land-use, and that he is playing on the asymmetry of information and profiting unfairly from his political familial connections?
In the mythological story from the Puranas, Vamana, who is an avatar of Vishnu, asks for three paces of land as a gift from King Mahabali. Seeing Vamana’s dwarf form, the king agrees. Upon which Vamana reveals his vishwaroopam and with two of his giant steps, “acquires” all of heaven and earth. Having run out of land to offer, the king offers his head, on which Vamana implants his foot as a symbol of his “conquest”.
Now, Vadra is no Vamana, far from it in fact. But like the mythological character, Vadra appears, in a manner of speaking, to be keen to corner all the real estate on heaven and earth. The only thing that will then remain is for him to plant his foot on our pitiful heads and drive us into the earth – where, as the Tamil poet Kannadasan famously said, all we can claim after we have shuffled off this mortal coil is six feet of land.
“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,” said John Wayne on another occasion. As with Wayne, so with our cowboy hero: he’s just doing what he’s got to do…