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Kejriwal breaks 'Omerta Code' on DLF-Vadra 'sweetheart deal'

They came in waves, like silent armies that move in the night. Each of the Congress Ministers and party leaders who were seen studio-hopping or otherwise implanting themselves in front of cameras late on Friday had been assigned a specific role: to defend the First Family of Indian politics against the most audacious allegation of corruption levelled by Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan, the two Johnny-come-latelys to the world of politics, against rajmata Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra.

And although the intimate details of Vadra's 'sweetheart deal' with real estate developer DLF have been in the public domain for more than a year, and although other high-profile anti-corruption campaigners like Subramanian Swamy have in the past pointed to the taint of corruption surrounding Vadra's business operations, this time around, there was an uncharacteristic hunted look about the Congress foot soldiers.

Perhaps the avalanche of corruption scandals of recent years surrounding the UPA government, headed by the Congress, has begun to take its toll. Or perhaps it was just the fact that Kejriwal and Bhushan, novice politicians that they are, had shattered the 'Omerta code' of silence - which dictates that allegations of corruption against family members of top-rung political leaders aren't articulated in public, not even by the principal Opposition party.

Robert Vadra faces the heat. PTI

Whatever the reason, the armies of the Dynasty were palpably less than a match for the outpouring of outrage generated by the allegations of corruption going right up to the top - to Sonia Gandhi's family.

Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid, who appeared all of Friday evening to be a Gandhi family retainer, made a colossal hash of his defence of Vadra, and rather than risk losing the argument in its entirety, he pulled off his earpiece and microphone and slithered off screen on at least two separate programmes, evidently unable to take the heat.

Likewise, on CNN-IBN, Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, after a futile attempt to deflect attention away from the allegations against Vadra, too walked away, leaving behind a Jayanthi Natarajan-shaped hollow on our television screens. In large part, the Congress defence of the DLF-Vadra 'sweetheart deal' rested on very infirm ground. First, they argued, the DLF-Vadra deal, under which Vadra probably secured an unsecured, interest-free loan from DLF, the proceeds of which were then used to purchase a clutch of DLF property at a substantial discount to the then prevailing market prices, was a transaction between two private parties, which was not open to question by anyone other than the shareholders of DLF.

In any case, they claimed, there is no evidence of any quid pro quo: there was nothing in the documents that were furnished by Kejriwal and Bhushan to establish how DLF had benefited from the transaction. If DLF, in its benevolence, wanted to given an unsecured, interest-free loan - and sell property at a substantial discount - to anyone, that doesn't establish a prima facie case of corruption in the manner that had been alleged. Everyone from Sonia Gandhi to DLF to Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda claimed that all the trasnactions were transparent and abided by the highest standards of ethics. But the man at the centre of it all - Vadra himself - thus far remains incommunicado. But the Congress' and the DLF's and Hooda's defence - "trust us, there's nothing wrong with these transactions" - doesn't wash, not after what is known of the UPA government's record of the past three years in attempting to bury any and every corruption trail - unless it was dragged kicking and screaming to the courts.

For starters, Vadra isn't just any private individual: first, he is Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law, operating in a political culture where anyone in such close proximity to power wields enormous influence, within the government as well as the ruling party. That alone requires that any undue favours he may have secured - and he did in the DLF deal - ought to be subjected to the most rigorous investigation.

Second, DLF too benefited from allotments of large tracts of land from the Haryana and Delhi governments. Given that both of these were Congress governments at the time of Vadra's business transactions with DLF, it does raise the needle of suspicion that one was correlated to the other. For sure, there is no 'smoking gun' evidence to establish that Vadra in any way peddled his influence to secure the land for DLF, but in matters like this, there seldom is.

From a cursory look at the balance-sheets of Vadra's companies, it isn't clear if he got an unsecured loan (in the way that Kejriwal and Bhushan suggest) or if he secured an advance on land sold to DLF. But if it is an unsecured, interest-free loan, that puts Vadra in the same indefensible position as DMK MP Kanimozhi, who is facing prosecution in the 2G scam case. (DMK-run Kalaignar TV, in which Kanimozhi has a stake, received over Rs 200 crore from Shahid Balwa's DB Group; the CBI believes it was a "bribe" paid for favours shown to the DB Group through Telecom Minister Raja; Kalaignar TV claimed it was an unsecured "loan" which it returned.) But in either case, the entire transaction has all the trappings of a 'sweetheart deal', and given the meteoric rise in Vadra's business fortunes in just three years, and the fact that DLF too benefited from land allotments from Congress governments, it reeks of corruption.

That 'missing link' may be impossible to establish, but just the fact that the Congress foot soldiers have dismissed the demand for an impartial investigation shows the brazenness with which they operate today. It is the same brazenness that accounts for Vadra's very public acknowledgement in the Registrar of Companies documents to acknowledge the undue favours he received from DLF.

Congress apologists point to it to claim that it shows up the transaction as transparent. On the contrary, it signals rather more that Vadra knew all along that no one would dare investigate it. Where did that cocksure arrogance spring from? When details of Vadra's suspect business dealings first surfaced in March 2011, in Economic Times, it created something of a stir in political circles. Both the BJP and the Left claimed they would corner the Congress on Vadra's meteoric rise (details here).

But as columnist Swapan Dasgupta noted within days of the report coming out, there was resistance from within the BJP itself to raising the Vadra issue. Subsequently, the party chickened out completely from raising the issue - evidently abiding by the Omerta Code of politics. As contemporaneous media reports had it: "Differences were evident at a meeting of BJP leaders in Parliament... with some leaders advocating caution while some others felt Congress could be asked some questions on Vadra's activities. Leader of Opposition in the Lok Saba Sushma Swaraj felt it would not be good form to target family members of political rivals." The argument within the BJP, evidently, was that that "political battles would get out of hand if they got 'personal'"; BJP president Nitin Gadkari too expressed himself in favour of "weighing the evidence carefully".

It is this that makes a mockery of the BJP's enthusiastic embrace on Friday of Kejriwal's and Bhushan's allegations against Vadra. Whether they will be just as vociferous if Kejriwal and Bhushan target a high-profile BJP leader next, as is suspected, will be revealing. Kejriwal and Bhushan, being new entrants to the field of politics, are looking to bomb the citadels of power. For sure, they haven't produced the 'smoking gun' evidence against Vadra this time, but given the cloak-and-dagger nature of such operations, that may prove impossible to produce.

Which is why they have instead opted for a 'name-and-shame' tactic by going public with their allegations. It's not the most honourable course, but when you're dealing with a feckless government and a party that will do its damnedest to cover up its corruption, particularly when, as in this case, it leads right up to the palace gates, there is greater dishonour in remaining silent, in the way that the BJP and much of the media has done.

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