When Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If misery loves company, misery has company enough,” I’m sure he didn’t have the current Sonia Gandhi-led Congress party in mind, but that’s precisely the beauty of literature: Timeless relevance of the human condition.
What's well-known is that nothing has been going right for the Congress since May 2014. Right from suffering a string of electoral slaughters, the millstones around the party’s neck seem to be increasing and getting heavier.
The latest is the revelation of the nexus between “private” Robert Vadra and arms lobbyist, Sanjay Bhandari. As the expose by Firstpost’s Shalini Singh — and earlier ones in the same vein — show Vadra is not entirely an angelic businessman.
An alchemic formula
Does Vadra possess a secret alchemic formula that enables him to start Sky Light Hospitality with just Rs 50 lakh as promoter’s capital in 2008 and buy vast tracts of real estate in and around Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan? The Celebrity Net Worth website estimates Vadra’s net worth at a massive $2.1 billion.
There’s yet another crucial fact: as this Rediff report shows, Sky Light Hospitality had a paltry Rs 1 lakh as its paid up share capital when it began. Vadra’s artificial jewelry export outfit, Artex infused a loan of Rs 4.45 crores and Corporation Bank gave a generous overdraft of Rs 7.94 crores to Sky Light. The later entry of DLF is a familiar story now.
In a bizarre parallel, the Rs 1 lakh figure is a common factor between Vadra and Sanjay Bhandari, whose Offset India Solutions (OIS) too, began with a paid up capital of Rs 1 lakh. Both men became billionaires almost overnight.
The rise and rise of Sanjay Bhandari
Sanjay Bhandari’s is a truly fascinating tale.
In the latest Indian Express report Bhandari has “…admitted that the email trail recovered from his computer was indeed that of messages exchanged between him, Robert Vadra and Vadra’s assistant Manoj Arora… he acknowledged the exchanges on the subject of finalising interiors for an apartment in London.”
Indeed, the list of Bhandari’s contacts includes the who’s who of the then all-powerful Congress party, starting right from the First Family: Sonia Gandhi, Robert Vadra, and Sheila Dikshit.
Apart from his OIS, Bhandari was also appointed as a director in the Ravi Rishi-headed Vectra Group of companies, which was the largest shareholder of Tatra Holdings, the same Tatra Holdings involved in the Rs 750 crore Tatra truck scam, which was perpetrated with the collusion of BEML and officials in the Defence Ministry.
The beginnings of Bhandari’s deep penetration into the Defence Ministry can be traced back to 2010 when he booked a stall at a defence expo in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, according to this extensive report by the Hindustan Times.
However, it was only in 2012 that he struck gold when the Swiss firm Pilatus engaged OIS and won a Rs 4000-crore basic trainer aircraft contract from the Defence Ministry. His stall at that year’s defence expo attracted the bigwigs, including Robert Vadra.
We can track his business trajectory by sampling these:
- In September-October 2010, Bhandari received one million Swiss Francs from Pilatus even before the basic trainer contract was awarded.
- Between 2009-14, he received a total of Rs 69 crores from as many as 35 shell companies.
- In 2012, the South Korean firm KAI had “lodged a protest with the Defence Ministry over the selection of Pilatus as the “lowest bidder.” KAI was also in the race for bagging the basic trainer contract.
- A Hindustan Times investigation revealed that when “HT randomly picked 10 out of the 35 companies from which Bhandari’s group received payments and found that their office addresses listed with the registrar of companies (RoC) were fake.”
- The Rs 69 crore came from a hawala operator named Deepak Aggarwal who’s also being probed in a case involving funding to the Aam Aadmi Party.
Equally, the role of “media management” comes in focus in this case as it did in AugustaWestland, where a huge chunk of slush fund was allocated for the purpose.
To quote the Outlook expose on Bhandari, “A senior, Delhi-based journalist with an English daily is also under the scanner. His call data records show that he made at least 478 calls to Bhandari.”
Now, recall the earlier mention of Sanjay Bhandari’s contacts and read this:
"In fact, Bhadari’s contact list was so impressive that after the I-T raids, he could send word to Prime Minister Narendra Modi through two influential people to explore possibility of immunity in exchange of information. However, his request received a cold response and he went into a shell, deserted by his powerful friends, including Cabinet ministers, senior intelligence officials, industrialists, senior judicial functionaries and power brokers."
If anything, this is the most obvious evidence of the manner in which Bhandari had penetrated the highest levels of the government, and the fact that he still had enough clout enough to send out feelers to the Prime Minister himself. And, equally obvious, that those who wielded the levers of the power till 2014 had full knowledge of and in some cases, facilitated his endeavours.
Is Sonia Gandhi nervous?
This perhaps explains the nervous haste with which Sonia Gandhi jumped in to defend her son-in-law, an act which this Firstpost report aptly characterizes as a “strange outburst from a party leader who doesn't speak to the media very often, but on this occasion spoke at length in defence of Vadra, who isn't even a party member.”
There have been almost no instances in the last 12 years where Sonia has taken Vadra’s name — even when he began speaking out of turn about his political ambitions or that he doesn’t need to depend on Priyanka Vadra, etc. And now, by suddenly, emphatically rising to his defence, does she tacitly admit that Vadra too, is a member of the Congress party?
Clearly, Sonia Gandhi understands the damaging political ramifications. Indeed, the path of the serial electoral losses, the NH and Augusta cases, and now Vadra, has terminated directly at the doorstep of the dynasty. Unlike in the past, it appears that this time, even if the party so wishes, the possibility of finding a scapegoat is non-existent.
Perhaps for the first time, Sonia Gandhi has displayed her nervousness openly. She is named in the Italian High Court judgment on AugustaWestland. Sanjay Bhandari too, is being investigated in the same case.
Her accusations of conspiracy and false allegations sound empty for three reasons.
One, because it’s an old diversionary tactic each time the Congress is out of power whether in the states or at the Centre.
Two, the phenomenal blow it received in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls indicate a fundamental shift in the mood and aspirations of the Indian electorate propelled primarily by the national outrage against the decade-long UPA misrule.
Three, because there’s no way Sonia Gandhi couldn’t have known what was happening both within the party and the government. Indeed, it’s pertinent to recall these bits from Natwar Singh’s One Life is not Enough:
"Nothing happens in the Congress without the knowledge and the nod of Sonia Gandhi. This is power without responsibility and backseat driving with impunity… there was a mole in his office who supplied information to the Congress President…"
Sonia Gandhi’s current state of barely-concealed anxiety over the Bhandari revelations also reveals itself in her usage of Congress-mukt Bharat, a phrase devised and popularised by Narendra Modi.
An oft-repeated tenet in most tomes on politics and statecraft goes like this: “You know that the opponent has imposed his/her will upon you, when you start invoking the same phrases and the language that he/she uses while referring to you.”