Two ‘private citizens’ are now in the eye of a political tug-of-war for their business dealings, one the son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the other the son of BJP president Amit Shah.
New Delhi: In a direct response to the weeklong campaign run by the Congress demanding an investigation into the business affairs of BJP president Amit Shah’s son, the Bharatiya Janata Party on Tuesday asked Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi to break their “silence” over media reports that Robert Vadra had links with fugitive arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari.
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who was fielded by her party to attack the Congress leadership, said the silence of the Congress president and vice president will be construed as an acceptance of the charges against Vadra, who is Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law.
Under a cloud for the sudden rise in his business fortunes after a series of transactions with real estate giant DLF, Vadra is already the subject of a one-judge commission set up by the Haryana government to look into allegations of wrongdoing.
Drawing on a May 2016 Indian Express report, Sitharaman alleged at a press conference that a London house linked to Vadra was refurbished by Bhandari, who also, according to Times Now, made arrangements for his travel abroad. She also claimed that an amount of 7.5 lakh Swiss francs was deposited in a bank account of Bhandari’s and asked if there was a connection between this and the money spent on refurbishing the London house linked to Vadra. The minister alleged that there were at least three transactions between them with “serious financial implications”.
“In this case… Congress’ first family’s son-in-law is linked to the person in question. Then, why shouldn’t questions be raised… even though he is a private citizen… any party has right to raise questions …we (BJP) will too,” NDTV quoted Sitharaman as saying.
The phrase “private citizen” is a throw back to 2012 when erstwhile Congress ministers thronged to Vadra’s defence when Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan levelled accusations of cronyism against Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law. Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari had at the time referred to Vadra’s dealings with DLF as “a business transaction between two private entities duly reported to the statutory authorities.”
“The manner in which senior ministers of the government have jumped to defend the indefensible commercial transactions of a member of the Congress party’s first family indicates that the current controversy is being utilised to display loyalty rather than to enforce probity,” said Arun Jaitley, who was leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha at the time.
On Tuesday, Sitharaman said Vadra being a “private citizen” didn’t grant him impunity, given his close familial ties with Congress leaders.
Sitharaman’s attack on the Congress comes after the BJP itself used the “private citizen” argument to abort media discussion on the business affairs of its president’s son, Jay Amit Shah, including the sudden uptick in the loans he received and the revenue his companies earned in the year after Narendra Modi became prime minister. As in 2012 – and despite Jaitley’s remarks about the impropriety of ministers defending the “commercial transactions” of the BJP’s first family – government ministers at the Centre and Uttar Pradesh were wheeled out to bat for Shah.
It is not clear if Sitharaman’s latest remarks mean the party is changing its stance on the media and the opposition raising questions about Jay Shah’s business dealings. Shah’s lawyer had earlier described the BJP president’s son as a “private citizen” and warned the media of legal action if it “alleges or suggests any impropriety on his part.”
On Tuesday, the Congress held its own press conference to reiterate its demands on the Jay Shah issue. According to the Times of India, party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala “demanded an investigation into the entire issue, and asked for Shah to step down from his post as the BJP national president till such time his name has been cleared from being involved in the 16,000 times jump in Temple Enterprises private limited owned by his son, wife and daughter-in-law in 2014-15.”
Curious case of Bhandari’s disappearance
In her press conference, Sitharaman said the government is taking all steps to bring the absconding arms dealer back to India to face law, but the circumstances of Bhandari’s disappearance last year and the government’s apparent inability to track him down have raised several eyebrows. As Swati Chaturvedi wrote in The Wire:
In December of last year, Bhandari, following in the footsteps of Mallya, managed to slip out of the country and is believed to be in London where Mallya is also based.
…A similar situation unfolded with Bhandari, who is considered the best networked arms dealer in the country had a host of top-level connections, including those with a senior editor of one of Delhi’s largest newspapers. The Income Tax authorities discovered that the editor, known to be exceptionally close to the current establishment in the BJP, had exchanged 500 calls with Bhandari when the Augusta deal was being negotiated.
Interestingly, despite requests from the Income Tax (IT) department, Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Intelligence Bureau, which asked Delhi police to register a case under Sections 3 and 5 of the Officials Secrets Act after classified papers of the defence ministry were found during a raid at Bhandari’s residence in April 2016, the case doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Bhandari was allegedly linked to Robert Vadra – the son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi – after IT sleuths found an email trail linking the two. Vadra, via his lawyers, has denied these claims. The ED attached Rs 21 crores of Bhandari’s assets in June this year under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, however, the government does not have answers to Bhandari whereabouts and its plans to bring him back. The circumstances under which he fled are themselves circumstances with sources telling the New Indian Express in December 2016:
“Sources said Bhandari was always a step ahead of law enforcement agencies owing to his deep bureaucratic and political network and he must have been tipped off about his imminent arrest. “The cops wanted him. The enforcement agencies, including I-T department and Enforcement Directorate were probing into his companies allegedly involved in round-tripping of slush funds. But, despite multi-agencies’ eyes on him, Bhandari proved to be well advised and fled without leaving any trace,” the sources said.”
According to a senior official, “Bhandari is the key link to the biggest political players in India. We need to be serious to ensure his return as he was a cross-party player. So far, the government has only allowed us to touch the tip of the iceberg.”
(With PTI inputs)