Robert Vadra was questioned by the Enforcement Directorate for over five hours on Wednesday and again on Thursday. He is alleged to have used laundered money to buy real estate in Britain. Vadra was accompanied to the Enforcement Directorate’s office in New Delhi by his wife Priyanka Gandhi, the newly appointed general secretary of the Congress.
This marks a significant change in the Congress’s strategy of dealing with the charges of corruption against Vadra. The party has previously skirted questions about Vadra, maintaining that his business dealings are those of a private citizen. Now, after Priyanka Gandhi’s show of solidarity, Congress leaders are targetting the Bharatiya Janata Party by questioning the timing of Vadra’s interrogation.
Since the election is only a few months away, the Congress no longer wants to play defensively when it comes to Vadra. The party is accusing the Narendra Modi government of unleashing a political vendetta against the Gandhi family. In the 2014 campaign, the BJP had made Vadra’s business dealings a major campaign issue. Modi frequently hurled barbs at the Gandhis for protecting “the son-in-law”. Though the BJP kept targeting Vadra after coming to power, this is the first time the authorities have called him for questioning.
So, why is Vadra being questioned now?
The case he is being questioned about relates to properties in London that the Enforcement Directorate claims were purchased on Vadra’s behalf by the arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari. The agency claims to possess evidence linking the two.
The properties were allegedly purchased with kickbacks from two deals agreed by the previous Congress-led government. The deals – one related to defence and the other to petroleum – were reportedly struck in 2005 and 2009.
A mansion at 12 Bryanston Square in London was bought by Bhandari’s firm Vortex for £1.9 million in 2009 and sold the next year to CC Thampi, a businessman in Dubai who is also being investigated by the agency for foreign exchange violations. Thampi sold the property to Syntak, a company based in the United Kingdom and linked to Bhandari, for the same price despite spending £65,000 on renovations. This led the Indian investigators to conclude that Thampi was used to round-trip the money. According to a report in The Economic Times, the investigators suspect a close association between Vadra, Thampi and Bhandari.
A crucial piece of evidence that links Bhandari to Vadra is an email exchange between them about the renovation of the Bryanston Square house, investigators claim. The investigators stumbled upon this exchange in 2016 when the Income Tax Department raided Bhandari’s home and offices in Delhi.
How exactly is Vadra involved
Soon after taking office in 2014, the Modi government asked the Intelligence Bureau for a report explaining how Bhandari’s firm Offset India Solutions with a paid-up capital of Rs 1 lakh in 2008 had become a multi-crore business group in a short span of time.
In its report, the Intelligence Bureau linked Bhandari to the Swiss firm Pilatus, which was involved in a controversial trainer aircraft deal, and claimed that he was a close associate of Vadra, with whom he was constantly in touch.
Two years later, Income Tax officials raided Bhandari and stumbled upon an email chain allegedly including Vadra. In one email message, Bhandari’s nephew and pointsman in London, Sumit Chaddha, told Vadra’s secretary about payments for the renovation of the mansion. Vadra responded to one of the emails saying: “Will look into it in the morning and let Manoj sort it out.”
The emails were reportedly shown to Vadra during his interrogation on Wednesday.
In 2016, Bhandari reportedly admitted to exchanging emails with Vadra and his assistant Manoj Arora. Bhandari fled India later that year. Arora is also facing an investigation for money laundering. He has alleged that he is being forced to name Vadra.
In 2018, a report in The Times of India claimed Bhandari had also bought air tickets for Vadra but the investigation hit a dead end after the travel agency in Delhi where the tickets were bought claimed it was paid in cash.
The Enforcement Directorate suspects that besides the Bryanston Square mansion, Vadra owns eight properties in Britain, together valued at more than Rs 110 crore. The agency questioned Vadra about these properties on Wednesday and Thursday. But Vadra reportedly denied the allegations.
Rajasthan land deal
Vadra is also being investigated for acquiring 275 bigha land in Rajasthan’s Bikaner through his company, Sky Light Hospitality, allegedly in violation of the rules. The Enforcement Directorate registered a case in 2015 after the Rajasthan police filed a chargesheet alleging forgery in the allotment of the land.
The agency is also investigating the role of a steel firm that bought the land from Sky Light Hospitality at apparently a much higher price than the market rate. In this case, the agency has sent multiple summons to Vadra under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.
The Rajasthan High Court has ordered Vadra and his mother Maureen to appear before the Enforcement Director on 12 February for questioning in the case. The court has restrained the agency from arresting Vadra.
Haryana land deal
Vadra, along with former Haryana Chief Minister BS Hooda, is also an accused in a suspect land deal involving real estate giant DLF in Gurgaon. An FIR filed against them claims that Sky Light Hospitality purchased 3.5 acres of land in Sector 83 of Gurgaon and sold it at a huge profit after obtaining a licence with Hooda’s help to develop it commercially. In return for allegedly helping Vadra, Hooda is accused of allotting 350 acres of land to DLF in violation of the law.
Vadra and Hooda have been booked under the Prevention of Corruption Act as well as the Indian Penal Code sections related to cheating, criminal conspiracy, forgery.
In 2015, the Haryana government set up the Justice SN Dhingra Commission to investigate granting of licences for the development of Gurgaon’s Sector 83. On January 10, the Punjab and Haryana High Court told the state government not to publish the report for now.