Truth vs Hype: The 'Talented' Robert Vadra

File photo of Robert Vadra

New Delhi: Robert Vadra is back in the headlines after a report by Haryana IAS officer Ashok Khemka found multiple violations in land deals by Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law. Those in defence of Mr Vadra claim there was nothing illegal about these deals.

But a closer look at these transactions, both those contained in the Khemka report and beyond, suggest that property traders, Congress politicians, state governments and business houses appear to do extraordinary favours to Mr Vadra to ensure that he becomes a multi-millionaire without spending a penny.

In his 100-page report, the deal that Ashok Khemka spends the most time on, is what he claims is Mr Vadra's illegal purchase of a piece of land in Shikhopur, Gurgaon, which Mr Vadra's company Skylight Hospitality bought in February 2008.

The sale deed records that Mr Vadra bought the land from Onkareshwar Properties through a cheque of Rs 7.5 crores from Corporation Bank, which Mr Khemka argues is a bogus transaction since Mr Vadra's balance sheet, had only Rs 10 lakh as paid up capital.

Mr Khemka also refers to Corporation Bank's clarification that they had extended no such overdraft and the Rs 7.5 crores is simply a book entry in Mr Vadra's balance sheets.

The actual payment to Onkareshwar happens only six months later, by which time Mr Vadra had sold the land to DLF, and had money in his bank. Mr Khemka says this makes the sale illegal, because no money changed hands at the time of registry, nullifying the Vadra-Onkareshwar deal. Moreover, by registering a cheque which they never intended to cash, Mr Khemka claims Mr Vadra and Onkareshwar effectively lied before a public servant, which is punishable with a jail sentence of seven years.

Mr Vadra himself remains unreachable.

But senior Supreme Court lawyer, KTS Tulsi, speaking in defence of Mr Vadra says the deal is not illegal in the least. He told NDTV, "sale is transfer of ownership, transfer of property and if it is immovable property for the money paid or promised or partly paid and partly promised. So if it is not paid, it's a sale. If I am willing to sell for something which you will pay me after 10 years or you will pay my children, it's a valid sale. I'm transferring ownership."

Independent legal voices also say illegality is hard to prove.

Property lawyer Vinay Singh told us "when you hand over the cheque, the payment is made. Now the encashment may take place at any point of time in the future. It does not matter when the encashment takes place. Since the payment has been made down the line, effectively the transaction has closed, seller does not have the case that he hasn't received the consideration. So effectively I don't think that this is an issue at all."

But others say that this is a classic benami deal, with Mr Vadra simply being a front for DLF.

Prashant Bhushan says "it is a classical benami transaction, because in this case though the sale deal is between Mr Onkareshwar and Mr Vadra's company Skylight, but since the consideration for this sale is actually paid by DLF after four months and Mr Vadra enters into a back-to-back agreement with DLF for reselling the same land to DLF immediately thereafter for 58 crores. It is quite clear that in this whole transaction, Mr Vadra has acted as a benami for DLF. The real sale is between Onkareshwar and DLF and Mr Vadra has been engaged as a broker to get the land use change permission or rather the colonisation permission from the (Bhupinder Singh) Hooda government."

But rebutting this Mr Tusli says, "the allegation is that after Vadra had become the full owner, he enters into an agreement with DLF and that is when the DLF pays him money. That can't make the previous transactions benami. See there is a time gap and their own allegations do not constitute even a benami. There is no illegality, there is no crime, there's no benami."

While Mr Vadra's defenders may deny any illegality, is a clear pattern of political cronyism evident in Mr Vadra's land deals?

One of the directors of Onkareshwar is Sandeep Dahiya, the nephew of Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda's wife.

Another director is Sushil Gupta, a Rohtak resident also said to be close friend of Mr Hooda.

Another director is Satyanand Yajee, also close to Mr Hooda, seen with the chief minister at a function of the All India Freedom Fighters Organisation (AIFFO), of which both are members.

Mr Yajee was in-charge of constructing a memorial for Chief Minister Hooda's father Chaudhary Ranbir Singh in Rohtak.

We tried to contact Mr Yajee at his house in Delhi's Freedom Fighters Colony.

We also tried at the office of the Freedom Fighters association at Jantar Mantar, where pictures of Mr Hooda and Mr Yajee's father are hung on the walls. But all our efforts came to nought as he has not been home for the last few days and didn't answer calls.

Onkareshwar's fortunes changed dramatically after their deal with Mr Vadra.

From a loss of Rs 23 lakhs, Onkareshwar registers a huge profit of Rs 55 crores for the first time in 2009, thanks to a series of clearances for realty projects in and around the same village where Mr Vadra bought land.

Onkareshwar also has links to companies owned by controversial Congress politician Vinod Sharma. Mr Yajee's Onkareshwar Properties shares the same office as Mark Buildtech owned by Kartikeya Sharma, son of Mr Sharma.

Onkareshwar invested about Rs 25 crores of its profits in Kartikeya Sharma's media companies.

The Chief Minister repeatedly refused to answer our questions.

The illegality behind these deals may be hard to prove, but they fit in with a pattern of Mr Vadra doing land deals in Congress-run states, often using local real estate players with Congress links.    

As we found last year, in at least two Congress-ruled states, he used the same politically connected frontman: Mahesh Nagar as his power of attorney.

Mr Nagar's brother is Lalit Nagar, who got a Congress ticket to contest the 2009 Haryana assembly elections - many believe only because of his association with Mr Vadra.

Though Lalit Nagar lost, his posters are all over the villages of Faridabad in Haryana, where Mr Vadra is said to have acquired 400 acres of land in 2007.  

Mahesh Nagar also acquired almost 300 acres of land for Mr Vadra about 1000 miles away in Bikaner in Rajasthan.

The land he bought is wasteland, but as the site of an emerging solar energy hub, is drawing many other speculators.

But Mr Vadra's purchases started just three months after Ashok Gehlot came to power, and the solar energy thrust here is being overseen by the Centre's Jawaharlal Nehru Solar Energy Mission.

Another alleged beneficiary: Aftab Ahmed, the Congress MLA from Nuh constituency, three hours from Gurgaon.

Mr Ahmed sold 17 acres of his family land in Shakarpuri village in Mewat in 2009 to Mr Vadra for Rs 2 lakh per acre, almost eight times below the circle rate of Rs 16 lakhs per acre.

A former Congressman from here told us, Mr Ahmed, who lost the seat twice, was given the ticket for a third time only because of the favour to Mr Vadra.

But Mr Ahmed denied these allegations. He says he received no special favours from the Congress.

KTS Tulsi says Mr Vadra has simply been lucky and "got a good deal in the beginning of their career."

But given the absence of a credible, independent probe into the questions surrounding Mr Vadra's land deals, the opposition refuses to accept that luck alone could have contributed to his meteoric rise.