On June 30, the day before Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra received an eviction notice for her Lutyens’ Delhi bungalow from the ministry of housing and urban development, the CBI filed an FIR that they believe will take them closer to nail her spouse Robert Vadra—something various investigating agencies have been trying to do through an intricate tangle of cases and associates. From land deals in Haryana and Rajasthan to high-end ‘benami’ properties in London and kickbacks in a Rs 6,800-crore petroleum deal signed in 2009 when the Congress-led UPA was in power, the investigations are complex and also involve Vadra’s suspected aides—fugitive arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari and Dubai-based Kerala businessman C.C. Thampi.
Sources in the investigating agencies say the attempt is to hem in Vadra one way or the other. Even as the agencies try to build a case against him, they admit it is difficult to connect all the dots. “We examined all the existing evidence and found nothing conclusive,” concedes an official involved in the probe. “We seized 23,000 documents, all computers and hard discs from his office, yet found nothing of consequence. There are layers upon layers. It is becoming difficult to track the paper trail as it goes through circuitous routes and a network of companies.”
Even Vadra’s extensive and much publicised questioning by the enforcement directorate in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections did not yield the result desired by the agency. He consistently denied any wrongdoing. The ED arrested Thampi in connection with Vadra’s alleged foreign assets and released on bail. The latest FIR accuses Bhandari and officials of ONGC and Samsung Engineering Company Limited (SECL) of corruption and criminal conspiracy related to the 2009 petroleum deal. Though it does not name Vadra, the sleuths believe he was a key player and may be called in for questioning. They say it will give an impetus to their probe into suspected ‘benami’ properties alleged to have been purchased for him in London. Bhandari has been in the UK since 2016 and the government is planning to start extradition proceedings against him. Sources say the agencies have also been putting pressure on the fugitive to turn approver against Vadra. While he will be pardoned, it will help pin down Vadra, who they say is the bigger fish.
“We have been trying to make him an approver for the past four years, but he has not agreed,” says a CBI officer. “Now, we may have a better chance as we have managed to get extradition of bookie Sanjeev Chawla and are close to getting Vijay Mallya. The message has gone to fugitives in London that it may not be a safe haven anymore. We are hoping Bhandari will again weigh his options and consider turning approver.”
Bhandari, along with unnamed officers of the Indian Air Force and others, is also an accused in a corruption case involving a Rs 2,985-crore deal in 2009 to procure 75 PC-7 trainer aircraft from Swiss aircraft-maker Pilatus. He is also being investigated by the IT department for possessing over Rs 500 crore of alleged unaccounted money. A case filed by Delhi Police in 2016 is also pending.
In the latest case, it is alleged that Bhandari, acting as the middleman, “induced” public servants to grant undue favours to South Korean SECL in awarding a contract for a petroleum project in Gujarat’s Dahej. Bhandari’s UAE-based Santech International is alleged to have got kickbacks from SECL. Investigators allege that Santech is connected to the purchase of plush ‘benami’ properties in London, as are the Dubai-based companies Skylite Investments and Mayfair Investments, both linked to Thampi, with Vadra as beneficiary.
Since 2018, the ED is also probing suspected money laundering by Vadra as regards to possession of foreign assets, including a Bryanston Square house valued at 1.9 million pounds (Rs 17.77 crore). The ED also believes Vadra is beneficiary of two more high-end properties worth 4 million pounds (around Rs 37.42 crore) and £5 million (Rs 46.77 crore), as well as six other flats in the UK. In another case registered in 2015, the ED is also probing acquisition of land by Vadra’s Skylight Hospitality in Kolayat, Bikaner, which was meant for rehabilitation of poor villagers.
Vadra’s lawyer K.T.S. Tulsi says agencies have long been trying to pin something on him, but have failed to find any evidence against him. “They still have not been able to show what his crime his. About the much-talked about London property, there is nothing to show beneficial interest accruing to Vadra. The agencies are just clutching at straws,” says Tulsi, who is also a Rajya Sabha MP.
A former CBI director says nothing much is likely to come out of the various cases against Vadra. “It has been six years since the BJP came to power and they have been trying to nail him all this while. If the government had anything that would stand the scrutiny of the courts, then it would have acted on it. It just helps the government keep up the pressure on the Congress and sully the image of its key figures,” he adds.