NEW DELHI - A disconcerting number of corruption scandals has rocked the Congress-led government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The latest allegations are miniscule when compared to the scale of earlier purported embezzlements related to the coal, telecom spectrum or the Commonwealth Games scams, but can get no closer to the establishment.
Arvind Kejriwal, a social activist who has been leading a high-profile campaign against corruption over the recent months, has thrown the spotlight on businessman Robert Vadra, who is connected to the first family of Indian politics through marriage to Priyanka Gandhi, daughter of Sonia Gandhi, the all-powerful Congress party chief.
In his latest avatar, Kejriwal has decided to enter politics, launching an independent party to fight elections, and marking the occasion by accusing Vadra of corruption. Vadra denied the claims.
Kejriwal alleged that Vadra was involved in real estate deals that smacked of favoritism and crony capitalism. Vadra responded by releasing a statement, saying: "I am a private law abiding citizen who has been engaged in business over the last 21 years. The allegations leveled against me are utterly false, entirely baseless and defamatory.''
Vadra has also chose social networking websites to retort. In one such assertion he referred to Kejriwal's anti-corruption activists as "mango people in a banana republic,'' a testimonial that has not exactly endeared him to sections of the hyperactive young Internet-savvy population of India.
Nothing has been proven against Vadra in the courts, and so far Kejriwal has refused to take recourse to legal actions, saying that the process will be cumbersome and investigations will be biased as they will be handled by government agencies. He has called for the setting up of an independent special investigation team, instead. A public interest litigation or PIL, however, was filed on the issue on Thursday at the Allahabad High Court that has served notice to New Delhi.
Kejriwal has also accused property developer DLF orchestrating the transfer of prime properties to Vadra, at throwaway prices in exchange of extensive land banks in areas of Congress party-ruled Haryana and Delhi. DLF dismissed the allegations as a "bunch of lies''.
Robert Vadra exercising
The quick and massive returns due to India's rapid urbanization have spawned multiple overnight millionaires who have grown rich on speculation across the country. Land prices in prime areas such as Delhi, Gurgaon and Mumbai are among the most expensive in the world. As in the handling of India's natural resources, allegations swarm that governments, politicians and bureaucrats tinker with land use and conversion laws for personal gain.
Following the accusations, the Congress party, at the instance of Sonia, has come out strongly in support of Vadra, accusing Kejriwal of mudslinging to achieve narrow political ends. Finance minister P Chidambaram has spoken in Vadra's defense.
Sonia, in the past, has usually sought to distance herself and her party from persons accused of being corrupt, whether it is former foreign minister Natwar Singh, telecom minister A Raja or Suresh Kalmadi in the scandal over the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
Few in India have access to the level of support that Vadra can expect. But few operate at his level of power and privilege. A retinue of armed guards and pilot vehicles guard him, since his family connection means he has been extended the highest security status. He is among the handful of dignitaries, including the president and the prime minister of India, who by protocol is not required to be frisked at Indian airports.
Robert Vadra with Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and wife Priyanka Gandhi
Politically, Vadra has limited himself to accompanying brother-in-law Rahul Gandhi, who is widely seen as the Congress party's future prime ministerial candidate, and Priyanka in their electoral campaigns, but has shown few signs of being averse to the limelight. In an impromptu TV interview during campaign for Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in March, he said that he could one day get into active politics, a matter that was quickly dismissed by his wife.
Sonia Gandhi, by K V Gautam
The Gandhi family has faced tough periods in the past such as dealing with the Bofors gun corruption scandal of the 1980s, when several Indian politicians, including then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, were accused of receiving kickbacks. With Vadra in Kejriwal's sights, he needs a clinical defense. The people of India are watching closely.