Realty comes back to bite the Pawar family

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Lavasa has put the spotlight back on Sharad Pawar and his daughter Supriya Sule. But there are three other equally scandalous realty projects involving the Sules where the family used its influence to illegally grab government land

By Ashish Khetan

Photo: Fotocorp, AP

IN A recent interview to a television news channel, Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh spelt out what was until now an unwritten code in Indian politics. In a moment of candour, Singh said that the Congress never questioned the business dealings of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foster-son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya, though it had enough reasons to do so. The personal fortunes of Bhattacharya, who had started his career as a management trainee with Oberoi Hotels, rose exponentially during the sixyear- long rule of the BJP-led NDA. Today, Bhattacharya owns a chain of ultra-luxury hotels, besides prime properties in several metros. It is an astonishing rags-to-riches story, but one that has largely been confined to drawing room conversations.

What Singh implied was that Bhattacharya’s extraordinary riches also warranted a similar public scrutiny and brouhaha as the one we are now seeing over Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra’s dubious real estate deals. But the Congress chose to remain silent. This long-observed code of silence among top politicians as per which they almost never darted arrows at each other’s families or questioned their business interests seems to have finally been breached.

When India Against Corruption (IAC) members Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan started reeling off the staggering list of prime real estate amassed by Vadra in a short span of time, they were giving voice to what almost everybody in Delhi’s power circles knew of but never chose to raise in public. Until now, the unwritten rule was that close relatives of top political dynasties were free to build their business empires on the strength of shady deals and out-of-turn favours from the government and private firms without having to answer to either any law enforcement agency or tax authorities.

By and large, the media too observed this code. So when TEHELKA’s Operation West End tapes spoke of Bhattacharya’s alleged undue influence in defence deals, or later when evidence surfaced of his involvement in the UTI scam, the stories created a temporary flutter but were not followed up with the rigour and perseverance they deserved.

Similarly, two years ago, when some RTI activists dug up documents which revealed that Maratha strongman and NCP President Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule and son-inlaw Sadanand Sule held more than 20 percent stake in the scandalous Lavasa project, questions of propriety were raised. Lavasa is a massive township being built over 19,000 acres situated 65 km from Pune. From the very beginning, Pawar had actively lobbied for the private hill city without ever disclosing that his family was a major beneficiary in the project.

But soon the questions of probity and conflict of interest slipped through the cracks. Pawar was successful in giving it the colour of a political witch-hunt. When the then Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, highlighted the gross violations of green laws, Pawar accused him of being unreasonable. Crucial questions involving Pawar’s role in the alleged irregularities, the source of funds with which the Sules bought the stake, the amount for which the stake was bought and later sold were never probed or reached any court of law.

Besides the media’s reluctance to doggedly pursue the story to some logical end, one of the other main reasons why the story died a quiet death was the silence observed by the Opposition. The Congress’ silence could be explained by the fact that Pawar was and is their important ally, both at the Centre and in the state, but the inertness of the Shiv Sena and the BJP was scandalous to say the least.

Last year, TEHELKA did a cover story (Maharashtra on Sale by Ashish Khetan, 28 May 2011) exposing in detail how the politician-builder nexus in the state had plundered prime land. TEHELKA exposed several scandalous land deals in which the leading politicians from the Congress and NCP had a role to play. The story produced prima facie evidence of corruption against former CM Ashok Chavan, the then rural development minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sharad Pawar, Supriya Sule and former irrigation minister Ajit Pawar. The story laid out in great detail over a dozen land scams, each running in several hundred crores of rupees. But the story found no takers in the Opposition parties.

But it now seems that the era where a few select public figures were seen as being beyond scrutiny and reproach is coming to an end. In the past 10 days, we have seen an unprecedented public spotlight on the excesses of money and power. First Vadra, then Salman Khurshid, and finally BJP President Nitin Gadkari were hauled over the coals for what many see as flagrant misuse of power.

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