The “mango people (aam aadami)” turned out in force to buttress anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal's testimony against businessman Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The “malafide nexus” between the Haryana government, DLF and Vadra stood exposed as hundreds of people, including farmers, came up with damning documents, information or simply stories of how they had been displaced from their ancestral lands for the benefit of corporate entities.
At a media briefing on Tuesday, Kejriwal couched his expose of the cosy nexus between the Haryana government and DLF in the language of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which had passed blistering strictures on the Bhupinder Singh Hooda regime for its blatant benevolence to DLF.
Quoting extensively from a court order with reference to prime land ear marked for a hospital being given to DLF, Kejriwal pointed out that it was not the first such case. He cited similar instances of the state government showering favours on DLF. Land had been acquired from farmers, ostensibly for development, only to be handed over to DLF. Interestingly, Vadra owned half the DLF subsidiary that was given the land acquired expressly for setting up a hospital.
Vadra had reacted to the earlier charges from Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan (that DLF helped him turn Rs 50 lakh into Rs 300 crore in three years) with a contemptuous remark about “mango people in a banana republic”. On Tuesday, he had ample reason to regret it (so had DLF, whose share has already tanked 7 percent), as the aam aadmi responded with a flood of allegations.
Public anger was evident in the testimonies of the farmers who had shown up from Wazirabad, Manesar and Gurgaon to describe how they had been coerced or conned into giving up their lands for DLF.
Kejriwal didn't put a foot wrong. Not only did he put the “aam aadmi” up front, he infused a sense of drama, brandishing the document on the controversial hospital deal, claiming he'd obtained it “just five minutes ago”. By contrast, the Congress response was anaemic, limited to questioning the authenticity of Kejriwal's documents and recommending that he take up the matter with the Haryana government - which he has already done, demanding a white paper on DLF's activities in the state for the last decade.
Within the Congress, stock taking is already under way. It is now being felt that the party overreacted by fielding a phalanx of ministers to defend Vadra. A simple statement by the party spokesperson, in response to a question, was all that was required. The ministers, in a show of competitive loyalty, apparently overstepped their brief.
No one, least of all the Congress president, can say she did not see it coming. The activities of the Vadra-DLF-BS Hooda troika have been an open secret for several years - even more so than the Neera Radia tapes. News reports of Vadra's properties and DLF's dealings have appeared sporadically over the last two years. “It was a ticking time bomb”, a senior Congress leader observed.
If nothing else, the change in Vadra's appearance and lifestyle merited comment. From the Gypsy in which he drove around at the time of his marriage to Priyanka Gandhi, Vadra is now seen riding or driving ultra high-end motorcycles and cars. The soft-spoken boy next door has morphed into a lean, mean gym rat. The tiny workshop cum office in an obscure gali in Sarai Julena village near the Escorts hospital in south Delhi has given way to a suite at the Aman hotel.
Coinciding with the media reports on Vadra's DLF properties, including a five-star hotel, were rumours of an impending split between the Vadras. This has fuelled speculation that the current campaign by Kejriwal & Co may be the last straw for Priyanka. While the family is not unfamiliar with controversy, no member has thus far been involves in dubious land deals.
It is all very well for the party to say former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's son-in-law faced similar allegations, but the family has always set higher standards for itself. Natwar Singh, an intimate of long standing, was unceremoniously ousted when he found himself embroiled in a scandal.
Speculation is rife on whether the Vadra imbroglio will hasten Priyanka's entry into politics or put it off indefinitely. Whatever may be the outcome, the feeling in the Congress is that Vadra has proved a liability both for the family and the party.
Will the BJP be able to capitalise? If, as expected, Kejriwal targets a senior BJP leader on Wednesday, it will find itself as much in the dock as the Congress. But it has the advantage of not being in government and so, may be able to ride it out more easily.