On a day when the business dealings of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra were front-paged in most newspapers, the Congress’ official briefing focused on economic reforms, the fact that the rupee had appreciated against the dollar, and that the government was confident that it would be able to pass the insurance and pension Bills in the coming session of Parliament.
But, curiously, the principal Opposition party, the BJP, too, put the spotlight on the same issue at its press conference on Monday, even taking credit for the role the NDA government had played in pushing economic reforms and criticising the UPA government for its inability to take the process forward effectively.
Both the parties spoke about the Vadra issue only when questions were raised by journalists.
The Congress’ initial response on Friday was to distance itself from the accusations, citing the fact that Mr. Vadra is not a Congress member, and stressing that if there had been any wrongdoing then his accusers could go to court. But that very evening, a host of ministers and party spokespersons jumped into the fray to defend him vigorously. On Monday, the Congress explained its defence: “The attack is part of a well-planned conspiracy not against an individual but against the Congress and its leadership,” party spokesperson Rashid Alvi said in answer to a question.
Chidambaram rules out probe
Simultaneously, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram ruled out any investigation into Mr. Vadra’s business dealings: unless there was a specific allegation of quid pro quo or corruption, he said, “private transactions cannot and ought not to be allowed to be questioned on the basis of ... insinuations.” He was answering a question at the economic editors’ conference here.
Two of Congress’ allies also came to its rescue. Union Agriculture Minister and NCP boss Sharad Pawar dared India Against Corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal to go to court if he could substantiate his allegations; Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo Lalu Prasad accused the latter of targeting Mr. Vadra “to get cheap publicity.”
Three days after the IAC accused Ms. Gandhi’s son-in-law of receiving interest-free loans and discounted apartments in luxury projects built by real estate giant DLF, the BJP seemed unwilling to capitalise on the Vadra saga. On Saturday, its president Nitin Gadkari had told CNN-IBN in an interview: “I have no paperwork. I kept hearing about it but I had no evidence. I can’t accuse anyone of anything without evidence, can I?” Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj, too, refrained from comment on her Twitter account.
Indeed, when Mr. Vadra’s business deals first surfaced in March 2011 in The Economic Times, the BJP’s core group was divided on pursuing the issue on the basis of the report. Ms. Swaraj and Rajnath Singh felt that targeting family members of political rivals was not good politics, and sought “more evidence” before taking it further. On March 16, 2011, Ms. Swaraj told journalists that as the matter was serious, senior leader Arun Jaitley had been entrusted with the task of collecting more information so that the matter could be raised “with the prominence it deserves.” Two attempts subsequently to raise the issue in Parliament were rejected by the chairs of the two Houses; however, the party still chose not to go public on the issue.
The ambivalence in the BJP continues: on Monday, the party found itself in a spot when one of its leaders obliquely hit out at a colleague, while ostensibly targeting Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
The former Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister, Shanta Kumar, wrote to Mr. Kejriwal asking him to seek details of the transaction through which Ms. Vadra acquired prime property in the hill state even though the sale of land is forbidden to outsiders. Mr. Kejriwal’s response was that since Mr. Kumar’s party is in power in the State, securing the details should be the BJP’s task.
The accusation refers to the land Ms. Vadra bought in 2007, reportedly, after the Congress government of the day changed the law to allow her to make the purchase. Curiously, the land was given in two instalments — the second when the BJP’s Prem Kumar Dhumal was Chief Minister. Mr. Kumar’s effort to hurt his party colleague, Mr. Dhumal, on the eve of State elections has embarrassed the BJP.