THE NATION: VADRAS
In-law as Outlaw
|Robert Vadra’s public notice dissociating himself from his family raises prospects of the Gandhi family linen being given a public wash once again
By Lakshmi Iyer and Sharad Gupta in Moradabad
Seventeen years ago, at the Congress Centenary in Mumbai, Rajiv Gandhi pledged to rid the party of wheeler-dealers and power brokers. He didn’t survive long enough to fulfil his mission. But last week, the late prime minister’s widow Sonia Gandhi made a seemingly innocuous effort to cleanse the party over which she now presides. As charges flew thick that money was changing hands for party tickets for the forthcoming assembly elections, she got daughter Priyanka Gandhi’s husband Robert Vadra to issue a public notice dissociating himself from his father Rajinder and brother Richard who have been “promising jobs and other favours in return for money”. Copies of the notice were sent to party state units. Salman Khursheed, former UPCC president, hailed Sonia as a “stickler for propriety”.
The incident set tongues wagging not only among the chatterati of Delhi, of whom Priyanka and her husband are an integral part, but also in Moradabad, a western Uttar Pradesh town which is home to the Vadras. The FAQ everywhere was: did Sonia want to distance herself from the Vadras, who are said to have links with the RSS, in view of the elections in Uttar Pradesh? Or was it, as conspiracy theorists suggest, her way of thwarting the state Chief Minister Rajnath Singh’s alleged efforts to help his cronies get Congress tickets with Richard’s help?
Typically, Congress leaders are tightlipped. What is known is that Richard had visited Mumbai twice: the first time he stayed at Sun ‘n’ Sand Hotel where the Rs 50,000 bill was later settled by the Maharashtra Minister of State for Home Kripa Shankar Singh. The second time, he stayed at the state government guesthouse Highmount where the room had again been booked by Singh. State Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh met him at his residence. Sources said it was merely a courtesy call where no political matters figured. On his part Singh says that he helped Vadra “since he was a guest and related to the family”.
The activities of Vadra’s father and brother came to Sonia’s notice for the first time in March-April last year when Deshmukh referred to her a request from them for flats in Mumbai from his discretionary quota. Later, Sonia is said to have received calls from Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh and Karnataka’s S.M. Krishna about Vadra’s visits. Khursheed says Richard had approached him for a party ticket for a friend from Moradabad
Richard went into hiding immediately after the media splashed stories about the public notice issued by his brother. His rented house in Vasant Vihar Colony in the Civil Lines area of Moradabad was locked and the telephone remained unanswered. When India Today managed to reach him it was clear he wanted to have nothing to do with the media. “It’s a family matter and we will sit together to sort it out. I don’t want to bring disgrace to my family,” he said. But he rejected the charges made in the public notice. “It’s not true. I have never used Robert’s name anywhere. Someone else might have sought favours misusing our name.” Since father Rajinder had decided to file a defamation suit against Robert, was Richard also thinking of a similar move? Wife Saira butted in: “You can question my father-in-law about his plans. At least we are not planning any such action because we don’t want to join issues with anyone publicly. We have great regard for family values and want to keep them intact.”
Like the Gandhis, the Vadras too don’t appear to be a close-knit family. Rajinder’s now estranged Anglo-Indian wife Maureen-daughter of a railway official-taught at the Tiny Tots school in Delhi’s Greater Kailash and stayed in a rented house with her three children Richard, Robert and Michelle. Rajinder was then in Moradabad looking after his brassware-export business. Besides getting her three children baptised, Maureen had given nicknames even to her husband and her father-in-law. Thus Rajinder was Eric while her late father-in-law H.R. Vadera, a migrant from Sialkot (now in Pakistan), was called Harry. Such names were used to promote their business since they dealt mostly with foreigners, says Om Prakash Vadera, Rajinder’s brother, who faces a charge of being an RSS sympathiser. Reason: he built a school in the names of his two sons who died in a road accident and handed it over to Vidya Bharati, apparently unaware that it was an RSS affiliate.
That it is tough being the Gandhi family’s son-in-law is evident from Robert’s predicament. “Friends, relatives and even casual acquaintances have been using my name. Even those who walk by my side into a social gathering have been using me. It’s been going on for some time. I owed it to the (Gandhi) family to issue the public notice,” he says. He admits he is wooed by those inside and outside the Congress but denies interfering in his mother-in-law’s work and denies any political ambition. “Right now, business is my priority.” He runs Artex, an export-oriented fashion accessories manufacturing unit.
That is of no concern to Rajinder who feels his son has been coerced by Sonia into taking the extreme step. “My son cannot do anything alone. He has definitely been advised by his mother-in-law to do this.” He doesn’t entirely deny using the family tag. “I use the father-in-law tag to enable people to identify me,” he says. He is known to have used it in a communique addressed to Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot requesting the transfer of a doctor to a government hospital in Jaipur as well as to Khursheed for admission of a child in Delhi Public School. Rajinder loves the attention the tag bestows on him. “Strangers in social get-togethers walk up to me and want to shake hands because I am related to Priyanka.”
Party circles say the notice was the handiwork of some senior AICC functionaries including Treasurer Motilal Vora, who were known to encourage the Vadra family, particularly Richard, to take an interest in party affairs. They say the AICC functionaries began cultivating the Vadra family as Sonia remained an enigma even after being in active politics for four years. The dependence on the family increased after Vincent George was eased out last year. “Sonia has remained elusive and Priyanka aloof. Robert did influence party appointments. But then he preferred to deal only with chief ministers. Richard was our only hope,” says a party leader.
In Moradabad, they blamed it all on the family. “Disowning first the spouse’s family and then the spouse runs in the Nehru-Gandhi family right from the days of Indira Gandhi. Maneka’s parents had to face the same treatment and then Maneka herself. Now it is Robert and his family which have become victim of the family trait,” says Chhedi Ram Maurya, an advocate. There is no doubting, however, that everyone loves it when Family No. 1 gives its dirty linen a public wash