At 6.30 P.M. on 1 September 2018 Ashok Khemka sat on the veranda of his Chandigarh home, reliving the most nerve-wracking day of his rather turbulent life. A call from a journalist friend minutes earlier had triggered a train of white-knuckle memories harking back five years, ten months and fifteen days.
‘Sir, where are you?’
‘I am at home.’
‘An FIR has been filed in the Vadra case. In Gurgaon. I am coming to you with a copy.’
When Khemka saw the complaint filed by a private citizen, he realized it was a copy-paste job, lifted from his reply dated 21 May 2013 to the report of the three-member committee and from Volume-I of his reply dated 12 February 2015 to the charge sheet on the infamous land deal between realty major DLF and a company owned by Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, Robert Vadra.
What irked him was the fact that it had taken three-and-a-half years for the complaint to be filed. The facts of the case had not changed, nor had the players. Robert Vadra or ‘Damaad-shree’ was the leading edge of the BJP’s election campaign in 2014. Presented as a latter-day Jay Gatsby, he had come to symbolize the venality of India’s ruling elite, the disconnect between the common man and the Congress, and the Congress itself facetiously described as the ‘private limited company’ of the First Family.
Once the BJP came to power, the Vadra–DLF case was put on the backburner and no substantive action, other than through judicial intervention, was taken on the land scams (running into lakhs of crores) red-flagged by Khemka.
The BJP’s acts of omission and commission are as follows:
- The Manohar Lal Khattar-led BJP government in Haryana could well have lodged/instigated an FIR in 2014 itself. The fact that the S.N. Dhingra Commission was set up in 2015 to investigate the land scams during the Congress regime did not preclude a separate case.
- The Dhingra Commission curiously did not summon the man who knew the case best: Ashok Khemka.
- The commission’s report, submitted on 31 August 2016, was not made public, although Justice Dhingra himself felt it should be. When Congress leader B.S. Hooda challenged the commission in the Punjab and Haryana High Court on 23 November 2016, the Khattar government gave a suo moto undertaking that it would not publish the report.
- The officer who gave a clean chit to the Vadra–DLF deal was appointed chairman of the RERA by the Khattar regime. Bureaucrats who facilitated/ignored the scams during Hooda’s tenure were also given high-profile jobs. Khemka was marginalized.
- The colony licence granted to Vadra’s company, which the BJP had touted as proof of corruption, remained uncontested by the Khattar administration. It even accepted Rs 91.8 lakh as ‘licence renewal fee’ from DLF in November 2016. (The licence was deemed to be renewed for the fourth time for another period of two years, up to 14 December 2018.)
- The allegations of a quid pro quo to DLF for ‘aiding’ Vadra’s business were never investigated.
- Did not amend the rule allowing black marketing under the garb of transfer of colony licences.
- Did not initiate action against Robert Vadra in the land surplus matter.
- No complaint filed in the false declaration made in the sale deed registered on 12 February 2008 that a payment of Rs 7.5 crore was made vide cheque number 607251 and that stamp duty of Rs 45 lakh was paid in cash by Skylight Hospitality—an offence under Section 82 of the Registration Act. The complaint is time-barred now.
- No complaint filed for offences committed under the Companies Act. The complaint is time-barred now.
Ashok Khemka was cleared by the Civil Services Board for a central deputation in the PMO, but the proposal was never put up to the cabinet committee on appointments. The PMO withheld the CSB recommendation of July 2014 and allowed it to lapse on 31 March 2015. The recommendation was not given due consideration, because it would have been a public embarrassment to say ‘no’ to Khemka’s candidature.
When an FIR was finally lodged against Vadra in September 2018, Khemka tweeted:
Dhingra Commission of Inquiry was wastage of time and public money. What a private man could do now, the State Govt could have done 3 years earlier. They had access to official records and my reports of 21 May 2013, and 12 Feb. 2015. Shielding the corrupt is also a corrupt act.
Khemka is right—shielding the corrupt is also corruption. But by then it had become amply clear to everyone that the war on corruption had been well and truly lost. Back in 2012, when Khemka had first exposed Vadra’s so-called dubious land deals with DLF in Haryana, the public backlash had been instant. Coming close on the heels of the India Against Corruption movement, it had paid rich dividends to the BJP in 2014 when it targeted the Gandhis over the issue. It had subsequently swept both the Lok Sabha elections and the assembly elections in Haryana that were held, barely a year later. Arvind Kejriwal, who had first brought the issue to centre stage, also benefitted from his exposé and swept the Delhi elections in a landslide victory.
While the political actors reaped huge benefits from the entire episode, the story was very different for both Vadra and his nemesis, Khemka. The former would go on to face multiple investigations during the BJP regime, while the latter would be kept at a safe distance and exiled to inconsequential postings.
Vadra’s land dealings were put under the microscope and strategic ‘leaks’ made by investigative agencies to keep the issue alive in the public eye. Once the general elections were imminent in 2019, both the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI began pursuing cases against Vadra with renewed vigour. The Vadra card, such a boon for the BJP in 2014, was brought to the forefront once again, this time forcing him to appear before court in person.
Over the last decade, the Gandhi siblings have maintained a discreet silence on Vadra’s dealings. This, however, came to an end, with Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics. After ducking the issue for years, the Congress decided to play out the Vadra factor on the front foot. This time round, however, the cases against Vadra did not seem to carry the same sting as they had in the previous elections.
Even as Vadra struggled to defend himself against various government agencies that were closing in on him, Khemka grappled with his own problems. Unceremoniously dumped at the last minute by the Centre, he continued in Haryana doing what he did best—tackling corruption in various departments of the now BJP- ruled Haryana.
Following his predecessors’ footsteps, Khattar adopted similar measures for ‘damage control’ and banished Khemka to insignificant postings where he would not be a nuisance. As it turned out, some of the land policies of the Khattar regime would prove to be quite controversial.
But perhaps the most vicious irony of all lay in the overtures made by Kejriwal to the Congress for an alliance against the BJP in early 2019—the very party he had pilloried for corruption—claiming that the Congress was the lesser ‘evil’. The change of perception may have come about thanks to his experience of being a cat’s paw under an unfriendly BJP regime at the Centre. He, however, did no favours to his own reputation. His detractors regarded it as a betrayal of his mandate, and the Congress, after reluctantly dallying with his party for a few months, decided to go it alone. Today, Kejriwal is back to attacking the Congress, but not without considerable loss of face.
A few years in office wised him up. The BJP presents a credible threat to his political survival and to this end he was quite willing to sup with the Devil—in this case the Congress— to counter it in Delhi.
Of all the protagonists in this tale, Khemka is perhaps the only one who still remains true to the fight against corruption; for everyone else it is old hat and has been tossed conveniently by the wayside.
This excerpt from Just Transferred: The Untold Story of Ashok Khemka by Bhavdeep Kang and Namita Kala has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.