As elections to the Haryana assembly take place on Monday October 21, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went all guns blazing at leaders of the Indian National Congress for their alleged involvement in land scandals, including the ones relating to Priyanka Gandhi’s husband Robert Vadra. Yet, the Congress was curiously reluctant to target BJP over a real estate scandal related to the IREO group, with which some BJP leaders are allegedly associated.
The government of India’s agencies, such as the Income Tax Department, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED), have been actively following the trail of alleged financial irregularities relating to Congress leaders, such as former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Kuldeep Bishnoi, son of former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal.
Less than two months ago, Hooda had to appear before a special CBI court in Panchkula to defend himself in a land allocation case. Similarly, incumbent Adampur MLA, Bishnoi, has been under the radar of ED and the IT authorities for allegedly owning benami properties and for alleged tax evasion. Both Congress leaders have denied their involvement in corrupt practices and described the actions of the ruling government as “vendetta politics.”
However, surprisingly, Congress has refrained from attacking BJP over allegations relating to a billion dollar scandal relating to the IREO group, a Gurgaon-based real estate conglomerate that had earlier partnered the Trump Organisation (headed by US President Donald Trump).
One of the promoters of the group and the main accused in the scandal is Lalit Goyal, brother-in-law of influential BJP leader and businessman, Sudhanshu Mittal (whose firms construct pandals and tents in the National Capital Region). Mittal claims he has nothing to do with his brother-in-law’s businesses.
In 2018, global investment companies, Axon Capital and Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, had alleged that Lalit Goyal, Managing Director and Vice-Chairman of the IREO group, had siphoned off nearly Rs 10,000 crore using “shadow” firms after the international companies had invested nearly $300 million dollars in the group.
Making matters worse, those who had purchased apartments and villas in the IREO group’s housing projects in Gurgaon, Mohali and Panchkula, also alleged misappropriation of Rs 10,000 crore and took the group’s promoters to the Supreme Court in November 2018.
It has been alleged that Goyal’s political connections have held back investigative agencies from actively probing the scandal. Ramesh Sanka, a whistle-blower in the case and former Chief Executive Officer in the IREO group, had told NDTV in July 2018: “Lalit (Goyal) himself has relatives in political parties. Political pressure is what is stopping it (action). That’s what my opinion and gut feel is.”
Complaints had been filed in the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO) in the Ministry of Corporate Affairs and the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) under which the IT department functions. NDTV had reported that these agencies had denied having any specific knowledge of the scandal.
The Economic Times had reported in November 2018 that the Supreme Court had sent a notice to the SFIO and CBDT in July that year, after Sanka had sought an enquiry into the affairs of the IREO group.
In June 2018 itself, Mittal had sough to dissociate himself from his brother-in-law. He had tweeted: “He (Lalit Goyal) is my relative who is in IREO in a professional capacity, That does not make me a stakeholder in IREO which is a multinational fund. Moreover all allegations against him have been investigated and found to be false.”
This is hardly the first time Mittal has been embroiled in controversies. Described as Delhi’s ‘tentwallah,’ he had told Outlook magazine in an interview in 2006 that his family “owns the largest tent house business in Delhi.”
Mittal was close to the late Pramod Mahajan, who was Cabinet minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government. He had denied the certain allegations against him and Mahajan and claimed these were being spread by “sick minds” in the interview. Mahajan was shot dead by his brother Pravin Mahajan in 2006.
The premises used by Mittal and his firms were raided by the IT Department in October 2010 for their alleged role in scandals relating to contracts for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) that were held in the capital that year. He protested his innocence: “On the total CWG expenditure of Rs 77,000 crore, my company did business worth only Rs 29 lakh and now I am held as the fountainhead of corruption. Is it fair?”
A company called Deepali Designs had managed to obtain a contract worth Rs 230 crore, for which Mittal was questioned, but he denied any irregularities. He said in October 2010: “I have not a single share in Deepali Designs. Neither any of my immediate family members has one share in the company. There was a request made to me to join the board of the company as an independent director. I joined in February this year and left in July.”
Lalit Goyal, too, has claimed he has been unfairly targeted. He asked: “Is it my fault that my sister is married to a politician?”
The IREO group had earlier come under the radar of the officers of the IT Department in 2010 when it probed an inflow of Rs 7,300 crore into 26 Indian companies from tax havens like Mauritius and Cyprus raising suspicions of “round tripping.”
So, why did Congress politicians not criticise BJP and its leaders over the IREO scam even once in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Haryana? Perhaps, Bhupinder Singh Hooda may have an answer.