The Romesh Sharma trail

Print edition : November 07, 1998

The arrest of a big-time operator involved in dubious dealings in New Delhi throws up questions of political links.

THE miasma rising from the ruins of Romesh Sharma's 'capital city connections' industry has enveloped much of New Delhi's political class. "Dawood Ibrahim's front man," "extortionist" and "property swindler" - these, it would seem, were the lesser ones among Sharma's many possible appellations. There are reasons to believe that Sharma's career thrived on what might be best described as influence arbitrage - acting as a middleman in the buying and selling of political power. Evidence has surfaced that at the time of his arrest on October 20, Sharma was working to divide the anti-Bharatiya Janata Party vote. Coupled with the fact that the income tax officer who first acted against Sharma was transferred out of office at the instance of the present Chief Minister of Delhi, Sushma Swaraj, Sharma's political role becomes clear.

SHARMA'S downfall had its origins in the early part of the summer of 1998, when Punjab Police officials who were working on a routine electronic surveillance operation learned that two affluent businessmen had received threats from Sharma and Dawood Ibrahim's aide Abu Salem. One of the businessmen was a Congress(I) leader from Punjab (whose name is being withheld at his request related to a perceived threat to his own life), a one-time air services operator who had served as a Minister under Chief Minister Harcharan Singh Brar. Investigators found that a senior Army officer, who was also a resident of Ludhiana, had contacted Sharma in connection with a long-pending property dispute he had with the former Minister; the case was in court. The second person, a well-known industrialist, had been asked to pay crores of rupees as protection money, and was desperately trying to negotiate a settlement through local Youth Congress(I) workers.

The Punjab Police, already worried about insurgents reorganising themselves in the State, went into overdrive at these signs of mafia entry into the State. Telephone intercepts led the State security forces to five cellphone numbers, all operating from New Delhi. The numbers were passed on to the Intelligence Bureau, and from there to the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police. Hours of conversation on one phone allegedly used exclusively by Sharma to contact Dawood Ibrahim's direct number were recorded over a period of four months. Sharma, sources alleged, discussed his operations and occasionally asked for money for his "political work". However, no action could be taken against Sharma since none of his victims had lodged complaints; the mere intention to commit a crime is not always an offence. Moreover, there was no clinching evidence that the person Sharma spoke to over a period of four months in Dubai was Dawood Ibrahim.

AT least two points were important at this stage. First, although rumours that Sharma had underworld contacts had long been in circulation, the Delhi Police did not appear to have a desire to establish the truth. Instead of attracting investigative curiosity, his affluence attracted a protective shield. It took events in a distant State to force the Delhi Police into a position where it had no option but to launch a surveillance operation.

Secondly, some top politicians, certain big business houses and even some journalists appear to have displayed a similarly relaxed attitude to rumours about Sharma's alleged links. Clearly, in Delhi's circles of power, such matters did not amount to much. Sharma was just one of the many hired guns, no more or less exceptionable than the others.

Even as the Delhi Police's surveillance operation remained in place, Sharma's lifestyle attracted the attention of the Income Tax Department. Income Tax Commissioner Vishwa Bandhu Gupta seized Sharma's homes at C-28 and C-30 Mayfair Gardens, one of Delhi's most exclusive neighbourhoods, along with a two-seater single-engine helicopter. Gupta was transferred the next day. Sushma Swaraj admitted that she had insisted on the transfer, but said that she had done so following complaints against Gupta from businessmen in South Delhi. She said that Gupta allegedly threatened the shopkeepers with tax raids after the Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme (VDIS) failed to evoke much response in the area. However, she did not explain how the promise of such action constituted sufficient grounds for a transfer of that nature.

Sharma's ability to evade action was legendary. M.K. Subba, a Congress(I) member of Parliament from Assam who himself has several criminal cases pending against him, filed a complaint that Sharma had grabbed a farmhouse in Chattarpur from him. Sharma, he said, had sought to occupy the farmhouse for a fortnight and then refused to vacate it. When Subba sought to press his case, he allegedly received not-so-subtle threats of mafia intervention. Subba eventually sold the house to Sharma, signing a sale deed which acknowledged receipt of payment, which the MP claims was never made. When Subba filed a First Information Report (FIR), the police apparently did nothing to pursue the charges of intimidation, despite the fact that Subba is said to have told them about Sharma's alleged criminal contacts.

Romesh Sharma after his arrest in New Delhi.-V.S. RAMANATHAN

SUBBA's experience was similar to that of H. Suresh Rao. Sharma had hired a two-seater helicopter to campaign against Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram in his home constituency of Phulpur in the 1996 elections, an extravagant investment to publicise his election symbol, 'aeroplane'. True to form, Sharma allegedly omitted to return the helicopter to the leasing company, Pushpak Aviation. When repeated requests for the return of the helicopter went unanswered, the company's commercial director, Suresh Rao, arrived at Sharma's Mayfair Gardens residence. However, he, along with his friend Rakesh Gupta, were allegedly taken to Sharma's office at 16 Mahadev Road in Central Delhi. Even as the helicopter was dismantled and taken to Sharma's farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi, Suresh Rao is alleged to have been made to sign documents relating to the sale of the helicopter.

The Delhi Police finally acted. Sharma's problems were compounded by the presence of Amod Kant, an officer with a reputation for personal probity, who was recently posted as Joint Commissioner of Police for south Delhi. Kant issued orders to rescue Suresh Rao and raid Sharma's farmhouses. During the raids at the farmhouses and the Mayfair Gardens homes, police officials found 15 cars, including three Mercedes Benz models, shares worth Rs. 1 crore, gold and silver valued at Rs. 50 lakhs and skins of various animals, including those of protected species such as the tiger and the leopard. The weapon that was allegedly used to threaten Suresh Rao, a prohibited bore .32 Smith and Wesson, was also seized. Documents regarding dozens of property transactions in Mumbai and Delhi were recovered. According to the police, Sharma's modus operandi was as follows: he would rent a property, refuse to vacate it, and then use threats to secure a sale at bargain-basement prices.

HOWEVER, the question of what Sharma was doing in the Mahadev Road house is considerably more interesting than the list of seizures. The house was allotted to Shiv Sharan Singh, the MP from Vaishali, Bihar, in 1991. He failed to vacate the house even after he ceased to be an MP, and retained it as the headquarters of N.D. Tiwari's breakaway faction of the Congress(I). While most members of the All India Indira Congress (Secular) - as the breakaway faction was registered with the Election Commission - returned to the Congress(I), political heavyweights such as Sis Ram Ola stayed on. On the morning of October 20, Shiv Sharan Singh's secretary despatched a letter to the E.C. The letter stated that Sharma was now the president of the organisation and requested that the AIIC(S) be allowed to function from 16 Mahadev Road until the Assembly elections to three States and Delhi were over.

Had Amod Kant's raids not disrupted the plans, the E.C. may just have accepted the letter. However, in the light of the raids, the E.C., in a strongly worded communique issued on October 31, noted that the circumstances surrounding the letter suggested serious improprieties. Political sources alleged that the rights to the AIIC(S) election symbol and party apparatus had in fact been transferred to Sharma for a consideration. Sharma had reportedly bragged to several associates before his arrest that the Congress(I) vote would be split down the line now that he had taken control of the AIIC(S). A Delhi lawyer and a woman politician from Haryana, who joined the BJP recently, allegedly negotiated the deal with Sharma. Although there is no tangible evidence regarding these claims, Sushma Swaraj's decision to transfer Gupta is seen as a development that may well have had links to this political dimension.

INTERESTINGLY, Sharma's past is as opaque as his political career. During his interrogation by the Crime Branch, Sharma said that in the late 1970s he worked for a textile concern in Mumbai. Later he shifted to an air-conditioning concern, where, he claimed, he found favour with an industrialist who set up an air-conditioning business. Sharma claimed that the industrialist put up the capital in return for 75 per cent of the profits. The business, Sharma said, was soon providing him with an income of up to Rs. 30,000 a month. He said that he invested this money in real estate.

In 1981, Sharma purchased a large plot of land adjoining the Sun and Sand Hotel on Mumbai's expensive Juhu beach area, where he built a house. He continued to divert his profits into the real estate business. Sharma told the police that the Juhu beach property brought him in contact with Dawood Ibrahim and his brother Anees. Sharma alleged that Dawood had wanted to use the property as a landing pad for smuggled goods, and that the property was burnt down when he refused to accede to the demand. Sharma claimed that he had been granted security cover following the intervention of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former Maharashtra Chief Minister Sharad Pawar subsequent to this incident. He said that he later left for Delhi since he feared for his life. In Delhi, he is reported to have joined a group of people with links to Rajiv Gandhi.

Romesh Sharma's farmhouse at Chattarpur.-V.S. RAMANATHAN

POLICE officials, however, discount his claims. Crime Branch officials believe that the Juhu property was bought for Dawood, but that Sharma had unwisely attempted to usurp it. However, they said, by 1991 Sharma had managed to work out a rapprochement with Dawood, and emerged as his principal representative in Delhi.

No one is entirely certain how such a rapprochement might have come about. However, Frontline's investigations threw up some interesting coincidences. The Punjab businessman who received threat calls from Abu Salem said that he first made contact with Sharma in 1991 in Ludhiana during the course of former Union Minister of State for Home Subodh Kant Sahay's election campaign. At that time, many businessmen from Punjab were looking to leave the State.

Yashwant Kumar Ranjan, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student who went on to become Sahay's secretary and aide, introduced the businessman to Sharma. The businessman told Frontline that the sole outcome of that meeting was a hole in his pocket. After six months he returned to Punjab poorer, but wiser. There was no further contact with Sharma until he began to receive threatening phone calls six months ago.

Sharma's links with Sahay's election campaign could be of significance. Sahay's entry on the Punjab scene was part of the Chandra Shekhar regime's covert dialogue with the Bhindranwale Tiger Force led by G.S. Manochahal. That effort had ended in a near-successful attempt on the life of the former Union Minister at Gill village near Ludhiana. If the Crime Branch investigators are correct in asserting that Sharma reactivated his contact with Dawood Ibrahim in 1991, Sharma's alleged links with Sahay raises many questions.

Ranjan's own alleged links with Sharma appear to be curious. He reportedly ran a National Campaign Against Corruption from Sharma's home. However, he now claims that he played a role in a reported seizure of two tonnes of silver by the Central Bureau of Investigation from Sharma's home in 1992. Ranjan, who is constantly on the move and can only be contacted through the cellphone belonging to the brother of a Youth Congress(I) leader, refused to speak to Frontline. CBI officials too did not return calls that were made to ascertain the status of the reported 1992 seizure.

The helicopter seized by the police from Romesh Sharma's farmhouse.-V.S. RAMANATHAN

What is certain is the fact that Romesh Sharma's career in crime may be far from over. The contents of Sharma's meticulously maintained diary, listing appointments with politicians and businessmen, has not been made public. Delhi Police officials say that they are investigating Sharma's connections with these people, but given their record on the issue, any sort of comprehensive disclosure is unlikely. Even the Congress(I), which ought to have seen political opportunity in Sharma's arrest, seems to be embarrassed to push the issue too hard.

Sharma himself may have little cause for concern. Although some of the charges, including those relating to Subba's property, may stick, there is little that is legally admissible in the form of evidence against his activities.

Meanwhile, Amod Kant has reportedly become the target of a bitter attack by Crime Branch officials, who claim that his high-profile raids brought to an end their surveillance operation. Sources told Frontline that the interrogators deputed by Kant had also committed the cardinal error of telling Sharma about the tapes of his conversations with a person in Dubai. Although Kant did not return calls seeking to discuss these questions, his friends pointed to the Crime Branch's own dubious record vis-a-vis the investigation. Two police officials are alleged to have met Sharma on several occasions. Bitter relations between the Crime Branch and the south Delhi Police led to a verbal duel in a Delhi Magistrate's court on October 30.

In the light of the fact that the investigation appears to have been compromised upon at the outset, the prosecution of Romesh Sharma may well go way of the Jain hawala case. Chances of others like Sharma facing action are evidently thin. After the current media storm dies down, Delhi's political class will, in all probability, go back to its old ways.

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