NEW DELHI: Shortly after actor-turned-politician Raj Babbar was asked by the Congress leadership to lead the party in Uttar Pradesh, he attended a dinner that was as unusual as potentially politically significant. Other attendees included Samajwadi Party’s Naresh Agrawal and ex-cricket super star Kapil Dev. But, it was the host, Sahara India chief Subrata Roy, who made the meeting-turned-dinner so interesting. Roy, out on parole, required by the Supreme Court to make hefty payments and vetting properties for sale, had Babbar, Agrawal and others over for a chinwag that lasted long enough for guests to stay on and have dinner.“It wasn’t a planned dinner as such. I met him just to take his blessings. Nothing more,” Babbar told ET. Babbar describes Roy as his “elder brother.” Naresh Agrawal also confirmed the dinner to ET. Guests weren’t keen on sharing details of what they described as simply a private meeting between friends. But people who know Roy said that dinner was proof that Roy was interested again in UP politics.
ET spoke to people close to Roy and with more than a dozen political leaders and serving and retired bureaucrats for this story. Many of them spoke off record. Roy’s office said he did not wish to comment.
The Sahara chief, who was jailed on SC orders in the case of alleged fraud against investors, is also close to another prominent Congressman in UP – Pramod Tiwari. Tiwari, Rajya Sabha MP, was present at Roy’s mother’s funeral, as was Babbar. Roy and Tiwari have been close for a long time, say UP politicians.
Tiwari told ET: “Roy is an acquaintance and as a nonpolitical person, he has relations with everyone. Sahara is based in Lucknow and I belong to the same city”. Tiwari also said he likes Roy’s approach to ‘Bharat Mata functions’ and that he admires Roy’s “nationalist views.”
People who know Roy and his past moves in UP politics say the Sahara chief wishes for a Samajwadi Party-Congress understanding in UP elections. Some SP leaders told ET Roy is keen on such an alliance.
SP is the incumbent, and Congress is trying to get a bigger slice of UP’s big electoral pie. That Roy and SP, especially SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, are close is no secret. That Roy’s remarks on Sonia Gandhi’s “foreign origins”, after Sonia-led Congress’s 2004 general election victory, earned him a big black mark as far as Nehru-Gandhis are concerned is also no secret.
That despite being a persona non grata for Nehru-Gandhis Roy may still be entertaining the idea of a SPCongress understanding shows his chutzpah, a senior UP Congress politician said. An SP leader said Roy may think that his close relationship with Babbar and Tiwari may help him in making the case for alliance with Mulayam.
SP’s Agrawal told ET Roy had “helped” Congress’s Kapil Sibal in a tough Rajya Sabha election fight from UP. “Kapil Sibal’s nomination to the Rajya Sabha happened because Roy spoke to Netaji (Mulayam Singh Yadav) about it and also because of Sibal’s own relationship with Netaji,” Agrawal said.
Sibal, who’s Roy’s counsel in the court case, stoutly denied this. “This is rubbish, I don’t know why Agrawal is saying this,” Sibal told ET.
That prominent UP Congress politicians are so close to him despite the leadership’s views on Roy show how deep his connections run in the state, said another state Congress leader.
But if Roy is keen on a SP-Congress tieup, he has a tough job. One SP leader told ET the main decisionmaker is UP CM Akhilesh Yadav and there’s little incentive for him to tie up with Congress.
Some Congress leaders are also skeptical. “SP is a doobti hui party (a sinking party),”a party leader said, “why should we have an understanding with it”.
A former bureaucrat who knows UP well told ET that there’s logic in Roy’s view in wanting a SP-Congress tieup. He explained, Mayawati-led BSP and Roy have no truck with each other, and Roy was enthusiastic about Modi in 2014 but feels the Modi government hasn’t reversed investigative agencies “vindictive attitude and witch hunt”. The ‘attitude’, people close to Roy say, was encouraged by senior figures in Congress-led government that BJP defeated in 2014.
People close to Roy said he blames Congress leadership and former FM P Chidambaram for this ‘attitude’. Chidambaram declined to comment when contacted by ET.
Roy had written to PM Manmohan Singh in 2004 that he was being investigated because of his comments on Sonia Gandhi. People close to Roy claim his attendance at Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremonies as Gujarat chief minister also irked the Congress leadership.
One UP Congress leader told ET that once Sonia Gandhi waited for three hours for a Lucknow-Delhi flight instead of taking a Sahara flight that was readily available. “Such was Sonia’s dislike for Roy,” this leader said.
Given all this, the ex-bureaucrat said, a strong SP-led coalition is something Roy will be happy with.
A Raid & Connections
The buzz around Roy doesn’t depend on what’s happening with the Supreme Court case. An Income Tax raid on Sahara premises in the National Capital Region (NCR) in November 2014 led to documents, officials familiar with the matter said, that appeared to show connections between Sahara andleaders cutting across party lines.
Contents of the seized papers have been discussed widely in Delhi’s political circles. ET couldn’t independently verify the details mentioned in those documents. Officials said inquiries are still on. But as a senior figure in Delhi’s political establishment said, those papers, if they bear up to further scrutiny, give you an indication of the web of connections Roy has with political actors.
Whatever Roy ends up doing in UP, will be based on working those connections. And one of the connections worth noting is that between Roy and Congress’s Pramod Tiwari.
Tiwari’s daughter Aradhana Mishra had been an “associate” of the Sahara group, a senior company official told ET. She is now a Congress MLA from UP. Aradhana’s husband Ambika Mishra owns a real estate firm Ambalika Constructions. This firm has extensive business dealings with Sahara, as the firm’s own web site says. Aradhana did not respond to calls and messages from ET.
Tiwari told ET he wasn’t “aware” of Roy’s publicly articulated views on Sonia Gandhi’s “foreign origins”. People familiar with the many cross currents of UP politics say Roy is also on friendly terms with senior Congress politicians, some of whom were ministers in the 2004-2014 Congress-led governments.
An SP leader pointed out that almost no influential politician spoke against Roy while he was getting the tough treatment from the court, and even though the purported victims of the case of alleged fraud were small investors. “He still has clout… and that was one indication,” the leader said.
That clout is thanks to years of working on personal relationships with political players.
Politics in Sahara City
During 1996 general elections, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was BJP’s candidate from Lucknow. He won, of course. But the main challenger was SP’s Raj Babbar, then a director of the Sahara India Group. Roy had publicly declared his support for Babbar, and around 3,000 Sahara employees worked in the campaign.
UP Police arrested 13 Sahara employees on charges of electoral malpractice. The FIR even named Roy. He and his company had strongly denied all charges.
But Sahara’s presumed influence was big enough for the former BJP chief minister of UP, Kalyan Singh, to write a letter to the then chief electoral commissioner TN Seshan. Seshan then asked the police to investigate the matter.
In a twist that’s very Subrata Roy, Seshan, post-retirement, joined Sahara as a director.
None should presume though that the 1996 episode meant Roy and BJP couldn’t be friends. When the then UP governor infamously dismissed the Kalyan Singh government in 1997, Roy’s aircraft was available for BJP to fly down 222 MLAs for a show of strength in front of Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhavan.
A senior BJP leader said Roy hadn’t agreed when Kalyan Singh had asked but said yes when Rajnath Singh called. There’s a well-circulated anecdote in UP, told to ET by an old Congress hand in UP, that Roy had persuaded Surendranath Awasthi, a Congress MLA and a protege of late Congress leader Jitendra Prasada to vacate his Haidargarh, Barabanki seat for the then BJP chief minister Rajnath Singh. Singh’s office declined to comment.
The BJP leader quoted earlier said everyone was “surprised” at the extent of Roy’s influence. When Vajpayee formed his first government in Delhi, one that lasted for 13 days, Roy had invited Vajpayee and Rajnath Singh for dinner. But Kalyan Singh wasn’t invited. Kalyan Singh and Roy never did get along, BJP leaders said. Singh himself had told ET on an earlier ocassion: “Roy was a friend to many. Many went to his house. Bas main nahin gaya (only I was the exception”. Yogi Adityanath, BJP MP from Gorakhpur, where
Roy first started out, says while the Shara chief is friendly with several politicians his influence on BJP should not be overestimated.
“So what if he lent his planes to ferry BJP MLAs. Iska yeh matlab nahin ki unke karan Kalyan Singhji ki sarkar bachi (so what if he lent his plane for BJP MLAs, that doesn’t mean the Kalyan Singh government was saved by him,” Adityanath said. But the Gorakhpur MP has good words for Roy as well: “He has created a good cooperative system and he has contributed to the development in the state. This cannot be ignored”.
The last big Subarata Roy party, before his legal troubles took hold, was in 2013, and UP political leaders say among prominent attendees were Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Sheila Dikshit, Pratibha Patil, Meira Kumar, Digvijaya Singh and Farooq Abdullah. ET couldn’t independently verify the guest list.
Sahara Shri, Netaji & Behenji
UP’s political insiders say Roy’s advice was critical when, in 1999, Mulayam backed off from supporting Sonia Gandhi; the latter had famously declared she had 272 MPs to topple the Vajpayee-led BJP coalition government. Roy had also subsequently said her “foreign origins” meant Sonia Gandhi shouldn’t be prime minister.
A person close to Roy says “there was nothing personal in that point of view”. “Dhirubhai Ambani had the same view…it’s just that he didn’t publicly articulate it,” this person said.
The Gandhi-Roy frostiness never affected the SPRoy relationship. It’s not just that Sahara’s business gew fast when Mulayam was chief minister in the 2002-2007 period. Or that Roy was part of Mulayam’s victory procession in 2002. Or that when SP under Akhilesh Yadav won UP in 2012, there was a Sahara party as well; although, say SP insiders, the son kept his distance from Roy.
Roy and Mulayam have deep connections, an SP leader said, and much of this at one time played out through Amar Singh, who was close to both.
Singh, who left SP and is back now, and Roy had a fallout, people who know them both say. Amar Singh felt Roy had created a distance. He told ET: “While Subrata Roy was shining in absolute glory, at that point there was no hatred. He initiated the calculated distance and I respected it.” He added: “To say that Roy was particularly close to SP is a misconception. He is close to everyone”.
That’s not quite true. The exception is Mayawati. “The only other politician to have kept away from Roy besides the Gandhis is Mayawati,” says a BJP leader. As CM, Mayawati demolished a part of the 270 acre Sahara Sahar in the middle of Lucknow.
The company went to court and got a stay order. “The demolition was symbolic and was a message that Sahara, considered by many as the most powerful business house in UP, was not untouchable,” says a SP leader.
And last month, the BSP chief made the officer who led the demolition drive, Ram Bahadur, its party candidate from Mohanlalganj for the 2017 assembly elections.
That’s another very Subrata Roy like twist in UP’s ferociously fractious politics. UP watchers who know Roy and the state’s politics say he may keep a low profile, but he shouldn’t be thought as irrelevant.
More small, quiet dinners are more than likely.