On April 27, 2015, when income tax officials descended on his residence in Greater Kailash, Sanjay Bhandari, the man at the centre of the controversy for allegedly holding Benami properties for Robert Vadra, damaged his SIM card to keep his “contacts” under wraps.
Indeed it was his “contacts” that the government agencies were after.
In 2014, after the BJP came to power, a top secret report of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) listed Bhandari as a close aide of Vadra, son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and mentioned that he was friends with the son of a former senior BJP leader.
In fact, Bhadari’s contact list was so impressive that after the I-T raids, he could send word to Prime Minister Narendra Modi through two influential people to explore possibility of immunity in exchange of information. However, his request received a cold response and he went into a shell, deserted by his powerful friends, including cabinet ministers, senior intelligence officials, industrialists, senior judicial functionaries and power brokers.
Before entering the defence industry, Bhandari looked after his father’s homeopathic clinics in Connaught Place. He studied at Modern School and inherited a number of ambitious friends and tasted success early in life. In his 40s, he had money, well-connected friends and a dream. He first dabbled in the oil and natural gas industry in 2002-07, when there was a lot of interest in the sector.
Things, however, changed in 2008. Bhandari was introduced to Delhi’s elite power circle by a property dealer in Defence Colony, and he made his debut in defence. He roped in his friend, Bimal Sareen, a known figure in the industry. In January 2010, he booked a stall at the defence expo in Pragati Maidan, but failed to attract interest.
Though he had little to offer, Swiss firm Pilatus decided to engage Bhandari’s Offset India Solutions (OIS) and in 2012 Pilatus won a Rs 4,000 crore basic trainer for an aircraft contract. Though OIS was not officially with Pilatus, there are no secrets in the murky world of defence.
The corridors of South Block began to echo his name. That year, Bhandari got a bigger spot, possibly the best, at the expo and caught everyone’s attention, including that of defence correspondents who are always on the lookout for new players in the sector.
Ever since Bhandari first left his mark at the expo, he was widely rumoured to have the blessings of Vadra. It was also at this time that he began to make enemies.
He bid aggressively for defence contracts, and also took a leaf out of corrupt contractors’ books and started filing complaints against his competitors in a bid to scuttle their chances. This, of course, annoyed both armed forces officials, who were desperate for quick procurement, and other defence contractors. Nonetheless, he became known as the go-to guy in defence.
A Hindustan Times report published earlier this month established that even before the trials for Basic Trainer Aircrafts (BTA) in September-October 2010, Bhandari received one million Swiss francs from Pilatus. It was also revealed that OIS was not listed as an offshore provider of the firm in documents filed with the Indian Air Force. The report revealed unexplained payments to tune of Rs 69 crore his companies received.
It was only by chance that the I-T department landed on this case, which has now snowballed into a political controversy of mammoth proportions. The Rs 69 crore Bhandari’s seven companies received came from a known Hawala operator, Deepak Aggarwal, who being scrutinised in a separate case involving funding to the Aam Aadmi Party.
This led them to Bhandari, whose phones were tapped. Bhandari was led to believe it was routine scrutiny. The I-T survey report, a secret document, and sensitive defence ministry documents related to acquisitions were later recovered in his possession during raids.
By virtue of being a security service provider, Bhandari knew the nuances of keeping secrets — he routinely erased his hard drives, snooped on his staff and installed high-level security applications. Despite such extraordinary precautions, an email trail connecting him to Vadra was revealed.
The IB despatched a report alerting the PMO about the significance of the development and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) was ordered to swing into action. For any effective action, the ED would need a cognisable offence and it is waiting for the I-T department to register a case under the newly enacted Black Money Act.
The battle is now political.