He is the BJP’s new Pramod Mahajan. He is also its Ashokrao Chavan, entangled as he is in the Adarsh Housing Society scam
The Adarsh Housing Society scandal claimed its first victim as soon as Barack Obama left Indian soil. Just an hour before the winter session of Parliament began, the Congress decided to let Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashokrao Chavan’s head roll. By replacing him with Prithviraj Chavan, the party hopes to deflect at least some of the heat it must face on corruption. But it isn’t just Congressmen who the scam has left hot under the collars.
Equally sweaty ought to be Ajay Shaktikumar Sancheti, a 45-year-old industrialist who is a close confidant of BJP President Nitin Gadkari and a member of the party’s National Executive Committee. A well known name in central India’s business and political circles, Sancheti shot into the national media glare a fortnight ago for reportedly brokering a deal between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) that helped install Arjun Munda as Chief Minister of Jharkhand.
On being contacted by Open via telephone, Ajay Sancheti neither denies nor confirms his role in Munda’s elevation, though his laughter sounds like that of a man pleased with his efforts. “I am not such a big man the media gives me credit for,” he says, adding that since his father’s demise in July he has had to attend to family matters. “My mother is ill and she is a priority,” he says, promising to answer other questions later.
There is much to answer. Sancheti had also applied for a flat in the scam-tainted Adarsh apartment building in Mumbai, and though he himself did not make it to the list of allottees, his driver Sudhakar Laxman Madhke did; the man is believed to be Sancheti’s proxy, and his nephew too is an allottee.
Loyalty, to Sancheti, is an article of faith. Born to a Nagpur family with close RSS ties, his life has been suffused with saffron politics since childhood. Nagpur is also the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s overseer of sorts, and the Sancheti household has played host to many a saffron leader down the years.
Today, Sancheti lives in a well laid out bungalow in Nagpur’s posh Dharampeth area that is equipped with the latest in electronic gadgetry. A regular party-goer, his network of friends could give Mumbai socialites a complex—if not with its expansive sprawl then with the glamour of some faces on his Facebook page on the internet. By all accounts, Ajay Sancheti is not a shy man. Well acquainted with the flashbulbs of photographers, he is a regular fixture on Page 3. His wife, who he married in 1989, is an equally keen networker.
Speak to some who know Ajay, and they say that he is actually a financial wizard. A commerce graduate from Nagpur’s GS College of Commerce and Economics, he has been the prime mover of a string of deft deals done by SMS Infrastructure Ltd, his family firm. ‘Besides having deep knowledge of coal fields, he is very much fond of having extensive contacts with authorities who recognise his versatile knowledge and sincere desire to cooperate with all those who may come in contact with him…’ goes his profile on his company website. Accordingly, he travels frequently between Mumbai and Delhi in his role as liaison man between businessmen and politicians, say others who have studied the finer aspects of his wizardry.
“Everyone knows about his closeness to politicians. First, he needed them as a stepping stone, now they need him,” says a source. Ever since the Jharkhand deal, though, people close to him have clamped up. No one wants to be on the wrong side of a man who can rustle up crores in campaign funding at the drop of a black cap, a man said to be assuming the stature of the late Pramod Mahajan within the BJP. Not that he wears his ambitions on his sleeve. He is much too savvy for that. “He is a go-getter and will stop at nothing to get what he wants,” says a source who has known him for years, “Ajay is a good friend to have.”
Swarms of people agree. His father Shaktikumar’s funeral was attended by political workers even from the lowest rungs of party hierarchies (and not just the BJP’s). Some of it is old-fashioned loyalty, of course. Ajay’s grandparents were dedicated RSS workers in their hometown of Malkapur in Buldhana district of Maharashtra. His father took after them, and Ajay imbibed similar values.
So when Sancheti met Gadkari several years ago, a common ideology and shared experience of the RSS brand of social service led to a lasting bond of friendship. In 2005, once the Shiv Sena-BJP combine came to power in the state and Gadkari took charge of the Public Works Department, several infrastructure projects came Sancheti’s way. SMS Infrastructure Ltd has done work in spheres as diverse as roads, highways, mining, railways, power, irrigation and urban and rural development.
Later, once the BJP took charge at the Centre in 1998, Gadkari became chairman of the National Roads Committee, and SMS got to execute two major projects under the National Highway Authority of India. These involved the construction of flyovers, bridges and tunnels, all of which went to Gadkari’s public credit (the enviable Mumbai-Pune Expressway being the brightest feather in the BJP chief’s cap).
Sancheti’s rise in the BJP since has been swift. Senior party leaders were not too pleased to see him become a permanent member of the national executive, but his benefactor’s word was final. “The BJP’s organisational policy has shifted,” grumbles a senior party functionary
opposed to Gadkari, “Money power is here to stay.”
At the moment, SMS’s mining operations are drawing in the moolah, though how much remains unclear. The Sancheti group has been on the Income Tax Department’s watch list for some years now; according to sources, a raid on Wardhaman Cooperative Bank, on the board of which Sancheti family members serve as directors, revealed a money laundering trail—with large daily cash deposits being made and money being withdrawn quickly via demand drafts. Investigators found that the holders of these bank accounts as well as recipients of the drafts were fictitious. To their horror, taxmen found that dubious transactions to the tune of Rs 40 crore had taken place within a span of just ten months. It takes talent if not wizardry to get away with something like that—unless you have friends to count on.