x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Tycoon's murder like thriller plot featuring contract killers, guru and land dispute

The murder of Deepak Bhardwaj was dramatic in itself but with each new disclosure, it seems more like the plot for a thriller. Samanth Subramanian reports from New Delhi

Purushottam Rana, Amit and Sunil Mann, who are accused in the Deepak Bhardwaj murder case, are led to court in New Delhi.
Purushottam Rana, Amit and Sunil Mann, who are accused in the Deepak Bhardwaj murder case, are led to court in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI // The murder of Deepak Bhardwaj, a politician and real-estate tycoon, was dramatic in itself, as gunmen shot and killed him in his farmhouse on the outskirts of south Delhi.

But with each new disclosure from police investigating the case, his death seems more and more like the plot for a thriller, featuring contract killers, a self-styled spiritual guru and land deals reaching high into India's corridors of power.

Bhardwaj was shot on March 26 by two men who arrived at the farmhouse in a car.

Security-camera footage released by the police showed one of the men opening the gate for the getaway while the other kept onlookers at bay with a pistol.

The men accused of the killing, Purushottam Rana and Sunil Mann, were arrested five days later as they travelled to a Delhi court, where they planned to turn themselves in to police. A third man, identified only as Amit, is accused of driving the getaway car and has also been arrested.

On Tuesday, a police spokesman said that under questioning, Mr Rana and Mr Mann revealed the chain of command behind the murder.

Among those said to have been implicated, according to police sources quoted in news reports, was Swami Pratimanand, a guru, or "godman", who runs ashrams in the temple towns of Mathura and Haridwar.

He has yet to be located, according to police.

Mr Rana, who once worked as a chauffeur for the swami, told the police that the contract to kill Bhardwaj, a politician from the Bahujan Samaj Party, was worth between 5 million and 10 million rupees (Dh337,000 - Dh675,000).

"We believe there are at least 10 people involved in the entire conspiracy, with this godman being the closest link to the main conspirator," an unnamed police source told the Hindustan Times.

Some reports have claimed that the swami and Bhardwaj were embroiled in a land dispute, but no further details have been given.

Mr Bhardwaj, a business graduate and former government clerk, began to invest in property in the mid-1980s.

But his fortunes really soared when Delhi's airport underwent an expansion in the 1990s.

He owned much of the land surrounding the airport and sold it to the government at lucrative prices.

After that, he diversified into the hotel industry, and set up schools.

In 2009, he ran unsuccessfully for parliament.

As required under Indian campaign laws, he declared assets of six billion rupees that year, making him the wealthiest candidate in the elections.

During the campaign, he called his wealth a "non-issue. But given his meteoric rise, it was no surprise that Bhardwaj had critics, as well as enemies.

To Sanjay Sharma, the managing director of Qubrex, a property firm, Bhardwaj's career exemplified a corrupt intermingling of politics and real estate in India.

"All of these guys unfortunately have an unruly reputation, because to survive in the real-estate business, you have to be able to pull levers and step on some toes," he said yesterday.

The property industry in India is so dependent on government approvals and licenses that political clout was needed "to get things done," said Mr Sharma.

"If you aren't a politician yourself, you have to buy politicians and their connections," he added.

Estate agents and contractors such Bhardwaj drive politics to an alarming degree in India, said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president of the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank in Delhi.

"The government of India is a government of contractors, by contractors, for contractors," he wrote on Tuesday in The Indian Express newspaper. The nature of the business contributed to corruption by building a patronage system into contracts, he added.

Last November, Gurdeep "Ponty" Chadha, another property baron, came to a gruesome end in his south Delhi farmhouse, when he and his brother killed each other in a shootout.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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