A Hotel’s tAle
SO IT looks like the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi may go up for auction and may even cease to be a Taj Hotel if somebody else makes a higher bid. That, at least, is what the Delhi High Court ruled a fortnight ago. Now, we shall have to see what the Supreme Court says. It’s funny, and more than a little ironical, that it has come to this. Because the story of the Delhi Taj encapsulates the saga of how Indian business struggled – and then triumphed – in the 20th Century. Nobody, not even most people at the Taj these days, seems to remember the story. So let me tell it as I remember it from my conversations with the principal characters.
Kerkar spent a long time cultivating Singh and eventually persuaded him to sell Indian Hotels the lease to the property in perpetuity. (All Singh had was a lease anyway; this was true of many properties in Delhi after the Partition.) The moment he had the signed lease, Kerkar planned the demolition of the old Fonseca’s.
By then, alarm bells had gone off. The Oberoi lobby had approached SN Singh just as he was concluding his negotiation with Kerkar and asked him to give it to the Oberois and to name his price. But Singh honoured his commitment to the Taj.
Next, the problems with the government began. Kerkar heard that municipal inspectors intended to come in and seize the property. There were rumours that goondas would be used to get the plot vacated. Kerkar sealed the outer perimeter of the property and organised 24hour security.
But no construction could begin because municipal officials told Indian Hotels that the proposed hotel would be an illegal structure. So, for several days, the stalemate continued. The betting was that Indian Hotels and Kerkar would sell their lease and get the hell out of town. This was 1976, the period of the Emergency, after all, and normal legal recourses were not available.
Then, help arrived in the unlikely form of Rukhsana Sultan who ran a jewellery shop at Goa’s Fort Aguada, a Taj Hotel. She told Kerkar that she had heard that the Delhi project was going to be abandoned. Kerkar responded that, yes, there was a problem.
Don’t worry, Rukhsana told him. I know just the man to sort out your problem.
Rukhsana was close to the Emergency regime and to Sanjay Gandhi, in particular. And she arranged a 10-minute meeting with Sanjay for Kerkar.
Kerkar remembers that when he walked into the lounge where Sanjay held court, the “youth leader” was hostile. But Kerkar managed to persuade Sanjay that the Taj had a full legal right to the plot and that the municipal authorities were acting illegally.
To his surprise, not only did Sanjay listen but he got excited about the project. “Delhi needs a good deluxe hotel like