Sui­cide Pol­i­tics Claims Min­is­ter

Con­tro­versy over the death of his em­ployee Geetika Sharma grounds high- flier Gopal Kanda

India Today - - INSIDE - By Asit Jolly and Devesh Ku­mar

Con­tro­versy over the death of his em­ployee Geetika Sharma grounds high- flier Gopal Kanda.

Haryana’s flam­boy­ant and wealthy home min­is­ter was spend­ing a quiet Sun­day morn­ing on Au­gust 5 at his pala­tial home in Sirsa, when the news hit him. Geetika Sharma, 23, the airhost­ess he had most favoured and pam­pered, had com­mit­ted sui­cide.

Gopal Goyal Kanda, 46, re­lived his worst night­mare as TV chan­nels ran sto­ries that Delhi Po­lice had charged him with driv­ing the young woman to her death. Geetika, who flew with Kanda’s now de­funct MDLR ( Murli Dhar Lakh Ram) Air­lines, hung her­self from a ceil­ing fan at her fa­ther’s Ashok Vi­har house, leav­ing a two- page sui­cide note in­dict­ing Kanda and his aide Aruna Chadha, who was ar­rested on Au­gust 8.

Kanda’s spec­tac­u­lar suc­cess in busi­ness and pol­i­tics is enough to give fel­low Haryan­vis a bout of ver­tigo. Son of re­spected Sirsa lawyer Murlid­har Lakhram, he dropped out of school to start Glo­ri­ous Shoes, a small footwear shop in Sirsa’s His­aria Bazar. Old ac­quain­tances say he would of­ten dream of pro­gress­ing “from ped­dling hawaai chap­pals to fly­ing hawai ja­haz”.

And that is pre­cisely what he went on to do. In March 2007, he launched In­dia’s first “pure veg­e­tar­ian” air­line, MDLR. The ven­ture, amid spi­ralling op­er­a­tional costs, sur­vived less than three years, but put Kanda in touch with the vi­va­cious Geetika Sharma, who was still in her teens when she landed her first job as an airhost­ess.

The failed air­line was no more than a blip in the min­is­ter’s Mi­das- like touch. Kanda is chair­man and manag­ing di­rec­tor of the MDLR Group, which owns Gur­gaon’s Park Plaza Ho­tel, the Rs 30crore Casino Rio in Goa, the MDLR Globe mul­ti­plex- cum- shop­ping mall and Hong Kong Bazar, a Rs 60- crore com­mer­cial space spread over a lakh sq ft, both in Gur­gaon. Fu­ture projects listed on the com­pany’s web­site in­clude three forth­com­ing ho­tels at Mane­sar and Gur­gaon, and a high- end hous­ing ven­ture off Palam Vi­har.

Dur­ing his ini­tial years in Gur­gaon, a civil ser­vant who then headed HUDA, Haryana’s ur­ban de­vel­op­ment author­ity, re­port­edly fa­cil­i­tated Kanda’s suc­cesses as a re­al­tor. His for­tunes spi­ralled with the town­ship’s emer­gence as In­dia’s fastest grow­ing ur­ban cen­tre be­tween the late 1990s and the mid- 2000s. “In 2001, a year af­ter leav­ing Sirsa, he drove home in a Merc,” re­calls Suresh Goyal, a neigh­bour.

In 2000, in a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion from busi­ness to pol­i­tics, he teamed up with child­hood friend Ab­hay Singh Chau­tala, younger son of then chief min­is­ter Om Prakash Chau­tala. He soon built a fear­some rep­u­ta­tion as “Billa’s

( Ab­hay) men” with brother Gobind.

De­mand­ing ac­tion against Kanda in the airhost­ess sui­cide case, Om Prakash Chau­tala, though, de­nies any con­nec­tion with the min­is­ter: “We had no per­sonal or pro­fes­sional re­la­tions with him at any stage,” claims the In­dian Na­tional Lok Dal ( INLD) pa­tri­arch.

Af­ter 2005, with the Chau­ta­las out of power, Kanda used his fi­nan­cial clout to be­friend Con­gress­men. He made a bid for the Sirsa ticket in the 2009 Assem­bly polls, when his name ini­tially fig­ured in both INLD and Congress lists. Both par­ties even­tu­ally snubbed him. Con­test­ing in­de­pen­dently, he pig­gy­backed to vic­tory on the emo­tions of his Baniya community. “Kanda spent crores and used ev­ery pos­si­ble trick to sway vot­ers,” says Padam Jain, the los­ing INLD can­di­date.

With the Congress led by Bhupin­der Singh Hooda win­ning just 40 seats in the 90- mem­ber Assem­bly, Kanda seized his chance, us­ing his cash and net­work­ing

skills to al­legedly mo­bilise sup­port of six in­de­pen­dent MLAs to firm up Hooda’s bid for chief min­is­ter­ship for the sec­ond time. But like all good busi­ness­men, he ev­i­dently took his cut, be­com­ing ju­nior min­is­ter for home af­fairs, ur­ban lo­cal bod­ies, and in­dus­tries and com­merce— all port­fo­lios key to iron­ing the pas­sage of his ven­tures in Gur­gaon- Mane­sar.

In Kanda, Hooda found some­one ca­pa­ble of tak­ing on the Chau­ta­las in their home bas­tion of Sirsa. But the strong- arm tac­tics that won him a spot in the Chief Min­is­ter’s heart, per­haps also wrecked his re­la­tion­ship with Geetika. The older daugh­ter of Di­nesh Sharma, an ac­coun­tant at the Min­istry of Fi­nance, Delhi, Geetika was hired as a ju­nior trainee cabin crew with MDLR Air­lines at the age of 17, in Oc­to­ber 2006. The charm­ing teenager, a for­mer stu­dent of Ashok Vi­har’s Ku­lachi Han­sraj Mod­ern School and freshly out of the Air Host­ess Academy, ev­i­dently caught the fancy of MDLR’S head. A smit­ten Kanda ag­gres­sively pro­moted the young woman. In four years of her ini­tial stint with MDLR, Geetika rose from the low­est rung to be­come its co­or­di­na­tor by 2009. She re­port­edly brought home an un­usu­ally gen­er­ous salary of Rs 60,000, and the use of a BMW car, say neigh­bours.

But some­thing was amiss. “There was some­thing wrong in her life. She would look fright­ened ev­ery time Goyal called,” says mother Anu­radha, adding that Geetika of­ten told her that Kanda was “not a good man”. Nei­ther par­ent could, how­ever, ex­plain why they hadn’t ob­jected when Geetika ac­com­pa­nied Kanda on many out­sta­tion trips. These, com­pany em­ploy­ees say, in­cluded sev­eral vis­its to Goa af­ter MDLR bought into a casino in 2009, and more re­cently on busi­ness trips to Sin­ga­pore. As for the fam­ily pho­tos re­leased by the Shar­mas show­ing them with the Kan­das, brother Ankit claims they were all taken un­der pres­sure.

Pur­sued to the point of harass­ment by her boss, rel­a­tives say, Geetika quit her po­si­tion at MDLR on May 22, 2010. Land­ing a job with Emi­rates Air­lines, she moved to what she hoped would be a new life in Dubai. Anu­radha has how­ever al­leged in a com­plaint to the Delhi Po­lice that Kanda sent emails to var­i­ous au­thor­i­ties, in­clud­ing those of Emi­rates Air­lines, slan­der­ing their daugh­ter till she was fired from her Dubai job. In­ves­ti­ga­tors are prob­ing al­le­ga­tions that a Gur­gaon SHO ( sta­tion house of­fi­cer) wrote to Dubai’s Depart­ment of Law seek­ing her ex­tra­di­tion. A copy of the let­ter, charg­ing Geetika with fraud, was also marked to the In­dian Con­sulate Gen­eral, says her un­cle Sushil Ku­mar.

De­spite this, Geetika headed back to her al­leged tor­men­tor on her re­turn from Dubai in Au­gust 2010, this time as a di­rec­tor at MDLR’S cor­po­rate of­fice in Gur­gaon. In April this year she even ac­cepted Kanda’s of­fer of a Rs 7.5 lakh loan to en­roll in an MBA course, while tak­ing on less de­mand­ing job as chair­man of Sirsa’s Murli Dhar Kanda In­ter­na­tional School.

Kanda de­nies any sex­ual or ro­man­tic in­ter­est in Geetika. Im­ply­ing a con­spir­acy by his ri­vals, he said on TV that the Shar­mas have been “mis­guided”. He in­sists there was noth­ing odd about ap­point­ing a 23- year- old as a di­rec­tor in his multi- crore em­pire. “I have a 19year- old daugh­ter who is also a di­rec­tor,” he says. The for­mer home min­is­ter also rejects charges that he had called or threat­ened Geetika the evening be­fore she ended her life.

With the op­po­si­tion— INLD, BJP and Haryana Jan­hit Congress— bay­ing for his blood, the for­mer min­is­ter is un­likely to find much sup­port from Chief Min­is­ter Hooda ei­ther. “He was a use­ful ally against the Chau­ta­las, but the ben­e­fits of that al­liance were long out­weighed by Kanda’s bid to un­der­mine the Congress in Sirsa,” says a Cab­i­net min­is­ter, cit­ing Kanda’s op­po­si­tion to Sirsa MP and Rahul Gandhi con­fi­dant Ashok Tan­war. For Gopal Goyal Kanda, the road ahead is likely to be a long and lonely one.

GEETIKA SHARMA

GOPALKANDA

( ABOVE) INLD WORK­ERS BURN AN EF­FIGY OF GOPALKANDA;

( BE­LOW) THE MDLR AIR­LINES OF­FICE IN GUR­GAON

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