Suicide Politics Claims Minister
Controversy over the death of his employee Geetika Sharma grounds high- flier Gopal Kanda
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.
( ABOVE) INLD WORKERS BURN AN EFFIGY OF GOPALKANDA; ( BELOW) THE MDLR AIRLINES OFFICE IN GURGAON