Delhi police seize gangster politician

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A POLITICAL fixer and former ally of the Nehru-Gandhi family who recently launched a rival Congress party has been detained by police in Delhi charged with criminal intimidation, kidnapping, cheating and amassing wealth disproportionate to his income. He is also under investigation for possessing arms, tiger and leopard skins, and for income tax and excise offences.

Romesh Sharma, whose first job was selling coat hangers in a Delhi street market, is today said to be worth pounds 350m - most of it allegedly property he has stolen or defrauded. Earlier this year he launched his own political party.

Mr Sharma is said to represent the latest stage in the development of links between crime and Indian politics. First criminals sought the patronage of politicians. Next they struck up partnerships. And now it is the criminal who calls the tune. Rajeev Dhawan, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court, says: "Today the goondas [gangsters] want to take over politics themselves."

He is said to be close to high-ranking politicians, including three former prime ministers. He is also said to be the right hand man of a notorious Bombay mafia boss, Dawood Ibrahim, who operates out of Dubai and Karachi. According to reports, Mr Sharma was given the task of expanding Mr Ibrahim's criminal empire to the Indian capital.

Mr Sharma has 15 cars, including three Mercedes Benzes, and has a number of grand homes in the most desirable areas of Delhi and Bombay. The joint commissioner of police in Delhi, Amod Kanth, said: "As Romesh Sharma is neither an industrialist or businessman nor had any ancestral property, his wealth seems to have been acquired dubiously."

A police raid on Mr Sharma's premises in 1989 did not result in charges. He has prospered in the grey area between politics and the criminal underworld. He avoided arrest, it appears, by exploiting the dependency of Indian politicians of most parties on tainted money, and the ability of the same politicians, once in his debt, to prevent the police from pursuing complaints.

Mr Sharma's allegedly close links to Mr Ibrahim is said to be the key to his success. He would borrow a large property, such as the villa in Delhi where he was arrested on 20 October, and when the owner tried to take it back he would refuse to relinquish it, and forge documents to prove he had bought it. Knowledge of his links with Mr Ibrahim, and rumours of his predilection for kidnapping, beating and blackmailing people who crossed him, were normally enough to silence those he robbed.

In 1996, Mr Sharma stood as an independent candidate in the general election, and hired a helicopter for the campaign. He lost his deposit and subsequently refused to return the machine. When the leasing company tried to repossess it, its commercial director, H Suresh Rao, and other employees were held captive and beaten up. But Mr Rao refused to give up, and it was his persistence that led to Mr Sharma's arrest.

Since then, the India media has been full of allegations about Mr Sharma, but very few of his alleged associates have been named. Many powerful people are still sufficiently in awe of him to keep silent.