Lalit Modi row: First crisis of ‘impropriety’ for Modi government?

New Delhi,Iftikhar Gilani, Amita Shah: At a time when the Modi government is focused to act on bringing back black money stashed abroad, the revelations that external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had facilitated travel papers for the former IPL commissioner Lalit Modi have overshadowed BJP’s claims of a taint-free rule since it assumed office a year ago.

Lalit Modi is wanted by the Enforcement Directorate in various cases of financial irregularities as well as illegal transfer of money. Even as in a big relief to Swaraj both the government as well as the ruling BJP decided to back her, rejecting any demand for her resignation, political analysts believe an issue of impropriety has hit the Modi government.

Soon after a British newspaper claimed that Keith Vaz, one of Britain’s longest-serving Indian-origin MPs, used her name to pressure Britain’s top immigration official to grant travel papers to Lalit Modi, she had a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Ironically, the former IPL commissioner is wanted in several cases of financial irregularities being probed by the ED, functioning under the ministry of finance headed by Arun Jaitley. The ED has issued a blue corner notice, meaning that Interpol or law enforcement agencies around the world have to assist in locating, identifying or obtaining information about Lalit Modi wanted in a criminal investigation.

Though, it was not known what transpired in the conversation, but it was soon followed by Swaraj’s tweets in which she defended her action. Sensing that the issue was bound to flare up as the first major crisis of credibility for the Modi government, both the BJP as well as the RSS came out defending Swaraj, saying she only acted on humanitarian grounds as Lalit Modi’s wife was suffering from cancer and was being treated in Portugal.

BJP president Amit Shah said that it was not like helping Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, accused in Bofors gun case, or Warren Anderson, chief of Union Carbide, responsible for deaths in 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy leave the country. “Sushmaji has herself clarified on Twitter. She has helped an Indian national whose wife was suffering from cancer. She said if British rules permit, then he should be helped. There is no need for creating a furore over it,” Shah said.

The party’s defence also followed a 20-minute meeting between Prime Minister Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh. Soon after the meeting, the home minister said the government was standing by Swaraj. “She did what she had to on humanitarian grounds. We think she was right, justified. Sushmaji only asked British high commissioner to do whatever Britain’s rules and regulations permitted,” he said.

Swaraj, in a series of tweets, said she helped the former IPL commissioner after he said his wife was suffering from cancer and was to undergo surgery in Portugal.”…Lalit Modi spoke to me that his wife was suffering from cancer and her surgery was fixed for 4th Aug in Portugal.

He told me that he had to be present in the hospital to sign the consent papers,” Swaraj tweeted. Ironically in April 2010, Swaraj as leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha had attacked the government on the IPL controversy insisting on setting up a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) to look into the financial irregularities.

She further said that Lalit Modi had informed her that he had applied for travel documents in London, and the UK government was prepared to give him the travel documents. But were restrained by a UPA government communication that this will spoil Indo-UK relations.

Swaraj said she “genuinely believes that in a situation such as this, giving emergency travel documents to an Indian citizen cannot and should not spoil relations between the two countries”. In May 2013, then finance minister, P Chidambaram, wrote two letters to his British counterpart chancellor of exchequer George Osborne asking him for action against Lalit Modi and demanded his repatriation to India for being tried under various offences, including FEMA violations and other violations being investigated by Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax authorities. A moth later in June, he raised this issue during bilateral talks with with the chancellor of exchequer.

Congress seeks probe

The opposition Congress has demanded Swaraj’s resignation, saying that Pawan Bansal, Ashwani Kumar and Shahsi Tharoor, all ministers in previous government were forced to leave their office when they were accused in cases of ‘lesser impropriety’.

They party also alleged a conflict of interest after reports that Swaraj’s daughter has represented Lalit Modi in Delhi high court. They asked whether Swaraj’s husband Swaraj Kaushal had provided legal counsel to Lalit Modi as well.

Court documents list Bansuri Swaraj as one of the lawyers appearing for Modi. Senior leader Digvijaya Singh said, “Shocked by allegations levelled against Sushma Swaraj. She should take moral responsibility and quit. PM Modi must intervene in the matter and order a probe.”

There were many, however, attributing Swaraj’s crisis to internal brokering within the BJP. While it is a common knowledge that Lalit Modi is close to Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, finance minister Arun Jaitley is opposed to the former IPL commissioner and he has shown his resentment in the BCCI meetings as well.