BJP's fault lines

Divided family

Print edition : July 10, 2015

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's remark on Lalit Modi's culpability has not helped Sushma Swaraj. Here, Jaitley Home Minister and former party chief Rajnath Singh, who has come out in the External Affairs Minister's support. Photo: Kamal Kishore

L.K. Advani's comments in a newspaper interview point to tensions within the BJP. Here, Advani with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a BJP Parliamentary Board meeting in New Delhi in May. Photo: PTI

Amit Shah. The BJP president has come out in suport of Sushma Swaraj. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

RSS leader Indresh Kumar. He has defended Sushma Swaraj, citing her "nationalism" and "humane nature". Photo: PTI

Kirti Azad, BJP MP from Darbhanga, Bihar. He has said Jaitley has been making trouble for the Modi government. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Shatrughan Sinha, BJP MP, has also come out in Sushma Swaraj's support but without attacking Jaitley. Photo: PTI

The controversy surrounding Sushma Swaraj points to intensifying battles within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

FROM BEING a possible prime ministerial candidate to being a Minister accused of helping a man accused of illegalities, Sushma Swaraj’s fall from grace has been phenomenal. But the trouble in which she finds herself today has its genesis primarily in her old rivalry with Arun Jaitley, the Finance Minister. The controversy points to a riveting game of intrigue and conspiracy in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Sushma Swaraj had been described as the mentor of the powerful Bellary Reddy brothers, G. Karunakara Reddy, G. Janardhana Reddy and G. Somasekhara Reddy. All three were part of B.S. Yeddyurappa’s BJP government in Karnataka and were charged with serious irregularities in mining activities in Bellary, northern Karnataka. (Janardhana Reddy was Minister of Tourism, Karunakara Reddy was Minister of Revenue and Somasekhara Reddy was Chairman, Karnataka Milk Federation. B. Sriramulu, a close aide of the Reddy brothers, was Minister of Health and Family Welfare.) Sushma Swaraj, however, claimed that she had nothing to do with the Reddy brothers and it was Jaitley who, as the party leader in charge of Karnataka, had promoted them and even got them into the State Cabinet. She had said that she merely knew the Reddy brothers as she contested the 1999 Lok Sabha election from Bellary against Sonia Gandhi. She said, too, that senior leaders from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, like M. Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar, should be asked about the activities of the Reddy brothers.

That was the start of the friction. At one point, both Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj were in the race for the party chief’s post after Rajnath Singh’s first term as BJP president got over in 2009, but it went to Nitin Gadkari. Sushma Swaraj was known to be the protegee of L.K Advani. She became the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha in 2009 and her good oratorical skills helped her in becoming an efficient parliamentarian. She was widely seen as a possible choice as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the event of Advani not being projected as such in 2014. However, things turned out differently. Once the number one slot was no longer vacant, the fight for the number two slot began. Party insiders say that the present situation is a fallout of that fight.

Sushma Swaraj was known to be staunchly opposed to the projection of Narendra Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate and was known to be sulking after his name was announced. But Modi managed to assuage her feelings and subsequently gave her the coveted External Affairs Ministry. It was another matter that he hogged all the limelight in his high-profile foreign visits. Sushma Swaraj, however, did not complain and busied herself in doing whatever she could. She kept away from the media and controversies and in the process earned accolades from all quarters, including the Prime Minister, to the chagrin of her detractors.

And then the Lalit Modi controversy hit her. BJP insiders say that Jaitley may have had a hand in raking up a matter that is almost a year old. The charges against Lalit Modi are being investigated by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, which comes under the Ministry of Finance. Though the party and the government rallied around Sushma Swaraj as soon as the Lalit Modi issue hit the headlines, the Finance Ministry headed by Jaitley remained silent. That fuelled speculation because Lalit Modi’s case was related directly to the Finance Ministry. When Jaitley did come out, it was to confirm that Lalit Modi indeed faced charges on 16 counts of corruption and that had he been in India he would have been behind bars. He took another indirect swipe at Sushma Swaraj by saying that when the Delhi High Court ordered restoration of Lalit Modi’s passport, it was the responsibility of the Ministry of External Affairs to move an appeal but it did not do so.

The fault lines were clear by now. Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who also has reasons to be upset with Jaitley, was categorical in his support for Sushma Swaraj. “We want to make it clear that whatever she has done is right. A person with humanitarian perspective should take the same steps. We justify it and the government completely stands by her,” Rajnath Singh told reporters after a meeting with the Prime Minister. He also trashed the opposition demand for her resignation.

BJP president Amit Shah also declared the party’s support for her. “Sushmaji has already made her stand clear via Twitter. The matter is clear. An Indian national had asked Sushmaji for her help so that his wife could undergo treatment. Sushmaji talked to a British MP to request that the national be helped if Britain’s rules permitted the same. I cannot understand why such a big controversy is being created. This is not a matter of moral ground. This is not similar to Quattrocchi or Anderson being allowed to escape India,” Amit Shah told the media.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) also supported Sushma Swaraj. RSS leader Indresh Kumar said: “Sushmaji is full of nationalism and humane nature. Whatever she might have done would be guided by nationalism and humane nature.”

Known Jaitley-baiters in the BJP, such as Shatrughan Sinha and Rajiv Pratap Rudy, were also prompt in defending Sushma Swaraj but without naming Jaitley. But the Lok Sabha member from Darbhanga, in Bihar, Kirti Azad, tweeted that the controversy was fuelled by an “ asteen ka saap” and added that people should guess who this was. Talking to Frontline later, he confirmed that he was indeed referring to Jaitley. He added: “But why should I take his name? People know who I am talking about. The media are doing it on my behalf.” On being asked how he was so sure about this, he said there was a pattern in most of the recent controversies that had plagued the government. “He [Jaitley] is the one who is creating all these problems for the Prime Minister who is working so hard to make this government perform as per people’s expectations. The moment he spots somebody else rising in the hierarchy, he becomes insecure and his dirty tricks department becomes active. First it was Gadkari, then Rajnath Singh and now Sushma,” he told Frontline over phone from Darbhanga. He was referring to the recent controversies involving Poorti Industries in which Nitin Gadkari is a stakeholder and to reports about the Prime Minister having warned Rajnath Singh about his son Pankaj’s activities.

Azad has his own axe to grind against Jaitley over conflicting interests in the Delhi District Cricket Association (DDCA). Talking to Frontline, he wondered why, if taking IPL money outside India was such a big crime and Lalit Modi had to be penalised for it, and why the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) members who gave permission for the IPL to be taken to South Africa in 2009 were not questioned. The committee that allowed it included Jaitley, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, and Congress leader Rajiv Shukla. “How come his [Jaitley’s] role and theirs have not been probed so far,” he said, adding: “And you can quote me on this.” Rajya Sabha member Tarun Vijay also tweeted in support of Sushma Swaraj, saying he stood by her against the cartel of hate and falsehoods.

Making matters worse, Advani, who had been quiet for some time but was known to be disgruntled, said in an interview to The Indian Express in the context of the 40th anniversary of the Emergency that he was not sure whether safeguards had been taken to ensure that a state of emergency would not be imposed again. “I don’t think anything has been done that gives me the assurance that civil liberties will not be suspended or destroyed again. Not at all,” he said. He did not mention the present BJP leadership, but his statements were eloquent enough. “I do not see any sign in our polity that assures me, any outstanding aspect of leadership. A commitment to democracy and to all other aspects related to democracy is lacking,” he said.

The veteran leader has increasingly been sidelined in party affairs and dumped in the Margdarshak Mandal which is doing little by way of margdarshan (guidance). In the context of the Sushma controversy, his statements take on a totally different dimension.

Armed with all support from the party and the Prime Minister’s silence, Sushma Swaraj may tide over the crisis. But political observers note that the impropriety of her action has caused her to lose sheen. The Prime Minister’s silence on this issue may indicate that Sushma Swaraj has survived, but survival comes with a huge loss of stature.