Opposition attack

In the line of fire

Print edition : July 10, 2015

Youth Congress wearing masks of Lalit Modi and Sushma Swaraj at a protest in New Delhi on June 17. Photo: MANVENDRA VASHIST/PTI

Congress workers protesting against Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje's involvement in the Lalit Modi controversy, in Bikaner on June 19. Photo: PTI

Opposition parties demand the resignation of Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje and an explanation from the Prime Minister on “Modi-gate”.

AS THE UNION MINISTRY of AYUSH's advertisements bearing the Narendra Modi government’s call to make the International Yoga Day (June 21) a success flood the electronic and print media, social media sites, and mobile phones, the conspicuous silence of the otherwise Twitter-happy Prime Minister on the opposition’s demand for the resignation of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje for helping the scam-tainted former Indian Premier League (IPL) commissioner Lalit Modi obtain travel documents from the United Kingdom is striking.

While Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters are flummoxed by his uncharacteristic reticence in coming to the defence of the two senior party leaders, the opposition parties are demanding that the Prime Minister come clean on the visa controversy and come out of his “political vipassana” (meditation).

That the two BJP leaders helped a person charged with the violation of the provisions of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) has provided grist to the opposition’s mill, especially since the BJP, with Narendra Modi as it mascot, secured a landslide victory in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 on the promise of providing an honest and efficient government and bringing back black money stashed away abroad. In the past one year, opposition parties have been protesting against the anti-poor and sectarian policies of the Modi government. But never before has the BJP looked so weary and defensive as it is now over the charges of nepotism and favouritism against Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje. For a government that is used to taking orders directly from the Prime Minister’s Office, this episode seems to be the first major blemish in its record.

The opposition parties are united in their demand for the resignation of the two leaders and a probe to determine if Narendra Modi himself helped smooth the way for Lalit Modi.

The larger issue, opposition leaders point out, is one of impropriety and misuse of office by the Union government and the Rajasthan government, both ruled by the BJP. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi dubbed the scandal “Modi-gate”. Randeep Surjewala, a Congress legislator from Haryana, said: “It is now established that Sushma Swaraj was helping a fugitive of law, a person against whom the Directorate of Enforcement has issued a light blue-corner notice or a lookout circular for money laundering, for FEMA violations and other similar offences to the tune of Rs.700 crore.”

The Congress is leading the opposition diatribe against the two BJP women leaders. Congress supporters burnt the effigies of the two and organised protest rallies across the country. The Janata Parivar and the Left parties demanded the resignation of the two leaders for using their office to cushion Lalit Modi’s situation in London. A statement issued by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said the External Affairs Minister’s intervention to “inappropriately” facilitate the travel of a person facing serious criminal charges connected with the IPL betting controversy was “unacceptable”.

The statement added: “In the background of the loud campaigns made on completion of the first year of this BJP government, the Prime Minister must redeem the assertions that he has made to the Indian people on the grounds that his government is ‘corruption free’ and ‘accountable’. The accountability of the Prime Minister and the government on this score can be enforced only when the Prime Minister, whose prerogative it is under our constitutional scheme of things to decide on the composition of the Union Cabinet, announces the necessary action on this score. There must be a thorough enquiry into all the allegations that have surfaced regarding this affair and consequent punishment under the law must be taken promptly against all concerned.”

Caught in a constitutional crisis with the Union government, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) lapped up the moment to put the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in the dock. Using the opportunity to target the BJP, which the AAP blames for the crisis facing the Delhi government, party spokesperson Ashutosh told the media: “I want to warn the BJP and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] that they should not try to redefine nationalism and patriotism because whatever Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje have done is against the rule of law and anybody who breaks the law of the country or helps such individuals cannot claim to be a nationalist or a patriot…. It is an act which cannot be and should not be defended. It is high time that they realised their mistakes, took action against them and proved to the world that they believed in the Constitution and the rule of law.”

Similarly, Ashish Khetan of the AAP took potshots at the BJP’s election promises in his Twitter post: “It’s clear, this Govt only brought achhe din [good days] for legal offenders and people who stock black money.”

‘Not a matter of moral ground’

The NDA government’s defence is twofold, one at the State level and the other at the Central level. On the allegations against Sushma Swaraj, top leaders of the BJP, including its president Amit Shah, have said that there are no moral dilemmas involved in what Sushma Swaraj did for Lalit Modi. It was her “humanitarian concern” to enable Lalit Modi to reach his ailing wife in Portugal that made Sushma Swaraj help him secure his travel documents, they said. Amit Shah told the media: “I cannot understand why such a big controversy is being created. This is not a matter of moral ground. This is not similar to [Bofors scandal accused Ottavio] Quattrocchi or [former Union Carbide Corporation chief executive officer Warren] Anderson being allowed to escape from India.” The explanation advanced by the BJP suggests that the party quietly acknowledges a case of impropriety in the actions of Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje.

The BJP’s Central leaders have not reacted to the accusations against Vasundhara Raje. It is the Rajasthan State leaders who are defending her. Unlike Sushma Swaraj who took to Twitter to defend her position, the Chief Minister is silent on the issue. State BJP leaders pointed out that the families of Vasundhara Raje and Lalit Modi had known each other for the past 30 years. They denied the crucial accusation that the Chief Minister signed a “witness statement” for Lalit Modi’s travel and that she travelled with his wife to Portugal, for which photographic evidence has emerged. The allegations against both leaders are that they used extra-legislative powers to facilitate Lalit Modi’s travel to Portugal at a time when his passport was revoked by the Indian authorities in connection with a corruption case. The travel documents allowed Lalit Modi to travel not only to Portugal but across the world.

The Rajasthan Congress, under the leadership of former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former Union Minister C.P. Joshi, has mounted a campaign against Vasundhara Raje. Joshi said: “If their intentions were only humanitarian considerations [pushing for travel documents in the case of Sushma Swaraj and accompanying Lalit Modi’s wife to Portugal for her cancer treatment in 2012 and 2013 in the case of Vasundhara Raje], they should have informed the High Commission.”

The opposition is methodically countering each and every defence put forth by the BJP. Nilotpal Basu of the CPI(M) told Frontline: “The claim of humanitarian ground is rubbish. Under Portuguese law, Modi was not required to sign consent papers for his wife’s surgery, for which Sushma Swaraj seemingly requested the British officials to allow his travel. It is a clear case of conflict of interest as Sushma Swaraj’s husband and daughter were Lalit Modi’s lawyers for a long time. Let alone bringing back the black money to India as promised, the Prime Minister should ensure that black marketeers like Lalit Modi are brought back to India for punishment. It is a clear case of corruption. The leaders in question cannot act like private persons. There is no ground for both these leaders to continue in their official positions.”

The opposition thinks this is a clear case of crony capitalism.

P.C. Chacko of the Congress told Frontline: “It is a well-known fact that the families of both Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje had business links with Lalit Modi. The BJP stands exposed now for its efforts to protect a person who has 16 economic offence cases registered against him. The Congress at least can say that two of its leaders, Madhavsinh Solanki and Natwar Singh, resigned and quit politics when allegations surfaced against them. The BJP will set a wrong precedent if the two leaders do not resign. It is not merely a political issue. It is a question of propriety in public life. We have decided to agitate both inside and outside Parliament until these two leaders resign.”

The opposition parties are raring to step up their agitation. They have warned the government that they would disrupt parliamentary proceedings in the forthcoming monsoon session if the two leaders did not resign.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decidedly bailed himself out of a situation where he may have to defend the indefensible. Political experts feel that as the head of the government, it is his constitutional duty to provide an explanation. However, any explanation may go against his systematically cultivated image of a clean politician. It remains to be seen whether he will sacrifice himself or his two significant colleagues in the process.

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