Cover Story

Unholy nexus

Print edition : July 10, 2015

Lalit Modi with Sushma Swaraj at an Indian Premier League match in New Delhi in 2010. Photo: PTI

Lalati Modi with Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and BCCI secretary Niranjan Shah before the start of the Indian Premier League match in Jaipur on May 17, 2008. Modi presented a cheque for Rs.6 crore towards the Chief Minister's Relief Fund on behalf of the IPL. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Sushma Swaraj and her husband Swaraj Kaushal. Photo: KAMAL SINGH/PTI

Keith Vaz, Britain's Labour Party MP whose help Sushma Swaraj sought for Lalit Modi. Photo: REUTERS

Dushyant Singh, BJP MP and Vasundhara Raje's son, whose business links with Lalit Modi are in focus. Photo: RAJEEV BHATT

Revelations of misuse of power by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje to help controversial cricket organiser Lalit Modi drags the two leaders and the “strong and united” BJP and Narendra Modi government into dire straits. The episode also brings to the fore the big leadership tussle going on in the party.

MEIN PRADHAN SEVAK HOON, pradhan trustee hoon, mai lootnay nahii doonga, is liye un logon kay burey din aaye hain.” (I am the principal servant and the principal trustee, I do not allow plunder. That is why their [the plunderers’] bad days have started).

This was the rhetorical commitment Prime Minister Narendra Modi made on May 25 at a rally organised in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, to celebrate his government’s one year in office. Placing it in line with the achhe din aane waale hain (good days are coming) slogan he raised as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate in the run-up to Lok Sabha elections in 2014, Modi said he had fulfilled the election promise of good days for everyone except those who sought to loot and plunder the country. He said his government was committed to empowering the poor and that this had resulted in preventing corruption. The speech was evaluated by a large number of his associates and followers as one that provided the much-needed political and organisational fillip, especially in the context of the open expressions of disappointment and disillusionment that had come up around the anniversary both from the public and from within the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, the ideological fountainhead of the BJP and the government it heads.

But barely a fortnight later, the very edifice of this “good, corruption-less, days are here” propaganda started to crumble following a series of developments beginning with a newspaper report emanating from London. The Sunday Times report had deep and widespread reverberations in India, giving rise to the first major and concrete crisis for the Modi government. There were several components to this crisis. To start with, it raised serious questions about the continuance in positions of power of two senior BJP leaders, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. Both of them were seen to have misused their powers to facilitate the operations of controversial cricket organiser Lalit Modi, a fugitive from due process under Indian law. It also emerged that the leaders and their family members had familial ties with Lalit Modi that led to allegations of conflict of interest and that some of them had got into questionable financial dealings with him. The emergence of these questions also unravelled other unseemly goings-on in which many top leaders of the BJP were involved and continue to be so.

Equally importantly, the sequence of events also laid bare the egregious power tussles that are going on in a party professedly united under the “strong and resolute leadership of Prime Minister Modi”. The coming to light of the power tussles themselves had such a wide-ranging impact that those who chose or were compelled to respond to them included the top brass of the RSS, BJP Members of Parliament and party workers down the organisational line. As the effect of the revelations and the developments relating to them continue apace, there is a growing realisation within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar as well as among a large number of political observers that the forthcoming monsoon session of Parliament will be, in terms of the aggression of the opposition and the dispiritedness of the BJP members, unlike any other that the Modi government has faced during its one year in office.

Interestingly, Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje, and through them the entire BJP leadership, have got exposed not through any specific inquiry that looked into the affairs of the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government or the BJP. The corridors of power in Delhi, especially those opulent corridors where cricket and politics intermix, are agog with stories about how a cricket establishment rivalry has dragged the two leaders, the whole party, and two governments into dire straits. The Lalit Modi, or LaMo, controversy, as it has come to be termed, has its origins reportedly in the rivalry between Lalit Modi and another controversial big man of the Indian cricket establishment. The not-so-empty talk in the corridors of power is about how the latter engaged an Israeli snooping agency to hack Lalit Modi’s mails and how the extracts of the same were handed over to some international media outlets. The purpose of this leak, apparently, was to make life in exile difficult for Lalit Modi. In other words, it was not specifically targeted at the BJP or the NDA or the Modi government for that matter, but the involvement of its leaders was so deep and intense that it could not be covered up.

In fact, even The Sunday Times report of June 7, which had a snowball effect, was essentially about Keith Vaz, a British Member of Parliament belonging to the Labour Party, and was not a directed at the Modi government. However, it mentioned that Vaz had, in July 2014, used the name of Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to put pressure on Sarah Rapson, the head of visas and immigration in the United Kingdom, to grant British travel papers to the controversial Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket organiser Lalit Modi, whose passport had been revoked five years ago by the very Ministry Sushma Swaraj headed. At the time of revocation, Lalit Modi was treated as having fled to London since he did not want to face an investigation by the Directorate of Enforcement (DoE) against him for alleged betting and misappropriation of funds in the IPL. The report was followed by leakages of correspondence between Sushma Swaraj and Vaz which showed that the Minister had taken more than normal interest in obtaining travel papers for Lalit Modi. The correspondence showed that she had repeatedly taken up the matter with the British authorities as well as with Vaz.

The correspondence also underscored the fact that the Vaz-Sushma Swaraj endeavour was to overturn the original decision of the British authorities to reject Lalit Modi’s plea for travel papers. Vaz’s letter to Sarah Rapson said: “The foreign minister of India (Swaraj) has spoken to me, making it very clear that the Indian government have no objection to the travel document being granted. Mrs Swaraj has also spoken to Sir James Bevan [British High Commissioner to India] who, even though he was on leave, said he would speak to the relevant person in the Home Office. Frankly, everyone has been involved in this apart from Ban Ki-moon [the U.N. Secretary-General].” The Sunday Times report pointed out that less than 24 hours later, Lalit Modi was granted his travel documents.

Issues of probity involved in such an intervention naturally came up following the revelation. The central question was whether a Cabinet Minister should have made a recommendation for a person who has fled the country in the face of charges raised by one of the country's major investigating agencies regarding serious fraudulent activities. As this debate came up, Sushma Swaraj replied that she had acted only on humanitarian considerations since Lalit Modi requested for British travel papers to take care of his wife who was undergoing treatment for cancer in Portugal. In a series of tweets, she placed her defence as follows: “Sometime in July 14 (2014) Lalit Modi spoke to me that his wife was suffering from cancer and surgery was fixed for 4th Aug in Portugal…. Taking a humanitarian view, I conveyed to the British High Commissioner that British government should examine the request of Lalit Modi as per British rules and regulations. If the British government chooses to give travel documents to Lalit Modi, that will not spoil our bilateral relations. Keith Vaz also spoke to me and I told him precisely what I told the British High Commissioner.”

The merits of this argument, however, crumbled soon as further revelations came out regarding the long-standing connections, including those with financial implications, between Sushma Swaraj’s family and Lalit Modi. These revelations included the professional status of Swaraj Kaushal, Sushma Swaraj’s husband, as a legal counsel of 22 years standing for Lalit Modi as well as the presence of the Minister’s daughter, Bansuri Swaraj, in the legal team of Lalit Modi when he was initially battling the charges relating to the IPL tournament. Sujatha Singh, who was Foreign Secretary at the time Sushma Swaraj made the recommendation for Lalit Modi, revealed another disturbing aspect—that she was not kept in the loop about the letters that the Minister was sending to some highly placed authorities in the U.K. Evidently, there was much more than humanitarian considerations in the special recommendations made for Lalit Modi. In straightforward terms, there was a case of conflict of interest, deemed absolutely unacceptable legally and morally. And there was also an attempt to keep the goings-on away from the eyes of senior and responsible officials in the Ministry.

If one were to follow the “corruption-free governance” argument sought to be advanced by the Prime Minister repeatedly and even during his first anniversary rally, this clear case of conflict of interest should have merited exemplary punitive action, particularly since the developments relating to the present controversy happened as early as July 2014. That is, just a month and a half after the so-called “morally superior” Modi government took the oath of office. But what followed The Sunday Times report and the follow up of it in the Indian media was far from exemplary course correction. The BJP and the RSS decided to stand by Sushma Swaraj and asserted that they found nothing wrong in the extraordinary help given to a fugitive and alleged fraudster. After a meeting with Modi, in the wake of the revelations, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said: “We want to make it clear that whatever she [Sushma Swaraj] has done is right. We justify it and the government completely stands by her.” Indications from the RSS top brass in Nagpur were also that they were ready to condone Sushma Swaraj’s “humanitarian” interventions.

Several Sangh Parivar insiders point out that there is more to it than meets the eye in these acts of condonation. To sum up the inputs from these insiders, the condonation has been motivated by two important concerns. First, the manner in which the reports regarding Sushma Swaraj’s intervention for Lalit Modi had spread in the media and the implications it has for the tussle among the top leadership in the BJP. Second, what it holds for the larger balance of power in both the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar in the event of punitive action against Sushma Swaraj.

Elaborating on the first concern, a senior activist of the Sangh Parivar told Frontline that the RSS top brass was upset with the manner in which the “Sushma Swaraj intervention” story was spread in the media through select media outfits. They espy the hands of a senior Delhi-based BJP leader, who has cultivated the media assiduously over many decades, in the whole sequence of media coverage. It is no secret that the leader, who goes by the name of “bureau chief” in some circles due to his close association with the media, has had a long-standing inner-party rivalry with Sushma Swaraj. The RSS top brass suspect that this rivalry has come into play in a vicious manner in the leaking of the story and its spread. The fact that this leader is considered close to Modi and also the fact that there exists a not-so-cordial relation between Modi and Sushma Swaraj added to the suspicion surrounding the spread of the story. This concern has got reflected in other ways through non-RSS platforms and personalities. Lalit Modi’s reaction has suggested that his cricket establishment-related rivalries with Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley could have contributed to the sudden revelations in the media. Kirti Azad, BJP MP from Bihar, admitted that he had indirectly tweeted about these concerns as soon as the controversy broke out.

The senior activist added that the concern about the larger balance of power related to the dominance of the troika of Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley in the affairs of the party and the government. “There is a sense that the removal of Sushma Swaraj from the Union Ministry would lead to a complete sidelining of this veteran woman leader and further strengthen the dominance of the troika. Significant sections of the RSS top brass, including the Sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat, are not in favour of that.” The senior activist pointed out that the combined effect of these two concerns compelled the RSS top brass to direct Modi and Rajnath Singh not to initiate any precipitate action on the issue.

The Vasundhara Raje angle

Even as the Sangh Parivar was battling the concerns relating to the tussle among top BJP leaders, Lalit Modi opened another front which raised yet another issue of probity in the higher echelons of the BJP. This related to his friendship and long association with Vasundhara Raje and how she supported his application even by filing a document in the court. Lalit Modi also said that Vasundhara Raje had requested that her support be kept confidential. It was further revealed that Lalit Modi had advanced an unsecured loan of Rs.11 crore to Dushyant Singh, Vasundhara Raje’s son and BJP MP. Vasundhara Raje has denied signing any documents for Lalit Modi and the existence of any extra-legal business association between Dushyant Singh and Lalit Modi.

However, this too has become material to aggravate the inner-party tussle. It is an open secret in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar that Amit Shah and Vasundhara Raje do not see eye to eye. Modi’s emergence as the top-most leader of the BJP got quasi-official sanction in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar in December 2013, just before the Rajasthan Assembly elections. Even at that time, the state of play in the BJP was that Modi and Amit Shah were not in favour of anointing Vasundhara Raje as the unquestioned leader in Rajasthan. However, she initiated a number of conciliation moves during the election campaign and Modi’s fears were assuaged. And Vasundhara Raje went all out to support Modi in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.

Yet, Sangh Parivar insiders aver, ego clashes between Amit Shah and Vasundhara Raje did not subside. A Rajasthan-based businessman close to Vasundhara Raje described it as a struggle symptomatic of a larger tussle between the urbane and the rustic in the BJP leadership. “Shah, in all probability, perceives [Vasundhara] Raje as too independent and powerful for a woman leader. The impression among those who knew both the leaders was that Shah would crush her at the first given opportunity,” he added. Amit Shah is apparently using the spate of allegations against her and her son to replace her as Chief Minister. By all indications, he is moving resolutely on this path. In fact, there is a view within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar that the immediate political fallout of the decision of the Central government to expedite cases against Lalit Modi would have a bearing on Vasundhara Raje’s continuation as Chief Minister.

On her part, the Chief Minister is trying to mobilise support among Members of the Legislative Assembly to scuttle Amit Shah’s plans. She has also moved sections of the RSS who have been favourable towards her. But, clearly this is a battle that is gathering momentum within the Sangh Parivar and the BJP, especially in view of the dilemma facing the RSS top brass. For action against Vasundhara Raje and no action against Sushma Swaraj would mean that two different types of treatments have been meted out to two women leaders charged with political and administrative impropriety. This is an impression they do not want to present before their cadre. By all indication, this perception within the RSS is expected to carry the day within the BJP, too, at least for the time being.

Commenting on this dilemma, the senior RSS activist recalled what the late Dattopant Thengadi, founder of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, said when the A.B. Vajpayee-led NDA government (1998-2004) was in its second year in office. “‘The Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru took 10 years to become corrupt but our people seem to be achieving that target in less than a year.’ It was hoped that Modi and his team would learn their lessons from this, but large sections of the Sangh Parivar are no more confident that they have.”

Evidently, the levels of confusion are high within the Modi government, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. The BJP’s exalted claims that its government has not faced any corruption charges and has not indulged in any in its first year in office have been shattered with the Sushma Swaraj-Vasundhara Raje exposes. There are questions about the ability of the government and the party to hold firm in the face of questions and expressions of dissent by the lower sections of the party. These expressions of opposition manifested concretely when Kirti Azad referred to a senior Minister as “a snake in the grass”. There is the realisation that there are many such voices raring to explode both in the parliamentary wing and in the party organisation not only on issues of probity but also on other questions.

The veteran BJP leader L.K. Advani’s recent remark about a deficiency of political leadership should be viewed in this context. It is feared that all this might impact the BJP’s chances in the forthcoming Bihar Assembly elections. Amidst all this, the RSS is seeking ways and means, rather agitatedly, to maintain the balance of power in its political arm. Modi’s free-flowing articulation has been replaced by dead silence. Clearly, the carefully groomed sheen around the supreme leader and his government is getting corroded fast.

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