BJP

The sound of silence

Print edition : July 24, 2015

BJP spokepersons Shahnawaz Hussain, Nalin Kohli and Sambit Patra at a media conference in Bangalore on April 2. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje with former IPL commissioner Lalit Modi during an IPL match in Jaipur in 2008. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and her husband, Swaraj Kaushal. Photo: PTI

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh at a media conference in New Delhi on June 30, where he produced a document pertaining to the controversy relating to the State-owned Dhopur Palace issue involving Vasundhara Raje. Photo: V. Sudershan

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which was projected as the font of new and positive politics not so long ago, is reeling under a spate of exposes on the extralegal dealings by senior and young party leaders.

Let everything come out; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will then come up with a comprehensive response. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra’s comment along these lines in one of the television shows on the LaMo (Lalit Modi) controversy became a point of agitated debate in the last week of June among a clutch of New Delhi-based Sangh Parivar activists.

The activists, primarily from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of the Sangh Parivar, were so worked up by the comment that some of them went on to suggest that the young leader should to be removed as the party spokesperson. They were unanimous in their opinion that a comment such as the one made by Patra at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was maintaining a stoic silence on the entire issue was loaded with meanings, including mischievous ones. They said: “What does he mean by this? That there are many other deeds of corruption and extralegal transactions that would have to come out before the BJP comes up with a total response? Or is he trying to say that the silence of several top BJP leaders, including the Prime Minister, is a kind of a waiting game?”

The activists said the party spokesperson’s comments had evoked derisive responses and questions from the public and that their own questions were based on the comments made by common observers.

In all probability, Patra’s remark was discussed out of context during the agitated debate among the relatively senior Sangh Parivar activists. But seen in the larger context of the challenges and exposes of corruption and wrongdoing being faced by the Narendra Modi government and the various BJP-run State governments on a day-to-day basis, their response makes it clear that the irritability quotient of activists in organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal is growing, adding to the discomfiture and embarrassment faced by the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar. The string of exposes that started with the revelation on the out-of-turn and extralegal help accorded to the controversial cricket tycoon Lalit Modi by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje snowballed into an avalanche of allegations in the course of a month.

Unsettling tweets

On his part, Lalit Modi unsettled the BJP by periodically posting tweets as well as documents both on his Twitter handle and his portal, www.lalitmodi.com. He targeted some of his business rivals who have had questionable dealings over the past two decades or so and highlighted the association of many politicians with them.

More facts and documents underscoring Lalit Modi’s close association with Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje came out with regularity from a variety of sources, including the Congress. Beyond the LaMo controversy, scams with different dimensions came to the fore in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, putting the BJP governments in the two States in a spot. In Maharashtra, revelations pointed to the involvement of even young leaders of the BJP such as Pankaja Munde, daughter of the late Union Minister Gopinath Munde, in extralegal activity and nepotism at the very early stages of their political career.

Lalit Modi’s salvos

Lalit Modi’s revelations pertained to important BJP leaders such as Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Sudhanshu Mittal and Varun Gandhi. Addressing Jaitley directly, Lalit Modi accused him of shielding and acting in collusion with his cricket administration rival N. Srinivasan, who had worked with Lalit Modi in the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket, too. Lalit Modi also claimed recently that he met Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s daughter, Priyanka Gandhi, and son-in-law, Robert Vadra, in London. Incidentally, his website has pictures showing Jaitley cheering players from a cricket stand in the company of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi and Robert Vadra. The caption says “One happy family”. On more than one occasion, Lalit Modi has suggested that Jaitley’s actual allegiance lies with the Congress.

On Mittal, Lalit Modi posted a picture of the BJP leader with Vivek Nagpal, a Delhi-based businessman who is also embroiled in controversies. Lalit Modi refers to Nagpal as a “master hawala racketeer and bagman” and asks Mittal to come clean on his relationship with the controversial businessman. The allegations against BJP Lok Sabha member and Gandhi family scion Varun Gandhi are more direct. Lalit Modi said Varun Gandhi met him in London a few years ago and sought a price to settle all the misgivings and problems with Sonia Gandhi, who is his aunt. Although they belong to rival political camps, Varun Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi reportedly share a warm personal association. The price allegedly sought by Varun was apparently to the tune of $60 million. Varun Gandhi did not deny meeting Lalit Modi in London. He said the meeting took place at a restaurant through a common friend three years ago. Varun Gandhi said Lalit Modi had insisted that he visit his house, but that did not happen.

Conflict of interest

The new revelations on Sushma Swaraj relate to the email sent by Lalit Modi to the company secretary of Indofil Industries, one of the companies he runs, indicating that Sushma Swaraj’s husband, Swaraj Kaushal, would be the director of the company. Some of the earlier reports had indicated that Sushma Swaraj’s daughter and husband were Lalit Modi’s legal consultants for varying periods. The latest revelations strengthened the charges of conflict of interest and quid pro quo against Sushma Swaraj in the LaMo affair.

Vasundhara Raje’s troubles worsened when the Congress produced copies of her affidavit signed in favour of Lalit Modi, the existence of which she originally denied. In the early days of the controversy, Lalit Modi had maintained that Vasundhara Raje had given him a letter of solidarity with the rider that it should be kept confidential from the Indian authorities. Vasundhara Raje and the BJP leadership initially denied the accusation but were forced to concede it when the Congress produced copies of the actual letter. Commenting on this, BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli said: “The affidavit was given in 2011, but what needs to be ascertained is whether it was given in [her] official capacity as the Leader of Opposition or in her individual capacity. With regard to [her] association with Lalit Modi, in 2011 many senior people across the political spectrum were seen in his company, so they, too, should be held guilty of that charge.” The statement was not only an admission of wrongdoing but also an attempt at complicated rationalisation.

Vasundhara Raje’s financial dealings with Lalit Modi were confirmed by new revelations. The most crucial among these was that the Chief Minister was a beneficiary of the deals involving Niyant Heritage Hotel Pvt. Ltd, which Lalit Modi set up, as the one-third owner of the company.

Earlier reports had said that her son Dushyant Raje, her son-in-law and daughter-in-law were the only beneficiaries as they had bought 815 shares worth Rs.10 each. The Congress was quick to highlight this direct benefit and allege that it clearly established the existence of mala fide and blatantly crony quid pro quo between Vasundhara Raje and Lalit Modi.

The Maharashtra case

Adding to this emerging saga of corruption and illegal activities involving the BJP leaders was the revelation on Pankaja Munde. This young Maharashtra Minister was allegedly found to have awarded contracts to the tune of Rs.230 crore for buying snacks, dishes, water filters, mats and books for child care centres under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, through 24 government resolutions on a single day, February 13, bypassing the e-tender process. The allegation rocked the Maharashtra government headed by Devendra Fadnavis. The Chief Minister quickly issued a clarification that the contracts were awarded in February, before the e-tender process became operational in April. This explanation is evidently based on technicalities and tries to gloss over the obvious absence of due process in the placing of government orders.

It was in this context that Patra’s seemingly inappropriate and mischievous comments raised the hackles of the Sangh Parivar activists. They were of the view that Patra and the other party spokespersons, Nalin Kohli and G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, were giving the impression that many top leaders of the BJP were soft on Lalit Modi. “One of them even went to the extent of stating that Lalit Modi was a victim of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. Others seemed to raise the same points as Lalit Modi did when it came to presenting court-related issues. And on top of all that comes this ludicrous comment,” said an agitated RSS activist.

In totality, all this represents a state of panic in the BJP and its partners in the National Democratic Alliance and the Sangh Parivar. The smugness that characterised the Narendra Modi government’s early days is now conspicuous by its absence.

There is also the stark realisation that the Congress and the Left parties may raise issues relating to corruption and extralegal interventions so forcefully in Parliament that no significant transaction of business can happen during its monsoon session starting in the third week of July. There are indications that the government is going slow on tabling the amended land acquisition Bill during this session.

Targeting the Congress

Given this situation, Sangh Parivar insiders are apparently thinking in terms of a counteroffensive targeting the Congress and its first family. Apparently, their offensive has begun with the serving of income tax notices on Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi on charges of defaulting on tax on an income of approximately Rs.1,300 crore they earned from the transfer of shares of Associated Journal Ltd, which used to publish The National Herald, the now-defunct Congress newspaper. “A number of cases relating to the Gandhi family’s association with some regional Congress leaders in certain corrupt dealings will come up,” a BJP leader told Frontline. The reference apparently is to the allegation that Priyanka Gandhi obtained clearance to purchase two cottages in Himachal Pradesh eight years ago through extralegal influence.

It remains to be seen how far this tactic will work for the BJP. However, one thing is clear: the ruling BJP, which was projected as the font of new and positive politics not so long ago, is reeling under the spate of exposes. More importantly, it is increasingly resorting to the machinations and manoeuvrings that have characterised the Indian political firmament all along. Amidst all this, the silence of Narendra Modi on the issues involving his party leaders is loud, creating resentment in the Sangh Parivar. The perception among Sangh Parivar activists is that party spokespersons are resorting to mischief and showing signs of insubordination.

The growing voices of dissent and barbs against the leadership, particularly the Prime Minister, emanating from BJP leaders and workers ranging from former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani to Lok Sabha members such as Kirti Azad and R.K. Singh, who was also a former Home Secretary, are another manifestation of the growing resentment. Attempting to stem this tide is the name of the game for the ruling power elite of the BJP and the present government. The political skills of this section, consisting primarily of Prime Minister Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Jaitley, will be on test during the monsoon session of Parliament.

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