Friends in power and politics
S. Madhusudhana Rao
Power, politics and personal relationships make a strange mix. It’s a potent concoction that can spell disaster for those involved in blending them without a modicum of discretion. The unfolding drama in New Delhi involving the big wigs of all political parties points out to the high stakes in what is dubbed ‘Modigate’.
It all began with the allegation of demure Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister, helping the former flamboyant Indian Premier League (IPL) chief Lalit Modi secure a British visa, pulling strings in New Delhi and London, last year.
Why did Sushma Swaraj go out of her way to help Modi leave the country when several serious fraud cases have been pending against him? An innocuous explanation that the visa had been granted on humanitarian grounds to facilitate cancer treatment for his wife did not cut much ice. As Foreign Minister, did not Sushma know that Lalit Modi had been facing a number of fraud allegations and the investigating agencies were about to file charges against him?
Despite the pending cases against IPL founder, why did Sushma allow him to leave the country? These are some of the uncomfortable questions that have put the ruling BJP dispensation that has stood behind Sushma like a rock in the dock. However, the saffron party has not come forward clarifying the government position on the raging controversy. As if silence is golden in the hour of personal-political crisis of a key minister, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been keeping mum.
His discreet silence on the whole episode, which has also dragged Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje into the row, has given Congress leaders enough ammunition to attack the Prime Minister and demand the sacking of Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara. Congress-sponsored and opposition-inspired street protests against BJP have come back in a big way across the country.
Congress, reeling under humiliating defeat in the last general election, got an opportunity to floor the ruling party outside parliament for the first time. Not surprisingly, the rejuvenated Rahul Gandhi is leading the frontal attack on BJP as his close aides see the Lalit Modi visa row as God’s gift to boost the Congress vice-president’s public image.
Congress jubilation is not without justification. New revelations, straight from Lalit Modi, Vasundhara Raje and even National Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar have given new twists to the drama and added spice to its contents hotly being debated on TV channels. Nevertheless, suspense continues whether the two prominent female faces of BJP would step down voluntarily admitting to impropriety or be asked by PM Modi to quit.
Endless debates and speculations have been going on about Sushma’s ‘humanitarian’ and Vasundhara’s ‘friendly’ gestures to Lalit Modi at different points of time. By their own admission, the trio’s friendship goes back to a couple of decades. But some explosive claims he had made in an exclusive interview with Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today TV channel on Tuesday make it clear that there is more to their ties than meets the eye.
For example, Sushma Swaraj’s husband Swaraj Kaushal and daughter Bansuri had provided legal services to Lalit Modi ‘free of cost’ while Vasundhara, according to Modi, accompanied his wife Minal to Portugal for cancer treatment in 2012. Earlier, in 2011, she had reportedly given a witness statement to British authorities supporting Lalit Modi’s case for migration to Britain with a confidentiality clause that her name should not be disclosed. But a copy of the document shown on the TV did not have her signature and she feigned ignorance when questioned about it by the media. However, the former IPL boss confirmed it in his interview given in Montenegro, Spain, where he was whiling away.
Rajasthan CM’s claim of close family ties with Lalit Modi seems to have percolated to corporate level if we go by the disclosures made by the Enforcement Directorate which is probing his cases. According to ED, he had put in more than Rs 11 crores in a company floated by Vasundhara’s son Dushyant Singh, a BJP parliamentarian. Such revelations, obviously, put the Rajasthan CM on a sticky wicket. In the days to come she has a lot of explanation to do about her ties with a man who is wanted in this country for economic offences.
It is worth recalling how powerful he was when he was the chairman of the Indian Premier League and chief of the Champions League between 2008 and 2010. He was also the vice-president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) between 2005 and 2010. He had been flying high, literally, on the phenomenal IPL success and rubbing shoulders with powers that be in every field of activity. In cricket-crazy India, money, power and fame are a heady mix and Lalit Modi must have come to his senses after his mighty fall from grace.
In his sensational interview, the former IPL boss had also claimed that Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel (former Union Minister for Aviation) and Congress leader Rajiv Shukla had also helped him. To what extent would be known only after a thorough investigation into Lalit Modi’s claims.
Their fallout on the Modi government is immense. Despite some colleagues coming to the rescue of Sushma, the question of impropriety is hanging heavy on her head. As such her position becomes untenable. Has she taken the moral responsibility and submitted her resignation – whether it will be accepted or not is a different issue – she would not have faced the ignominy of helping a ‘fugitive.’
Now, the ball is in Modi’s court. BJP which came to power riding a wave of anti-Congress sentiment and preaching high moral standards in politics can’t renege on its commitment a year after governing the country. Nor can it shield Sushma and Vasundhara raking up Congress ministers’ misdeeds and scandals. Voters punished them at the polls precisely because Congress and its allies had lost moral ground to rule the country. BJP should not repeat the mistake. If it does, it will pay a heavy political price.