“Friends, Indian Ministers, High Commissionermen
Lend me your names!
I come to help Lalit Modi with travel documents
Not to get anything out of him.
The money laundering that men do has to be proved
Their service to sporting business is often overshadowed
By allegations of match-fixing.
So let it be with Modi.
The UK newspapers say I had a conflict of interest
In urging the UK Home Office to give him travel documents;
If it is so, it’s a matter that has been referred to the
Westminster Parliamentary Standards Commissioner …”
There you have it! An adaptation of the Shakespearean speech from Julius Caesar as perhaps Keith Vaz, Indian-born Leicester MP, would render it today to the Westminster parliament in answer to the controversy that surrounds his acts of patronage or, as he insists, of clear duty.
Last year in July Vaz was chairman of the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee. These committees can hold anyone to account by questioning them about affairs that fall within their remit.
On June 26 last year Vaz wrote to Sarah Rapson, the civil servant in charge of UK visas and immigration, to ask if a Lalit Modi could be given a travel document so that he could be with his wife, who was undergoing treatment for cancer in Portugal. Indian readers will instantly identify this Lalit Modi as the man who initiated the IPL enterprise, was subsequently under suspicion in India of match-fixing and laundering black money, and fled to Britain in 2010. His Indian passport was taken away so he was technically stateless and living in Britain by Her Majesty’s grace but without a passport was unable to leave the sceptred isle.
The Home Office examined the case, communicated with the Indian authorities or established through some other route Modi’s status, and refused to deliver any sort of travel documents to him.
Vaz continued his campaign. He wrote to a Home Office official, saying Prince Charles and Prince Andrew were supporters of Modi. Really?
Name dropping didn’t work. The Home Office didn’t change its position.
As chair of the Home Affairs Parliamentary Select Committee, Vaz was the supervisory body to which Rapson and her department were responsible.
On July 31 Vaz sent an email to Rapson, saying that Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had no objection to Modi being given travel documents and his application for these was supported by British high commissioner Sir James Bevan.
Rapson replied immediately and respectfully, and the next morning Modi was granted travel papers. On August 4, three days after the grant of these documents, Modi posted pictures of a cancer centre in Lisbon and a few days later he was in Ibiza, a Spanish island, holidaying with his family.
The British media are asking several questions. The first is naturally: What is the relationship between an MP using his clout and the alleged assurances of the Indian external affairs minister and the British high commissioner to India and someone whose passport was at the time confiscated by India?
Vaz answers that he was merely intervening in a case in which he thought there was some flaw in the immigration system. He asserts that he deals with people who are not even his constituents and that was the case with Modi. There is some justification for Asians anywhere in the country appealing to Vaz as an Asian, rather than to their own MP. The fly in this particular ointment is that Modi had on August 29, 2013, written to Vaz, asking him to help Swaraj’s nephew enrol for a law degree in Sussex University. He signed the letter ‘much love, Lalit’.
Now fellow parliamentarians are asking if Vaz used his position to twist Rapson’s arm and reverse the Home Office decision on his loving correspondent’s eligibility for travel documents.
Did Swaraj really ask Vaz to use his influence to get a nephew into Sussex University? Did she tell Vaz that the Indian government had no objection to Modi being given travel documents?
Furthermore, is a British high commissioner entitled to give a Home Office civil servant an opinion on a policy decision through an MP to whom she is accountable?
There is no doubt that Britain’s systems of grace and favour are still very much in place. If Vaz indeed promoted the interests of friends and the nephews of powerful people, he did what the prime minister and other members of the government do and have done since the British polity began. Only this time it’s an MP of Indian origin, a millionaire allegedly accused of corruption and a minister of the BJP government who of course never use their position to further their relatives.
Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer
and columnist based in London
The views expressed are personal