Former finance minister P Chidambaram on Wednesday tore apart the government’s defence of foreign minister Sushma Swaraj for helping ex-IPL boss Lalit Modi get UK travel documents, evoking a sharp response from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp that termed his allegations 'baseless'.
The senior Congress leader asked a set of seven questions, saying the NDA regime twisted rules and regulations, and laughed away Modi’s allegations that the UPA had hounded him out of the country out of political vendetta.
He demanded the Centre release correspondence between him and the UK chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne to clear the air amid a snowballing controversy.
“The conduct of Ms Sushma Swaraj, the external affairs minister, in facilitating the issue of a travel document to Mr Lalit Modi when his passport stood cancelled and he was avoiding an enquiry by the ED raises a number of important questions,” Chidambaram told reporters in Chennai.
Swaraj has kicked up a storm after admitting that she helped axed Indian Premier League (IPL) chief Modi get travel papers in London on “humanitarian” grounds as his cancer-stricken wife was due to undergo surgery in Portugal.
In reply to Chidambaram, the BJP accused him of making "baseless" allegations against Swaraj to hide the "failures" of the UPA government to initiate action against the former IPL chief.
"Congress, during the UPA regime, had enough time to act against Lalit Modi but did not do so. It is now trying to put the blame on BJP. Congress is trying to hide its own failures," BJP national secretary Shrikant Sharma said in Delhi.
Alleging that the Congress was responsible for a large number of scams, Sharma said it had "no moral right" to question the BJP and talk about corruption.
Top BJP ministers have thrown their weight behind Swaraj. But the scandal has hurt the party as it prepares for Parliament’s monsoon session with key bills on the line.
Chidambaram questioned why the BJP-led government did not appeal against a Delhi high court verdict restoring Modi’s passport to him.
The Regional Passport Officer (RPO) in Mumbai had revoked Modi’s passport on March 3, 2011, at the request of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) that is probing Modi’s alleged financial impropriety in the cash-rich IPL.
Though a single judge of the Delhi HC upheld the revocation, a division bench of the HC had on August 27, 2014, reversed the decision and restored his passport.
The RPO, Mumbai, which was the main respondent in the case, comes under the MEA, which has chosen not to challenge the verdict so far. However, it can still move the Supreme Court against the order.
As per SC rules, a high court verdict can be challenged before the top court within 90 days. Beyond this limitation period, appeals filed have to be “accompanied with an application for condonation of delay”.
So, the government can now challenge the verdict that gave Modi his passport back. However, before that, the ED must approach the external affairs ministry and point out fresh grounds for overturning the division bench verdict, sources said.
Chidambaram questioned why the BJP government, which came to power in May last year, did not challenge the decision in the SC as normally a reversing decision is always challenged in a higher court.
He said the government should ensure that Modi returns to India to face the probe by ED on various charges, including money laundering.
The ED made the passport revocation request after the former IPL boss failed to appear before the department despite repeated summons in connection with its investigations.
Here are the seven questions Chidambaram asked:
1. Why is the government, despite repeated demands, not releasing the letters exchanged between the finance minister, India, and the chancellor of exchequer, UK?
2. If the EAM was inclined to facilitate Mr Lalit Modi’s travel to Portugal on humanitarian grounds, why did she not advise Mr Lalit Modi to apply to the Indian High Commission in London for a temporary travel document to enable him to visit Portugal alone for a limited period? Why did she feel that Mr Lalit Modi, an Indian citizen, should have a UK travel document rather than an Indian travel document?
3. Why did the EAM not insist that Mr Lalit Modi should first return to India as a condition for issue of a temporary travel document on humanitarian grounds?
4. When the division bench of the high court set aside the cancellation of Mr Lalit Modi’s passport, who took the decision not to file an appeal to the Supreme Court? Was the ED, at whose instance the passport had been cancelled, consulted in the matter? Furthermore, who took the decision to issue a fresh passport to Mr Lalit Modi? Will the government make public the file notings on the subject?
5. A passport is a document to travel. To stay in a foreign country, one requires a visa or a permit from that country. Has the government of India lodged with the UK government its objections to the grant of a long term visa or residency permit to Mr Lalit Modi who has refused to appear before the ED?
6. Mr Lalit Modi now has an Indian passport. He is an Indian citizen subject to Indian laws. What steps has the government taken since the issue of a fresh passport to enforce the summons issued by the ED?
7. What is government’s answer to Mr Lalit Modi’s wild charge that his life will be in danger if he returned to India? Is the NDA government incapable of protecting an Indian citizen who is required by the ED to appear for an enquiry?