External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was at the centre of a political storm on Sunday after acknowledging that she helped controversial former IPL chief Lalit Modi procure British travel documents on "humanitarian grounds", prompting calls for her resignation from opposition parties.
Swaraj, 63, made the clarification in a series of tweets after the British newspaper The Sunday Times reported Keith Vaz, the British MP of Indian origin, used her name to pressure Britain’s top immigration official to grant travel papers to Modi. Hours after the controversy erupted, Modi said he did want to immediately comment on his controversial UK visa involving Swaraj. "Waiting and watching the story unfold for now," he said.
Watch: Sushma Swaraj acted in a 'humanitarian' manner, no 'moral issue' involved: Amit Shah
Opposition parties demanded Swaraj’s resignation on moral grounds, questioning whether she should have helped someone like Modi even on humanitarian grounds. The Congress led an Opposition attack against Swaraj and the government, accusing the minister of misusing her authority and conflict of interest following reports that her daughter was part of a team of lawyers that represented Modi in court last year when his passport was restored.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) defended the minister, with party chief Amit Shah saying Swaraj had done no wrong and no moral issue was involved in the matter. "The matter is clear; an Indian sought Sushmaji’s help in treatment of his wife who's suffering from cancer," he said.
Swaraj met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his official residence at 7 Race Course Road to clarify she had not done anything wrong. According to sources, the Prime Minister asked some questions based on documents she presented to him.
Home minister Rajnath Singh too backed his Cabinet colleague, saying whatever Swaraj did was appropriate.
"We want to make it clear that whatever she has done is right. We justify it and the government completely stands by her,” he said after meeting the Prime Minister.
What benefit did I pass on to Lalit Modi - that he could sign consent papers for surgery of his wife suffering from Cancer ?— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) June 14, 2015
Taking a dig at the Congress, Shah said, "Lalit Modi was not helped the way Warren Anderson and Ottavio Quattrocchi were…Sushma Swaraj asked the UK minister to help Lalit Modi as per the laws of their country."
The Sunday Times, citing leaked correspondence, reported Vaz cited Swaraj's name to the home office to expedite Modi’s case. Vaz previously offered to help Swaraj's nephew Jyotirmay Kaushal to apply for a British law degree course, the report said.
Modi was reportedly granted his travel papers less than 24 hours after Vaz invoked the names of Swaraj and James Bevan, the British envoy to India, the report added.
The cricketing tycoon has been holed up in Britain since 2010 after his Indian passport was revoked following allegations of illegal betting and match-fixing in the Indian Premier League tournament. He had sought the travel documents so that he could be with his ailing wife in Portugal.
But Swaraj said she helped Modi purely on humanitarian grounds.
“Sometime in July 2014 Lalit Modi spoke to me that his wife was suffering from cancer and her surgery was fixed for 4th Aug in Portugal. He told me that he had to be present in the hospital to sign the consent papers,” she tweeted.
Modi’s travel plans ran into trouble after the British government said that according to a communication from the previous UPA government, granting travel documents to him would spoil bilateral ties.
“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,” Swaraj tweeted.
Taking a humanitarian view, I conveyed to the British High Commissioner that "British Government should examine the request of— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) June 14, 2015
Swaraj acknowledged she had spoken to Vaz and the British envoy on the issue.
She pointed out in her tweets that a few days after Modi got his documents, the Delhi high court quashed the UPA government's order impounding his passport on the ground that the “order was unconstitutional being violative of fundamental rights and he got his passport back”.
Swaraj further tweeted her nephew Jyotirmay Kaushal joined a law course at Sussex University through the “normal admission process in 2013 - one year before I became a minister”.
According to the Sunday Times, Vaz, one of Britain's longest-serving Indian-origin MPs, could face an inquiry by Britain’s parliamentary watchdog over allegations of conflict of interest by intervening in favour of Modi.
Vaz was then chairman of the influential House of Commons home affairs select committee and was required to scrutinise and hold to account the work of the top immigration official, Sarah Rapson, and her department, the report said.
Media reports said Vaz has denied any wrongdoing or conflict of interest and that he treated Modi's case the same as others who sought his help.
Besides the Congress and AAP, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Left parties too sought Swaraj’s resignation.
BSP chief Mayawati demanded a thorough investigation into the matter. CPI-M leader Brinda Karat said, “This is unwarranted and unethical.”
D Raja of the CPI questioned what might have prompted Swaraj to help Modi. “What forced Sushma Swaraj to go out of the way to help an economic offender? She must explain,” he told reporters.
Congress leader Shakeel Ahmed said, “It is very unfortunate that a foreign minister of the country is helping an ED offender. Lalit Modi is close to a number of BJP leaders, including the chief minister of Rajasthan.”