The Congress alleged on Monday there was “quid pro quo” when external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj helped corruption-hit former cricket tycoon Lalit Modi, while the party hit out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his silence on the matter and demanded an explanation.
Swaraj said she helped the axed Indian Premier League (IPL) chief get travel papers in London on “humanitarian” grounds as his cancer-stricken wife was due to undergo surgery in Portugal and denied any wrongdoing, but the Opposition clamour for her resignation grew louder though the ruling BJP resolutely backed her.
“ACHHE DIN for all accused of murder false encounter money laundering FEMA from Amit Shah to Ramdev to Lalit Modi. PM silent. Mounam sweekriti (silence indicates sanction)!” Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh tweeted. “She (Swaraj) may be a victim of inner BJP fight as mentioned but now the matter is in Public Domain I appeal to her conscience and she should resign.”
The controversy was triggered after British newspaper the Sunday Times reported an email conversation between Indian-origin UK lawmaker Keith Vaz and the head of the country’s immigration department, Sarah Rapson, where the MP cited Swaraj to facilitate travel documents for the disgraced cricket administrator.
“There are circumstances which establish contact between Sushma Swaraj and Lalit Modi. As a quid pro quo, Sushma Swaraj has done favour to a tainted person who is accused of Rs 700 crore money laundering, tax evasion and several other charges,” Congress spokesperson PL Punia said.
He termed Swaraj’s claim of helping Modi on “humanitarian” grounds as bogus and a statement not standing scrutiny of facts, while calling the NDA government and BJP chief Amit Shah’s defence of the minister a “lame excuse”.
“According to Portuguese law, it is not required for husband to sign papers before his wife goes under surgery. There was a circular from the government of India asking the British government to not allow him to travel abroad. So, what the minister is saying is very weird,” he told reporters in the Capital.
Modi, who founded the cash-rich IPL Twenty20 tournament seven years ago, has been living in the UK after being accused of corporate corruption, money-laundering and tax evasion, while his passport was also revoked in 2010 when the Enforcement Directorate (ED) initiated proceedings against him.
Former finance minister P Chidambaram demanded the letters written by Indian authorities to the British government on the Lalit Modi case be made public in the wake of the controversy.
“In the interest of transparency, Government of India should release the letters written to the UK Chancellor on the Lalit Modi case,” the senior Congress leader tweeted.
When his party was in power two years ago, Chidambaram asked the British government why it was not taking action against the former IPL chief and reportedly wanted Britain to deport him after Modi’s passport was impounded in India and his UK visa ran out.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar from poll-bound Bihar, where his party faces a tough challenge from the Bharatiya Janata Party, said the BJP was wrongly defending Swaraj.
"Swaraj’s episode has brought the real face of the Narendra Modi government before the people of the country. BJP leaders have been doing everything to protect her despite the fact that laws were broken by her,” he said.
Under British norms, Modi could stay in London despite a revoked passport as his “leave to enter and stay in the UK remained valid”.
“The Prime Minister and the BJP have been talking very loudly about a new style of governance— minimum government and maximum governance, accountability and that there has been no corruption in the last one year. All these have been issues of propaganda,” CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury told the media. “But, when it actually comes to brass tacks, you have this incident where the Prime Minister is absolutely quiet and silent. We are asking the Prime Minister to tell us how this is going to be addressed and the matter be made accountable both to the Parliament and the country.”
In Delhi, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that’s locked in a bitter turf tussle with the BJP-led Centre on Monday alleged the external affairs minister had fallen victim to a factional fight within her party which was witnessing a “gang war”.
“In this war, a target has been placed on Sushma Swaraj because she is a powerful leader within the BJP and is a possible prime ministerial candidate in the future,” AAP spokesperson Ashutosh told ANI. “I think this was a leak perpetuated from within the party.”
The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) said Swaraj should explain to the nation why she chose to help the ex-IPL commissioner despite a red alert issued against him by the government.
“This is a question of propriety. She (Sushma Swaraj) owes an explanation to the country,” party leader DP Tripathi told ANI in Delhi.
The Congress had led an Opposition attack against Swaraj and the government on Sunday, 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.
“People are asking ‘Is Modi helping Modi?’,” Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said at a press conference, taking a dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “What we have witnessed today involves blatant quid pro quo, direct help to a fugitive from law, internecine warfare between the top echelons of government and unravelling of the nexus between the BJP leadership and its crony criminal friends...Swaraj should immediately step down.”