New Delhi, 10PM June 14, 2015
A major controversy erupted in India on June 14 dragging External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj into an unsavory scandal for helping fugitive cricket czar, Lalit Modi, a former president of the Indian Premier League, who is wanted in connection with money laundering charges by the country’s Enforcement Directorate for the last five years. The scandal has also hit the British government as Indian-origin Labor MP Keith Vaz faces charges of being a co-conspirator with the Indian minister.
While the Narendra Modi government and Sushma‘s party, the Bhariiya Janata Party, stepped in to defend the minister, the Congress and all other major opposition parties demanded her resignation. Sushma defended her decision saying that she acted on “humanitarian” grounds to help Lalit Modi to be with her wife in Portugal, where she was going to be operated for cancer in July 2014.
The scandal broke out when a series of leaked emails of Keith Vaz, which he claimed were obtained through hacking, showed that Sushma spoke to Vaz and British High Commissioner James Bevan and gave the go ahead for issuance of British travel document to Lalit Modi in July last year.
Facing serious charges of tax evasion and alleged foreign exchange regulation violations to the tune of Rs.700 crores ($109.5 million) in the T20 cricket tournament held in South Africa in 2009, Lalit Modi has been staying in London since 2010 to avoid his possible arrest in India. The previous UPA Government had cancelled his passport and pressed for his extradition.
According to leaked emails, Vaz cited Swaraj’s name to arm-twist UK’s top immigration official to grant British travel papers to Lalit Modi. The “wanted” man got the documents in less than 24 hours.
In her defense Sushma came out with a series of tweets:
“I genuinely believe that in a situation such as this, giving emergency travel documents to an Indian citizen cannot and should not spoil relations between the two countries.”
“I may also state that only few days later, Delhi High Court quashed the UPA Government’s order impounding Lalit Modi’s passport on the ground that the said order was unconstitutional being violative of fundamental rights and he got his passport back.”
– Sushma Swaraj
She also rejected allegations that Vaz reportedly offered to help Swaraj’s nephew to apply for a British law degree course, saying: “Regarding Jyotirmay Kaushal’s admission in a Law course at Sussex University, he secured admission through the normal admission process in 2013 – one year before I became a Minister.”
Incidentally, Swaraj’s husband Swaraj Kaushal and daughter Bansuri have reportedly represented Lalit Modi as lawyers.
In UK, conservative MP Andrew Bridgen has taken up the issue in a big way and written to Kathryn Hudson, the country’s parliamentary standards commissioner, asking her to probe whether Vaz had breached the MPs’ code of conduct.
“Sometime in July 2014, Lalit Modi spoke to me that his wife was suffering from cancer and her surgery was fixed for 4th August in Portugal. He told me that he had to be present in the hospital to sign the consent papers.
He informed me that he had applied for travel documents in London and the UK Government was prepared to give him the travel documents. However, they were restrained by a UPA Government communication that this will spoil Indo-UK relations.
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.”
“Keith Vaz also spoke to me and I told him precisely what I told the British High Commissioner.”
– Sushma Swaraj on Twitter
Vaz reportedly wrote to Sarah Rapson, the Director General of UK Visas and Immigration, for expediting Lalit Modi’s case.
Vaz was then the Chairman of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee. In that capacity, he had the obligation to scrutinise the work of Rapson and her department.
The UP Government had revoked Lalit Modi’s Indian passport in March 2011, but the Delhi High court restored it in August last year two months after Sushma helped him obtain travel documents to travel to Portugal.
Even as political circles were agog with speculation that the disclosure was an “insider” job to settle scores with Sushma. the Government was quick to defend her. After Sushma spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Home minister Rajnath Singh met him to discuss the matter, the government and the party said she had committed no wrong.
“We want to make it clear that whatever she has done is right. We justify it and the government completely stands by her,” Rajnath Singh told reporters, adding, “Sushama cited on humanitarian consideration and clearly told Vaz to take decisions as per the British law.”
BJP chief Amit Shah also defended Swaraj, saying she acted in a “humanitarian” manner and “no moral” issue was involved. Attacking the Congress for seeking Sushma’s resignation, Shah said Congress should not forget how it helped Bofors scam accused Ottavio Quattrocchi flee the country.
He also cited how during the Congress regime Union Carbide Chief Warren Anderson was allowed to leave the country despite the fact that thousands of people died in the gas leak from the Bhopal gas plant of the company which he headed…
But the Congress and major opposition parties called for Sushma’s immediate resignation. People are asking “is (PM Narendra) Modi helping (Lalit) Modi?” Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala told a press conference and joined her party colleagues in seeking her resignation.
Huffington Post has a trail of email snippets on this. The astute reader can see which other Indian politician(s) is(are) in the email trail!
For this article, the exchange rate used was 1 USD = 63.92 rupees.