April 11, 2020
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Fifty-Six, Pick Up The Sticks

Politics over Lalitgate may yet shape the future Modi cabinet

Fifty-Six, Pick Up The Sticks
Fifty-Six, Pick Up The Sticks

Quitters Don’t Win

Why Modi will want to back Sushma Swaraj, for now

Despite her socialist background, RSS has buried its old reservations about Sushma Swaraj; sees her retention in cabinet as a weapon to check Narendra Modi

If Modi sacks her after holding out, it will be seen as a “victory” for those within the cabinet who have never seen eye to eye with her, perhaps even plotted against her

Dropping Sushma now will open the floodgates for Congress to target others in the cabinet charged with corruption, like RSS favourite Nitin Gadkari, named by the CAG

Acceding to Opposition demands for Sushma’s head after backing her for 40 days will be seen as a comedown by a leader perceived to be strong and decisive

Removing the Union external affairs minister, whose performance Modi only recently commended in public, will also expose the BJP’s poor bench strength

With Bihar elections round the corner, the best bet would be to wait for a favourable verdict and reshuffle the cabinet, possibly armed with a ‘Kamaraj Plan’


She is one of the grand women of contemporary Indian politics who has had dramatic ups and downs, a process annotated by the rhetorical flourish of her speeches made in chaste Hindi. But she had been rather quiet in the reign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi: Sushma Swaraj was seen as someone who was keeping a low profile, and doing her work quietly as the Union minister of external affairs, a portfolio in which she was visibly overshadowed by the PM himself.

But whatever peace she attained by keeping her head low has gone. The script changed two months ago when her actions in helping former IPL chief Lalit Modi became public. And last week it became clear that she will remain in the eye of the storm that is not just creating havoc in the teacup of TV studios but in Indian Parliament as well. As this issue of Outlook goes to the press, the House is deadlocked over demands that Sushma resign along with the scam-tainted chief ministers of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Congress sources say that they are initiating a dialogue with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to allow the House to function for a few hours in order to pass the GST Constitution Amendment Bill. The argument is that the BJP should not be able to turn around and blame the Congress for the non-passage of legislation on which there is agreement across the political class. But there is no question of letting Sushma give an explanation on the floor of the House (as she has offered to do) without a resignation.

“Look at the history of Congress rule, the leadership would have forced the foreign minister to quit for ethically wrong behaviour.”
Digvijay Singh, Congress leader

On the issue of Sushma resigning, there will be no let-up, from this short session to the next, when Parliament reconvenes in winter, they say. Although, the Vyapam scam that puts Shivraj Chouhan in the dock is apparently quite lethal, and Vasundhararaje too is embroiled in the spreading tentacles of Lalitgate, there is an ethical point about Sushma that will dog the PM. She is a member of the highest decision-making body, the cabinet committee on security (CCS). The question can always hang in the air: did the PM know what his external affairs minister was doing?

Senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh had this to say: “Look at the history of Congress rule and have no doubt that the leadership would have forced the external affairs minister to quit after behaviour that was so ethically wrong.” Yet he is also of the view that the government is now made up of people who are more ruthless in power.

They are, after all, not the traditional rulers of India, they have fought their way in, do not care what the liberal intelligentsia thinks, and in power, the project is to get institutional depth and not cede any ground. In other words, an estimation of power to a large extent determines a non-compliance with ethical consideration. JD(U) president Sha­rad Yadav was once convenor of the NDA and has worked closely with the BJP leaders of a different era. “My name had come in the hawala scam as had Advani’s,” he says, “and we both resigned. Let Modi’s BJP understand that resignation does not mean guilt. It means that we respect institutions. They can make the House function if they really want to.”

House arrested Opposition protesting

There is, therefore, a difference in the Vajpayee-Advani era and the age of Modi. A BJP MP says as much: “See the battles Modiji and Amit Shah have faced and come through. Their temperament is different.” Besides, the numbers too are different and Modi enjoys a simple majority that Vajpayee never did. So the argument the BJP leadership is currently offering is that Sushma has done no wrong legally, and will therefore not be asked to quit. It’s a different matter that it’s not quite as simple as that. Vulnerable after Lalitgate, Sushma has become a pawn in the larger game the Modi regime will play that will depend on electoral outcomes in the country and on politicking within the BJP and the larger Sangh parivar.

Let’s first understand Sushma’s own strengths and weaknesses. It is hardly a secret that she was against Modi becoming PM candidate in the first place. She did not campaign in the last Gujarat election when he was CM. There has been an even older rivalry with Union finance minister Arun Jaitley that goes back to the days when, along with the late Pramod Mahajan, the three were described as the BJP’s ‘young turks’. Mahajan is gone, but with the ascendance of Modi, the balance of power is in Jaitley’s favour (he’s also close to BJP president Amit Shah). He is part of the current troika of the powerful in Delhi along with Modi and Shah. Sushma is the woman who made it to the CCS because she simply could not be ignored after her achievements (and some mishaps) in politics. She had stature, and by the time of the 2014 win, was seen as the dignified woman face of the BJP, although others were being encouraged to fill that slot.

“My name had come up in the hawala scam, as had Advani’s, and we both had resigned. Resignation doesn’t mean guilt.”
Sharad Yadav, JD(U) president

Although Sushma may not be a favourite in the Modi dispensation, she has other backers, most significantly in the RSS. And so convoluted are the equations within the Sangh parivar/BJP that Sushma is currently being fiercely guarded by the RSS that feels a little threatened with the absolute power the troika now wields. Such equations are noteworthy as Sushma is not from a traditional RSS background but began her political career in the Janata parivar, under Devi Lal (Modi was a pracharak and Jaitley is from the ABVP, the student wing of the BJP). The RSS is also quite categorical about not succumbing to demands for any resignation because some of their own have been named in the Vyapam scam. Sources say Union home minister Rajnath Singh too has weighed in quite strongly in Sushma’s favour (his ministry has currently ignored the views of Jaitley in the Sun TV case). But what also goes in her favour is the fact that she is a Brahmin woman and the RSS has always looked out for the fortunes of the savarnas although the parivar’s political projects may involve engagement with OBCs and Dalits.

Yet, the issue will continue to dog her, and by implication, the PM. The thinking in the BJP is this. An expansion/reshuffle of the council of ministers has been on the cards for some time now and Sushma could lose the portfolio that gives her automatic entry into the CCS.

Currently, the Congress is adamant on her resignation and it’s not clear if a demotion would be satisfactory. The BJP’s strategy for the current session is to get the GST through as it has to pass by August 13 to be implemented in the next financial year. A senior leader is candid: “It is not politically wise to get into an argument on the changes to the land bill that will in any case not pass in the Rajya Sabha. The Bihar elections are round the corner and since the land issue has been projected as anti-poor, we will get back to it later.”

Resigned to it Youth Congress protest outside Sushma’s residence over Lalitgate. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

Indeed, the manner in which the BJP has thrown counter corruption charges back at the Congress suggests that they may not actually want this session to move beyond settling the GST issue.

“We are not getting after individuals. All we want is that corruption as an issue should be addressed.”
Derek O’Brien, Trinamool spokesperson

In fact, the emerging strategy is incumbent on winning the Bihar elections that will take place in October. It’s a critical heartland state where Nitish Kumar is fighting after 10 years of anti-incumbency, a not-so-smooth understanding with Laloo Yadav, and a flush-with-cash BJP that had made inroads into the social categories of Mahadalits and some OBCs, besides the upper castes. So if the BJP were to win Bihar, they would then return to Delhi and want a phase of aggressive legislation in the winter session of Parliament. This is when they could imagine pushing extraordinary solutions on the land bill, such as seeking a joint session. And it is to reach this point that Sushma could be sacrificed. Of course, the catch here is that the Congress demand currently includes the resignations of Chouhan and Raje as well, which is more unrealistic, as they are mass leaders. Sushma is more vulnerable although conversely she also has many friends across political parties. It is, for example, clear that the Trinamool Congress does not want to take her down. Sushma gave an excellent performance on the land boundary issue and has a personal chemistry with West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. Party MP Derek O’Brien says, “We are not getting after individuals. All we want is that corruption as an issue should be addressed.”

Politics, however, often gets in the way of personal equations. Sushma was always seen to have a warm equation with Sonia Gandhi, but the Congress president has been assertive on the issue of demanding her resignation. In fact, Trinamool’s ambiguity can also be linked to the fact that there is a visible coordination emerging between the Congress and the Left parties after Sitaram Yechury became general-secretary of the CPI(M) in April this year.

Since politics is the art of the impossible, here’s an account of what happened to the friendship between Sushma and the LoP in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad. Sources reveal that she made many calls to him hoping to coax him into toning down the attack on her. Since Azad could not do so even if he wanted to (and there is no evidence he wanted to), Sushma put out a tweet saying she would expose the name of a Congressman who wanted a diplomatic passport for coal scam accused Santosh Bagrodia on the floor of the House. Sources say the leader was Azad and he wanted to go public with his version of facts, but was advised to let go. But what the tweet made clear is that the diminutive lady can give as good as she gets. After all, she has fought memorable battles both within and outside her party. One of the most recognised political faces of India, she is also a great survivor. But a question mark now certainly hangs over her future.

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