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Can Sushma Swaraj Be Trusted?

The minister seems to have got away lightly in the wake of her unexplained intervention in favour of Lalit Modi.

Can Sushma Swaraj Be Trusted?
Can Sushma Swaraj Be Trusted?

There are uncanny similarities between the case of Subrata Roy ‘Sahara’ and Lalit Kumar Modi. The former, of course, was the official sponsor of the Indian cricket team for several years and had put up a team for the Indian Premier League. And Modi was the IPL commissioner and chairman of the IPL Governing Council.

Roy had complained against Lalit Modi in 2009 when the latter tried to stop Sahara and Jagran Group from bidding for IPL teams. While in 2008 eight successful bidders were required to put in a security deposit of just Rs 20 crore, in 2009 Modi initially insisted that the bidders should be worth at least Rs 6,000 crore and each bidder should submit a bank guarantee of Rs 600 crore. While observers believed this was done to favour the Adani Group win the Ahmedabad franchise (isn’t it strange that IPL still does not have one?), Roy and Jagran put their foot down, forcing Modi to retreat. In any case, the rest is history. The bids were won by Pune (Sahara) and Kochi (Sashi Tharoor-Sunanda Pushkar). Where are they today?

But neither Subrata Roy nor Modi has been convicted by any court of law. Nor are they undergoing any trial in any court. And they were not ‘fugitives’ in the strictest sense. Yes, Roy had been asked to pay back some Rs 20,000 crore to depositors SEBI believed did not exist -- the court ordered him to pay the amount to SEBI for distribution. And Modi had been served with several notices to appear and explain charges of money laundering, round tripping, Foreign Exchange Management Act ( FEMA) etc by the Enforcement Directorate.

Roy invited trouble by claiming that his mother was on her death-bed and hence he could not appear before the Supreme Court. Lalit Modi claimed that his life was under threat from the underworld and hence he could not appear before ED for interrogation. His lawyers, he offered, would happily do that for him. A helpful Delhi high court bench wondered why he could not be interrogated over Skype.

But there the similarities end because Roy has been in Tihar Jail for over a year—nobody quite knows why except that he has been provided a conference room, air-conditioners and cooks to negotiate the sale of his hotels abroad in a bid to raise the money required. Lalit Modi has been living it up in London, partying and apparently having a jolly good time.

So, why did Modi need India’s External Affairs Minister to put in a word to the UK Government for travel papers? As an Indian citizen, why indeed did he require British travel papers? Why indeed did he have to plead with his influential friends in India, among them Vasundhara Raje who is now the chief minister of Rajasthan, and Prabhu Chawla, a prominent editor among others to tell the British immigration authorities that he was being hounded politically back in India?

The explanation made available so far is that the UPA Government had complained to UK in writing and while appreciating UK’s compulsion to give Modi ‘asylum’, had warned that he should be confined to UK and not allowed to move out. Both UK and Modi seem to have complied with this condition till August, 2014 when Modi called Sushma Swaraj for help. His wife was undergoing cancer treatment in Lisbon and a surgery was due, he needed to be there. It is now known that Ms Swaraj called the British High Commissioner in India and possibly Labour MP Keith Vaz and suggested on ‘humanitarian grounds’ that Modi be allowed to travel outside UK and that it would be fine with the Government of India.

It seems highly unlikely that any Government agency, leave alone the UK, would change immigration status on the basis of a letter from a MP who refers to his talk with the Indian MEA. But assuming it actually did not involve anything in writing, can Sushma Swaraj be held guilty of anything?

As would be clear by now, Lalit Kumar Modi had a problem getting out of UK and he needed an intervention, a good conduct certificate, from the Indian Government. Why else would he call Sushma Swaraj to put in a word? The two have been such close family friends that Ms Swaraj’s husband and daughter both offered ‘pro bono’ legal service to Modi. What was a telephone call? Don’t friends do much more for each other?

This is where another parallel comes up. When DLF, Robert Vadra and Haryana Government were accused of a sweetheart deal in 2011, the then leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, wrote on the BJP website: “Senior ministers of the Congress-led UPA Govt jumped to the defence of a member of the Congress Party’s first family. It indicates that the current controversy is being utilized to display loyalty rather than to enforce probity.”

Jaitley went on to write, “Somebody needs to look into these transactions to determine whether they are bonafide business transactions or favours”. Robert Vadra of course claimed that he had done nothing illegal in taking money from DLF, buying a plot of land with the money and then selling it back to DLF at a huge profit after Haryana Government changed the land use. ‘Friends’ in Lutyen’s Delhi do it all the time; don’t they?

So, really what’s the fuss all about? BJP spokesmen have made a valiant effort to defend Sushma Swaraj. Yes, it was an error of judgment on her part, they agreed. Yes, Lalit Modi is a most ‘undeserving friend’. Yes, it is unfortunate that Sushma Swaraj did not take the Indian High Commission in London or the Foreign Secretary in South Block into confidence. But so what, for God’s sake -- she did not make any money, did she?

Nobody is asking the most obvious question though and that is, can India’s External Affairs Minister overturn a written advisory to another Government with a mere phone call to a foreign envoy? If she can do so over such minor matters, can she be trusted with matters far more important and crucial?

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