Foreign minister’s mis-steps

Sushma Swaraj short-circuited due process for Lalit Modi'

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published: July 6, 2015 1:37 am
Modi with Sushma during an IPL match in 2010. (Source: Express Archives) Lalit Modi with Sushma during an IPL match in 2010. (Source: Express Archives)

Since there has been a daily Niagara of words on the acute moral crisis in which the Narendra Modi sarkar is caught currently — on both 24×7 TV news channels and acres of newsprint — I would normally have refrained from joining this discussion. But I have to do so because neither in unending statements and speeches from the public platform nor during the hysterical talk shows on TV, in which the spokespersons of the BJP and Congress try to out-shout each other, has due attention been paid to what is arguably the most unacceptable, most deplorable and the worst part of the conduct in this squalid episode in the career of Sushma Swaraj, until a few days ago a deservedly respected external affairs minister and former leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha.

Let us forget for the nonce Lalit Modi’s stellar role in the shenanigans of the IPL, which most believe to be a cesspool of corruption and fraudulence. Let us also accept Swaraj’s claim that she was motivated only by humanitarianism and nothing else, though she could not have been unaware of LaMo’s close connection with her husband and daughter. This apart, even if her heart was bleeding for a particular Indian — still wanted by the Enforcement Directorate in the finance ministry of her own government — who needed to be with his wife in Portugal because the latter required cancer surgery there, Swaraj had perfectly proper and lawful options at her disposal. She could just ask the foreign secretary to direct the relevant medium-level officials to convey her wishes to the British authorities. Had she done so, her advisors would have told her that prior consultation with the finance ministry was necessary. This could have been completed speedily. Or, better still, she could have directed the Indian high commissioner in London to issue a temporary and short-term passport to LaMo, only for a visit to Portugal and back. The foreign secretary of that period, Sujatha Singh, is on record that this matter was never even mentioned to her.

In any case, Swaraj didn’t choose any of the acceptable options. What she did instead was not just highly improper, but shocking beyond words. Here was the foreign minister of India making what amounted to a purely personal phone call to the British high commissioner, who was on leave, requesting him to give travel documents to Lalit Modi. While doing so, she also took upon herself the responsibility of changing existing policy. The last communication to the British chancellor of the exchequer by P. Chidambaram, finance minister in UPA 2, had clearly stated that the grant of travel

papers to LaMo would “affect Britain’s relations with India”. Swaraj verbally assured the high commissioner that nothing of this kind would happen!

I have pounded the corridors of our foreign office since the early 1950s. I can vouch for the fact that no other foreign minister has behaved even remotely the way Swaraj has done. During the mid-1960s, when the US relaxed its strict visa policy and there was a deluge of Indian applications for an American visa, the government realised some applications would need official backing. Indira Gandhi issued strict instructions that “nobody above the rank of undersecretary” should speak to the US embassy about visas. Whatever mistakes Gandhi made later, she saw to it that the country’s honour was not compromised. Swaraj’s phone call to the British diplomat has demeaned not only her but also the entire country.

A diligent TV anchor has been arguing, plausibly enough, that Swaraj’s action even attracts Section 13 (1)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. But, despite veteran L.K. Advani’s sage advice, she has shown no sign of wanting to offer her resignation. Who can say what PM Modi would do — brazenly protect her or drop her under public pressure, when it is too late. His mystifying silence is more thundering than his all-too-frequent speeches confined to subjects he likes. Sometimes one sympathises with the BJP spokespersons, each of whom has to declare at least a hundred times a day: “PM does not have to speak on every subject.” Pray, on which of the highly polarising statements of the Hindutva hotheads among his followers and even colleagues has he spoken?

There is another powerful woman in the BJP, the chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, also in the eye of storm.

But given my chosen theme, the less said about Raje the better.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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