TV channels starved for a good story will jump on anything to stir up controversy. But must the rest of us fall for this? Must wise and measured voices condemn Sushma Swaraj in no uncertain terms for a “monumental mistake” and for breaking “every rule in the book” while intervening on behalf of Lalit Modi?
It is true that Swaraj intervened with the British government to ensure that Modi could be with his wife during her surgery in Portugal, but does a humanitarian measure that does not dilute the case against Modi really deserve such condemnation? The charge that she did not consult the finance ministry is at best flimsy. By the time an unofficial reference went through the labyrinthine recesses first of the ministry of external affairs and then of the ministry of finance, the intervention would have been unnecessary. The emergency would have passed without Modi being present, because emergencies do not wait for government procedures. And what could the finance ministry have told her that she did not already know? The case against Modi is sufficiently well known and the finance ministry and its agencies will not lose their chance to pursue it merely because he was allowed to go to Portugal.
Did she reverse P. Chidambaram’s stand that the Indian government did not want travel documents issued to him? That diktat referred to foreign jaunts. If Modi wanted to enjoy a quiet flutter at the tables of Cannes or soak up a bit of sun in the Riviera, such an intervention would have been most inappropriate. But Chidambaram did not tell his British counterpart that the Indian government would oppose the issue of travel documents to Modi even for a medical emergency.
In fact, this was not a policy matter at all. The policy decisions in this case are not that Modi should not be allowed to be with his wife during her surgery but that investigations against him must continue and must result in the filing of a chargesheet in a court of law, if there are sufficient grounds to do this. To this end, he should be available for questioning and must cooperate with the investigation. None of this has changed. If he is guilty of all he is charged with, the law must come down heavily on him. But before he is found guilty by due process of law, before even a chargesheet has been filed against him, can you condemn a humanitarian measure that has no effect on the legal process that will be followed? Convicted criminals serving sentences in prison are released on bail for extended periods on flimsier grounds.
Another incredible argument made was that humanitarian gestures are okay but not if the person involved is wanted for questioning by Indian agencies. Do we really believe that the system must shut its face against every person who is wanted for questioning? How does that square with our avowed stand that each person is innocent until proved guilty and what does it say about our sense of fair play?
Two vital consequences will result from all this. The first is the political logjam that is being seen in Parliament. The other effect will hit us as citizens even harder. Policy paralysis, which at last seemed to be receding, will be back in full force. Every official will note the consequences of taking a bold decision and will, tortoise-like, duck into the shell of inactivity. The costs of being good and taking legitimate decisions will be just too high. TV channels have had their time in the sun but we will return to the bad old days when officialdom falls back on its oldest and safest weapon: just saying “no”.
The writer is a former secretary (shipping), government of India