Updated: June 16, 2015 12:00:11 am
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s intervention with the British authorities in favour of Lalit Modi, the discredited founder of the IPL and a fugitive from Indian law, constitutes a case of impropriety. That the individual at the centre of the controversy is Swaraj only sharpens the government’s embarrassment. She has been one of the better performing ministers in the Narendra Modi government and an articulate voice for it in Parliament and outside. Her skills of diplomacy and persuasion, which helped bring together government and opposition to pass the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh in Parliament recently, and her empathetic and effective response to Indians stranded in war zones in Iraq and Yemen were deservedly acknowledged and appreciated. It is surprising, and disquieting, therefore, that despite her long experience as an administrator and parliamentarian, she apparently turned what should have been an institutional response in the Lalit Modi matter into a personal, discretionary decision.
The government’s defence, that Swaraj was only making a humanitarian gesture to a fellow Indian, is unconvincing. Lalit Modi had sought travel clearance from the British government to visit his ailing wife in Portugal. But the fact also is, Lalit Modi is being investigated for money laundering, and chose to evade the law by fleeing India to Britain. New Delhi had informed London that issuing Lalit Modi travel papers would be deemed an action inimical to Indian interests. In these circumstances, due process demanded that Lalit Modi should have approached the Indian government through the embassy in London. Since his case involved the finance and home ministries, the MEA could then have sought the views of those ministries before taking a decision. Did Swaraj engage her cabinet colleagues on this matter? And what does her exercise of discretion in favour of Lalit Modi mean for the government’s high-profile campaign against black money, an issue the BJP sought to highlight during the general election last year? As leader of opposition in the previous Lok Sabha, Swaraj led the BJP’s call for greater probity and transparency in government in Parliament. Moreover, her apparent indiscretion now is compounded by a conflict of interest: her daughter is part of Lalit Modi’s legal defence and her husband has said he is Modi’s lawyer too .
The government must know that this cloud will not lift on its own. With Parliament set to begin next month, there’s much at stake. Crucial legislation, including the goods and services tax bill and the land bill, awaits bipartisan support. But before that can happen, the Narendra Modi government has a lot to explain.
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