External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's name has been dragged into the controversy surrounding grant of visa to former IPL chief Lalit Modi by the UK where the matter is before a parliamentary panel.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was today at the centre of a major row for helping scam-tainted former IPL chief Lalit Modi to obtain British travel documents but found strong support from the government and the BJP which rejected opposition demands for her resignation.
The genesis of the controversy was disclosure of emails showing that she had spoken to Indian-origin British MP Keith Vaz and its High Commissioner James Bevan favouring the grant of travel documents to Lalit Modi, who is wanted in India and has made London his home since 2010 to avoid a probe in this for alleged betting and misappropriation of funds in the T20 cricket tournament.
According to British media which quoted leaked emails, Vaz cited Swaraj’s name to put pressure on UK’s top immigration official to grant British travel papers to Lalit Modi, who subsequently got the documents in less than 24 hours.
Vaz also offered to help Swaraj’s nephew Jyotirmay Kaushal to apply for a British law degree course, the report said.
After the reports surfaced, 63-year-old Swaraj said in a series of tweets that she had taken a “humanitarian view” and conveyed to the British High Commissioner that they should examine Modi’s request as per their rules and “if the British government chooses to give travel documents to Lalit Modi â€“ that will not spoil our bilateral relations”.
She also spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi explaining her position on the issue.
Opposition parties slammed her action and demanded her resignation. Congress questioned even the role of the Prime Minister and posed 11 questions to him, including “what happens to transparency and non-corruption” promise made by him.
However, the government, the BJP as well as RSS, strongly backed Swaraj and rejected resignation demands, asserting that she had done no wrong and only acted on “humanitarian” grounds.
The government support was expressed after Home Minister Rajnath Singh met the Prime Minister.
“I genuinely believe that in a situation such as this, giving emergency travel documents to an Indian citizen cannot and should not spoil relations between the two countries,” the External Affairs Minister said.
“I may also state that only few days later, Delhi High Court quashed the UPA Government’s order impounding Lalit Modi’s passport on the ground that the said order was unconstitutional being violative of fundamental rights and he got his passport back,” Swaraj said.
On Vaz reportedly offering to help Swaraj’s nephew to apply for a British law degree course, she said, “Regarding Jyotirmay Kaushal’s admission in a Law course at Sussex University, he secured admission through the normal admission process in 2013 – one year before I became a Minister.”
Swaraj’s husband Swaraj Kaushal and daughter Bansuri have reportedly been lawyers for Lalit Modi.
Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen has written to Kathryn Hudson, UK parliamentary standards commissioner, urging her to investigate whether Vaz had breached the MPs’ code of conduct.
Giving the chronology of events, Swaraj said on Twitter, “Sometime in July 2014, Lalit Modi spoke to me that his wife was suffering from cancer and her surgery was fixed for 4th August in Portugal. He told me that he had to be present in the hospital to sign the consent papers.
“He informed me that he had applied for travel documents in London and the UK Government was prepared to give him the travel documents. However, they were restrained by a UPA Government communication that this will spoil Indo-UK relations.
“Taking a humanitarian view, I conveyed to the British High Commissioner that: “British Government should examine the request of Lalit Modi as per British rules and regulations. If the British Government chooses to give travel documents to Lalit Modi that will not spoil our bilateral relations.”
“Keith Vaz also spoke to me and I told him precisely what I told the British High Commissioner.”
Vaz reportedly personally wrote to Sarah Rapson, the Director General of UK Visas and Immigration, for expediting the case of Lalit Modi.
The Labour MP was then the Chairman of the influential House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee in which role he was required to scrutinise and hold to account the work of Rapson and her department.
Lalit Modi’s Indian passport had been revoked by the government in March 2011, but it was restored by the Delhi High Court in August last year. Modi has denied any wrongdoing and says he left India for Britain because of death threats.
Shortly after he received his UK travel documents last summer after a lengthy legal battle with the UK Home Office, Modi described Vaz as a “superstar”.
Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala said Swaraj should resign immediately on moral grounds. He said there were questions as whether her action had “tacit” endorsement of the Prime Minister and his role was under a “cloud of suspicion”.
His party colleague Sachin Pilot said the Prime Minister “must himself answer as to why they (government) have been helping, supporting people who have been associated with all sorts of illegal transactions, who have run away from the country and are living overseas trying to avoid Indian law.”
JD(U) spokesman K C Tyagi said, “I condemn the help given to him (Lalit Modi) by Swaraj.”
CPI leader D raja said, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi owes an explanation to the country on impropriety committed by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.”
CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat termed the matter as a “case of grave impropriety” and said “it is the duty of the Prime Minister to answer”.
AAP spokesman Ashutosh said Swaraj has “no option but to resign” and if she does not, then the Prime Minister should sack her.
Amidst the row, Home Minister Rajnath Singh met the Prime Minister and later said, “We want to make it clear that whatever she has done is right. We justify it and the government completely stands by her.”
He said Swaraj told Vaz to do only what was “allowed” as per the rules and regulations of the UK. “Any person with humanitarian approach” should do the same, Singh said.
When referred to opposition demands for her resignation, the Home Minister said, “I don’t agree”.
BJP chief Amit Shah also strongly defended Swaraj, saying she had acted in a “humanitarian” manner and “no big moral” issue was involved.
Decrying “uproar” over the issue, he said attempts to gain “political mileage will not yield any results” as he attacked opposition Congress by referring to the Bofors scam and Union Carbide controversies.
“Sushmaji has herself clarified. The matter is clear. Lalit Modi had said his wife is suffering from cancer and sought help. She (Swaraj) said if British rules permit, then he should be helped. There is no need for any uproar. There is no issue of moral grounds,” Shah said, virtually rejecting opposition demands for her resignation.
He said it was an Indian helping an Indian.
Hitting back at Congress, the BJP chief said this matter was different from making Bofors scam accused Ottavio Quattrocchi “flee” from India or allowing Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson to “leave” the country.
RSS leader Indresh Kumar also defended Swaraj, saying whatever she might have done would have been guided by her “humane” nature and “nationalistic” spirit.
“Sushmaji is full of nationalism and humane nature. Whatever she might have done, would be guided by nationalism and humane nature,” he said.