Scandal has Drawn Sushma’s Blood but the Modi Government is Injured Too

NOT LOOKING GOOD, IS IT? File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Credit: PTI

NOT LOOKING GOOD, IS IT? File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Credit: PTI

Within a day of the media revealing how Sushma Swaraj had gone out of her way to help Lalit Modi – the controversial former IPL commissioner who fled India in the wake of an Enforcement Directorate investigation into his affairs – both NDA government as well as the RSS rose to her defence.

There was no equivocation either. The government made it clear that no wrong had been done. “The opposition is making a mountain out of a molehill” said Environment minister Prakash Jawadekar.

The RSS rose to her defence in the manner only it can: Sushma, said Sangh leader Indresh Kumar, had “never compromised on nationalism and patriotism. She is full of human values. All her actions come from these values.” It was quite a character certificate.

BJP president Amit Shah too backed her, while taking a dig at the Congress for having helped Walter Anderson escape the country after the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal. Bringing in the Congress’s many acts of omission and commission is a time tested strategy of the BJP, though it begs the question—just because a wrong was committed earlier, does this wrong become right?

This united chorus sent out two messages. First, that Swaraj would not resign nor be asked to leave; and second, that there was no internal dissent within the BJP’s upper echelons, as was being speculated widely after the story broke.

But much as the party would like to give the impression that it is a happy family, it is hardly a secret that there is rivalry among some of the senior-most ministers. Quite naturally, the grapevine was abuzz with conjecture about who could have leaked the emails that did Sushma in.

It is hardly surprising that a government would want to defend a senior minister and downplay the implications of what Swaraj did. The evidence against her is damning on several fronts. To go to extraordinary lengths to help a fugitive wanted for questioning in this country is bad enough; to not acknowledge the conflicts of interest in handling this request from a man represented by your daughter is worse. The BJP and the government may not think so, but this smells to high heaven with the whiff of cronyism if not corruption. It is simplistic to think that corruption only implies handing over a bribe in return for a favour; the cozy give and take with little regard for propriety among people in power with deep links to each other is no less dishonest.

With Lalit Modi releasing documents which purportedly show Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje too having tried to help him – when she was in the opposition – the scandal has the potential to become even bigger. Lalit Modi, sitting far away, has given notice that he is going to spill some beans or the other.

The government and the BJP are refusing to see any impropriety on the part of either Swaraj or Raje and even if they do, they are not likely to admit it in public. Defending Sushma Swaraj was the only option, at least in the beginning, till the heat ratchets up. Giving in to demands for resignation, at least in the early stages, would be a tactical error and hand a major victory to the opposition.

But standing by Sushma helps even her own party, especially her rivals. For one thing, it cripples her politically and at a time when she was slowly building a reputation of being a good minister. If there was ever any chance that she could emerge as a rival for any job – including the top one – in case of future upheaval, that chance is now gone. Sushma Swaraj stands weakened to such an extent that it will require a superhuman effort, coupled with a memory loss among the public, for her to claw back to any credibility.

She may actually believe she was doing humanitarian social work by helping a distraught citizen stuck abroad, but no one else sees it that way. The email trail is a smoking gun that shows not just the extent to which she stretched out to help a man wanted by her government, but also how Lalit Modi helped put in a word with British MP Keith Vaz to help Swaraj’s nephew get admission to a British university. Swaraj’s incapacitation helps her rivals while at the same time she can never forget that she owes them one.

Backing Sushma also achieves another crucial objective—it keeps the heat away from Narendra Modi. By swiftly using terms like Modigate and saying that the Prime Minister and Amit Shah are friends with Lalit Modi, the Congress has made clear who the real target is. The BJP could eventually throw Sushma Swaraj to the wolves and even get some brownie points for it, but that will leave the Prime Minister vulnerable. In a government so tightly run by one man, it is highly implausible that Sushma Swaraj did not keep her colleagues and boss in the loop; with her gone, the only target left will be Narendra Modi. Keeping her on allows Modi to deflect some heat, and backing her so thoroughly assures her that she will not be sacrificed – putting her forever in his debt.

The government will probably ride over this scandal, though now it will have to go after Lalit Modi in a big way, if only to show that it is impartial. But the claim of being a scam free administration has been dented. No one may have been caught with his or her hands in the till, but the exhortations of high-minded probity are now sounding hollow. And if the net becomes wider and Lalit Modi hurls more accusations, Narendra Modi will have to act to ensure that the fire is contained.