Was the release of the Vasundhara document by Lalit Modi the act of an artless man who believed he was clearing his name by showing the support he enjoys? Or was it a warning shot across the collective bow of the BJP?
Lalit Modi, to borrow the line Gene Hackman uses on Will Smith in the closing minutes of Enemy of the State, is either very smart or incredibly stupid.
On Monday, the former IPL commissioner who has been on the lam for nearly five years, ought to have been gratified by the manner in which leaders from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party were competing with each other to generate sympathy for him.
As a series of incriminating emails emerged suggesting gross impropriety on the part of Sushma Swaraj, the ruling establishment insisted that the extraordinary effort the External Affairs Minister put in to helping Lalit Modi acquire travel documents was undertaken wholly and solely on humanitarian considerations.
Their stand is understandable. Once Prime Minister Modi saw the storm clouds gathering, his priority was to insulate the government from the charge of wrongdoing at any cost. After all, he had just asserted in an interview to the Tribune a week before that the promise of ‘achche din’ for the masses meant only that the bad old days of cronyism had come to an end. How could he then concede that one of the senior-most members of his cabinet had acted improperly in helping a fugitive from the Enforcement Directorate? Throwing Sushma – someone he does not have the best of relations with – to the wolves would have meant destroying his own halo, and he was not going to allow that to happen.
The problem with this strategy, though, is it that put the party onto a very slippery plane. For if defending Narendra Modi meant Sushma Swaraj would have to be defended, that in turn would require the BJP to bat for Lalit Modi. The moral descent this involved was obvious. But there was also a political downside that the Prime Minister appears not to have factored in.
At any rate, the BJP on Monday played to script. Lalit Modi’s family obligations were duly talked up, the economic offences which he is being investigated for were made light of, and the subversion of official procedure by Swaraj described as a minor matter. Though the party’s performance was highly unconvincing, the crisis might eventually have blown over but for Lalit Modi’s decision to mount his own defence. That is when a disaster of monumental proportions struck.
Among the documents Lalit Modi released via his lawyer and PR firm on Monday night was an unsigned ‘Witness Statement’ from 2011 in the name of Vasundhara Raje in which the BJP Chief Minister of Rajasthan – who was at the time leader of the opposition in the state assembly – said she would support “any immigration application that Lalit Modi makes but on the strict condition that my assistance will not become known to the Indian authorities.”
Raje’s ‘witness statement’, if authenticated, suggested impropriety on an ever greater scale than Swaraj’s because the document said the government of India must never come to know she was helping Lalit Modi.
Remember, hers was not the request for anonymity that a noble benefactor might make as she donates generously to, say, an orphanage. What Vasundhara is apparently demanding is respect for the code of omerta, that sacred bond of secrecy which ties people on the wrong side of morality to one another. Lalit Modi was, after all, a man wanted for questioning in connection with money laundering and other cases involving upwards of Rs 450 crore. Obviously she would not want her assistance to “become known to the Indian authorities.”
Now, why would Lalit Modi make such a bombshell of a document public?
Was the release of the document the gesture of an artless man who believed he was clearing his name by showcasing the support he had received from a prominent BJP politician? Or was it a warning shot across the collective bow of the BJP and the Indian political class as a whole that he has a decade’s worth of dirty linen which he is prepared to bring out into the open unless the hound dogs are called off?
Even though the copy released did not bear Vasundhara Raje’s signature, another letter written to the British authorities by his immigration solicitors in London, Gherson, referenced Raje as one of three persons backing Modi’s application.
The Wire spoke to a designated representative of Gherson but she refused to confirm Modi was a client of the firm. Confidentiality would not even allow the firm to confirm whether the letter released by Modi’s lawyer in India was authentic or not. Raje, on her part, spoke briefly to the media about having no recollection of the document; it was apparent that her remarks fell well short of a denial.
Despite the media’s inability to authenticate any of the documents, it was apparent by Tuesday evening that the BJP had not quite figured out how to react to the Vasundhara angle. No statements of support from Amit Shah or Rajnath Singh were forthcoming. As regular party spokespersons absented themselves from TV studios, the C-listers who were fielded had clearly received no guidance. They still defended Swaraj, though perhaps not as passionately as the day before, but on Raje’s role they chose to hide behind the absence of her signature on that very incriminating document which Lalit Modi’s team had released.
Even as Arun Jaitley was splitting hairs over the shade of blue in the ‘blue corner notice’ India had issued against Lalit Modi, the wanted man himself – if indeed he is really still wanted – came up with a red card of his own.
Speaking to Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today TV in Montenegro on Tuesday night, Lalit Modi confirmed that Vasundhara Raje had indeed submitted a statement backing his immigration application.
Was he lying when he made that claim? Was he issuing a veiled threat to the Narendra Modi government that an incriminating document bearing the signature of the Rajasthan government might one day be made public? Are his seemingly guileless admissions of proximity to Raje and Sushma Swaraj and her family an act of calibrated brinkmanship designed to ensure the BJP and RSS curb the investigative appetite of the ED?
The fact of the matter is that three days into this sordid scandal, neither the External Affairs Minister, who looks after passport issues, or the Finance Minister, who controls the ED, has been able to clarify why the Modi government quietly dropped its legal efforts to revoke Lalit Modi’s passport. Has a deal already been struck? Was the help Swaraj gave him with the British authorities last year a part of this wider deal? These are questions that not only reflect the absence of morality in the highest echelons of the present government. They are indicative of the betrayal of public trust and perhaps also the violation of statute.
The longer the Prime Minister remains silent and inactive, the more damage he is going to do to the image of his government. Do the corruption-free ‘achche din’ he says we now enjoy mean a Chief Minister who helps an absconder remain beyond the reach of Indian law – and who demands that this help be hidden “from the Indian authorities” – will suffer no political or legal consequences? Does it mean that a foreign minister who is bound by multiple braids to a fugitive she then helps by diluting her ministry’s case against him can walk away from this scandal unscathed?