The scandal surrounding Lalit Modi and senior BJP leaders has snowballed because Narendra Modi has committed himself to just one course of action, which is not to act at all.
When the NDA completed one year in power a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proudly declared that there was no taint of corruption on his government. In fact, both Modi and Arun Jaitley emphasised this as a key “achievement” in several public statements. Today, that claim appears hollow as the BJP-led government is besieged by multiple scandals caused by a fugitive whom the Enforcement Directorate is pursuing on charges of foreign exchange violations and even money laundering. The government last week slapped more notices against the former cricket administrator Lalit Modi, now based in London, in order to establish that the government is seriously investigating charges of money laundering to the tune of over Rs.1000 crore. This and the other cases pursued by the ED and the Central Bureau of Investigation have become a litmus test for the BJP’s stated commitment to attack the menace of black money.
Meanwhile, even as the media continues to expose the high profile links between ‘LaMo’ and senior BJP leaders like Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje Scindia, the BJP is totally at a loss over how to deal with the crisis.
Curiously, Prime Minister Modi has chosen not to say a word on the subject. This is hurting the party’s credibility. The regular BJP spokespersons who appear on TV debates look weak and end up saying all the wrong things such as, “No charges have yet been framed against Lalit Modi”. Therefore he can’t be called a criminal yet, suggested a BJP’s spokesman. The BJP should realise this is tantamount to defending a man who is suspected of circulating black money. Further investigation could bring forth criminal misconduct under the Income Tax Act too.
The PM has allowed the crisis to snowball because he has failed to give a timely response. He seems to have committed himself to just one course of action, which is not to act at all. It appears the PM and RSS leaders had assumed the problem was too small and would blow over quickly. The RSS backed Sushma Swaraj, endorsing her claim that the assistance she gave him was merely a “humanitarian gesture” aimed at allowing him to visit his ailing wife in Portugal. But soon it was apparent that there were other dimensions to the scandal as Lalit Modi was being advised by Sushma Swaraj’ s husband, who is a lawyer. The minister’s daughter, also a lawyer, was part of the panel of advocates helping Lalit Modi. In other words, there seems to be both illegality and conflict of interest in the help the minister provided him. The fact that she helped him without informing the foreign secretary and the Indian a High Commission in London makes her action look even worse.
When these aspects of the Sushma-Lalit Modi deal came out in the open, the scandal got bigger. Finally, with Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje admitting she has signed an affidavit personally endorsing Lalit Modi’s immigration application with the British authorities, the political fire has spread too far and wide for silence to be an option for the PM.
We now know that Lalit Modi had invested in a company owned by Raje’s son, the BJP MP Dushyant Singh. Lalit Modi showed excessive generosity by paying close to thousand times the value for equity nominally valued at Rs.10 per share. According to experts the company did not have any cash flow or annual profitability in its books, and even the most valuable assets it manages apparently do not belong to it but to the government. These are tell-tale signs of money laundering and the ED is investigating the matter. Now it has been revealed that Raje herself had shares in the company for which Lalit paid an unusually huge premium. This made Vasundhara’s shares worth Rs. 31 crore, a sum she failed to declare in her assets declaration before the Election Commission in 2013.
The main opposition party, Congress never expected it would get such a bonanza of issues to raise against the BJP government so early in its tenure. The Congress has asked for the resignation of both Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje. It has even demanded that a comprehensive investigation be conducted into all money laundering and black money cases by a Supreme Court monitored SIT. This could further embarrass the Modi government as such an investigation will have to include other pending complaints with the authorities relating to corporates such as the Adani group – against whom there are money laundering charges.
In other words, the current political crisis could get bigger if the opposition parties play it intelligently. Meanwhile, the BJP has been put further on the back foot with the courts admitting a complaint about HRD Minister Smriti Irani having provided different academic qualifications at different times to the EC.
At present the BJP and sangh parivar leadership appear to be brazening it out by not responding substantively to many issues raised around the Lalit Modi scandal. Senior ministers like Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari are suggesting no wrong had been committed and that the favour to Lalit Modi was done at a personal level by both Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje. Beyond a point, this explanation will not wash. There are already murmurs within the BJP over the way the entire crisis is being mismanaged. Former Home Secretary and now BJP MP from Bihar, R.K. Singh has said it was plainly wrong and illegal to help a ‘bhagoda’, or absconder, such as Lalit Modi.
Prime Minister Modi will soon have to initiate substantive action to win back some credibility. Keeping quiet is not an option any longer, simply because the opposition will paralyse the monsoon session of Parliament if the government chooses to be so blasé about the fallout of this scandal. Currently the BJP has no answers except to keep recalling the scams that occurred during the UPA regime. Narendra Modi must realise the Congress was severely punished by the people at the 2014 elections for its corruption. He may today have 282 seats in the Lok Sabha but if he doesn’t respond decisively to the current crisis faced by his government, the NDA will pay a heavy price.
MK Venu is Executive Editor at the Amar Ujala group