Was helping Lalit Modi really worth it, Sushma Swaraj?

Has she simply been gullible and acted as she claimed on humanitarian grounds?

 |  5-minute read |   17-06-2015
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The BJP might have closed ranks on Tuesday to defend embattled foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, but the scandal seems to be growing bigger, now with Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia’s name also being dragged into the murky affairs of the high flying Lalit Modi.

It is obvious that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will brazen out these allegations. This was evident when finance minister Arun Jaitley came out in Swaraj’s defence. Neither Swaraj nor Scindia will be asked to step down. Raje has already denied that she emailed her support for Lalit Modi to the immigration authorities in Britain. Despite the opposition baying for blood, it is not Modi’s style to cow down to such a demand. The government will brazen this out. But the fact remains that the BJP’s image has got a severe beating. The party that came to power riding on the Congress-led UPA’s scam tainted image, is suddenly no longer smelling of roses. The anniversary celebrations of the Modi sarkar had hardly ended when the scandal broke.

Though there is no money trail in all this so far, rules of propriety were broken by both women. What is worse, the then opposition leader of Rajasthan while standing up for Lalit Modi in 2011 also made it plain that her name must not be made public. She clearly knew the perils of this leaking out, considering the IPL boss was under the scanner. Of course, all this has been provided by Modi’s lawyer in India, and its authenticity will need to be checked. So far all that we do know is that the IPL czar was a close friend of Scindia, and that she was, at one time, a regular at all matches played in Rajasthan. The Rajasthan chief minister has not denied that she knows the family well.

While there is a question mark about Vasundhara Raje’s involvement, Swaraj herself has admitted that she did what she could for Lalit Modi on humanitarian grounds. His wife was suffering from cancer and being treated in Portugal. One can’t imagine why when he was in London, she chose to consult doctors in Portugal. Her husband claims that the treatment, if it works, allows a patient to go out and have dinner immediately. Cancer is a serious ailment and no one can imagine walking out from hospital and going off for dinner at a restaurant! Modi also claimed that Raje accompanied his wife to Portugal when she went there for treatment earlier.

Unfortunately for the BJP, both Swaraj and Raje are the bright stars of the party. And whether any of these allegations finally stick or not, their image has been affected.

The external affairs ministry officials speak highly of Swaraj. They appreciate her intelligence and the quiet way she goes about her business. This is why many are shocked by her flouting of procedure in the Lalit Modi case. Why did she do it? Has she simply been gullible and acted as she claimed on humanitarian grounds? Even so not informing either the foreign secretary or the Enforcement Directorate was something no one expected of the external affairs minister. There is also the issue of conflict of interest, her daughter was been part of Modi’s legal team. Her husband has also been involved with Modi, though he now claims that all this professional help was given free of cost! 

This bad publicity is not something Sushma Swaraj needed. Not at this moment when she was finally getting into the swing of things. After putting her head down and working behind the scenes for over a year, Swaraj was slowly coming into her own. Her first extensive news conference on June 1, when she answered all questions thrown at her by the media was an eye opener.

Though Swaraj has always been seen as a good minister (in her previous avatar under Prime Minister Vajpayee) there was nothing she did this time around to prove her credentials. People put this down to wariness of her new boss, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who she had opposed as the BJP nominee for top post, she was careful in the initial months. She went about her job meticulously, not drawing attention to herself. At the same time she made it a point to reach out to all those who appealed to her for help. She was easily reachable, extending a helping hand to people in distress.

Whether it was during the Yemen evacuation, or reaching out to the families of those kidnapped or missing in war-ravaged Iraq, taking a personal interest in ensuring that Indian nurses were safely brought back home, Swaraj was in the forefront showing her compassionate side to Indian citizens in distress. During the Nepal earthquake, she focused on the under-14 all girls soccer team, stuck in Kathmandu. Perhaps because of all this, she got a thumbs-up as a great performer. In an India TV-C Voter opinion poll to find out how ministers had performed in one year of the Modi government, she was on top. 56 per cent of the respondents said she was the best minister in Modi’s cabinet.

But she is a foot soldier and not the general. All prime ministers, starting from Jawaharlal Nehru (who was his own foreign minister) onwards, and all PMOs like to guide foreign policy. Modi is no exception. His forte has been foreign policy and here he takes the counsel not of Sushma Swaraj, but of national security advisor Ajit Doval, foreign secretary S Jaishankar and other mandarins of the ministry of external affairs. But finally Modi calls the shots. In this scheme of things, Sushma Swaraj does not have much of a role. This has nothing to do with Swaraj’s ability and everything to do with Narendra Modi’s hands-on style of functioning.

Writer

Seema Guha Seema Guha @seemaguha1

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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