Time for Narendra Modi to speak up on the Lalit Modi-Swaraj fiasco

The Lalit Modi-Sushma Swaraj saga has been at the centre of media attention this week. As new revelations are made every day, many important politicians, including a Union Cabinet minister and a chief minister find themselves in the spotlight. The entire episode raises some uncomfortable questions about the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There are three basic issues that emerge:

Mere impropriety or corruption?

The Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, has faced the most criticism for having helped Lalit Modi obtain travel documents in the UK. The minister has defended her actions by terming them as humanitarian help for a citizen stuck abroad. It is nobody’s case that the foreign minister should not help an Indian citizen caught in a bad situation in a foreign country, but a legitimate question to ask is whether the minister followed proper procedures while taking this decision. Did the note come on file, through proper channels, before she took  a decision? Did she seek the opinion of the Indian High Commission in London? Did she ask the Finance Ministry or the Department of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) for their views? Evidently not.
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Lalit Modi is a fugitive whose deportation had been sought by the Indian govt in the past. Ms Swaraj must have been aware that Lalit Modi sought travel documents because his Indian passport had been revoked. Did the minister consult the home ministry or refer the matter to the PMO? How, then, did the minister arrive at the decision to help Lalit Modi?

What has made matters worse is the fact that Swaraj's daughter Bansuri and husband Swaraj Kaushal have been Lalit Modi’s legal counsel for the past 22 years. This turns what might have been  an issue of impropriety into a conflict-of-interest scandal. Ideally, Ms Swaraj ought to have recused herself and allowed official advice to guide the actions of her ministry in this regard. She chose not to.

Who heads this government?

The Foreign Minister has been defended by her party's president, Amit Shah, as well as her Cabinet colleagues. BJP president Shah said "Sushmaji has herself clarified. The matter is clear.” Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have also defended Ms Swaraj in the matter. And like various other issues, the Prime Minister has chosen to remain silent on the entire matter. This raises some uncomfortable questions.

Does the Minister for External Affairs report to her party’s president or the Prime Minister? The Prime Minister, an avid tweeter and an eloquent speaker, firmly avoids talking or tweeting about important matters that the government ought to be answerable for. The Prime Minister’s statements, tweets and radio shows are remarkable more for their loquacity rather than for the importance of the issue being discussed.The same template of silence has been adopted in this case as well. The PM talks a lot but doesn’t say much except perhaps at close gatherings over special dinners. The PM ought to tell us what his views on this conflict-of-interest scandal are rather than talk only about Board exam results, Yoga, and farewells of retiring babus.

He can also question why his government chose not to appeal the division bench’s order to restore Lalit Modi’s passport even though the DRI has issued a lookout notice against him as was confirmed by the finance minister yesterday.

Weak or corrupt?

Commentary surrounding this whole scandal has suggested that any action taken against Sushma Swaraj will make the Union government come across as weak and hurt its standing. The flip side is that not taking any action against the errant minister will hurt the image of the govt as well.

The Prime Minister can make a choice between coming across as heading a weak but honest, or a strong but corrupt government. The scandal is clear and the misuse of office evident. Will the Prime Minister accept such impropriety from his council of ministers or will he set an example and strengthen his moral standing? 

Too often, Modi has avoided taking responsibility for fixing issues in his government, with the commentariat blaming an errant bureaucracy or incapable ministers or previous government on various occasions. It is time for him to assert his authority and send a clear message that he is going to take responsibility and ownership of his Cabinet and its actions. The buck stops with the Prime Minister.

/> @bhayankur