Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Political Controversy: Will BJP Sacrifice Sushma Swaraj And Vasundhara Raje To Maintain Party's Clean Image?

By Piyush Sharma in Delhi
The party came to power promising a clean government. The Lalit Modi affair has pushed it into a corner.

As the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is still struggling to deal with the political fall-out of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s move to obtain UK travel documents for the fugitive businessman Lalit Modi,  the party was hit by a fresh political storm on Tuesday evening.

This time the spotlight is on BJP’s  Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje , whose proximity to Lalit Modi was well-known till the she decided to distance herself from the sacked chairman of the Indian Premier League.

Documents obtained by the Times Now  television channel from Modi’s public relations team suggest that Vasundhara Raje had supported Modi’s application for immigration to the United Kingdom in 2011 when he was wanted by the  Enforcement Directorate in connection with a series of financial irregularities.

The document showed how Raje went to great lengths to keep her involvement under wraps. "I make this statement in support of any immigration application that Lalit Modi makes, but do so on the strict condition that my assistance will not become known to the Indian authorities," it said.

While Vasundhara Raje has feigned ignorance about these documents,  the BJP leadership has been pushed into a corner. There is a nagging fear that  it will be  difficult to defend itself  if this controversy  snowballs, revealing more names and fresh facts.

Having had a dream run since it came to power last May, the Modi government is facing its first major challenge. In the run-up to the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had launched a high-voltage attack on  the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government on the issue of corruption and probity in public life. When it was in the opposition, the BJP had forced the resignations of several UPA ministers, including A Raja, Pawan Kumar Bansal, Shashi Tharoor and Ashwani Kumar, when allegations of corruption surfaced against them.

Since it was so severe on the Congress when it was in power, the BJP will have a lot of explaining to do if it is seen to be straying from its electoral promise to provide a clean and transparent government. If the public mood turns against the ruling allaince, the party may be 

forced to revisit its decision to support Swaraj and Raje. It would not like this controversy to linger, especially since the monsoon session of Parliament is due next month and the crucial Bihar assembly elections are round the corner.

When the story surfaced on Sunday about Sushma Swaraj helping Lalit Modi obtain UK travel documents despite his passport being impounded by the Indian authorities, the party took a considered  decision to stand by the external affairs minister. BJP president Amit Shah and Home Minister Rajnath Singh came out in her defence, while a battery of spokespersons was fielded to rubbish the opposition demand for her resignation and defend the minister’s decision to speak up for Lalit Modi.

Keen to put up a united show,  Finance Minister Arun Jaitley also broke his silence on Tuesday and came out to defend his cabinet colleague. Not known to be on the best of  terms with Swaraj, Jaitley  put up a public show of solidarity. Stating that all he allegations made against 

Swaraj were baseless,  Jaitley declared:  "Sushma ji acted in good faith.The minister and the party chief [Amit Shah] have given statements...she acted  with good intentions. The whole government and party share the same view on this. There is no doubt on this.” He also 

clarified that all ministers take their own decisions but these are the collective responsibility of the government.

Having stood by Swaraj, the BJP may now be obliged to back Raje though BJP officials admitted the two leaders are  skating on thin ice.

Like Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje is not known to have a comfortable relationship with Narendra Modi. She cemented her position in the BJP hierarchy when she delivered a blockbuster electoral victory  in the assembly and Lok Sabha polls.

But both have a history with Lalit Modi. Swaraj’s husband has been the businessman’s lawyer for over two decades while her daughter is a member of his team of lawyers. The absconding businessman is also known to the minister.

Vasundhara Raje has publicly admitted that she has known the Modi family for years. In fact, Lalit Modi wielded immense influence during Raje’s last stint as chief minister. He  brokered deals, cleared projects and fixed postings of bureaucrats  while his suite of rooms at Jaipur’s 

Rambagh Palace Hotel  was known as the de facto chief’s minister’s office. Eventually, this association with Lalit Modi is thought to have cost Vasundhara Raje the state election in 2008.

Realising the heavy political price she paid for her friendship with Lalit Modi, Vasundhara Raje gradually distanced herself from him. It was a tactical retreat. She had to silence the opposition which had mounted a campaign against her for allowing Modi a free run in her 

administration. It was imperative for her to establish a close rapport with  BJP pointsperson Jaitley  to regain her position in the party  and  for that she had to drop Lalit Modi, who is at daggers drawn with the finance minister.

After sacrificing  her relationship with Lalit Modi to secure her political survival,  it is to be seen if  the past will catch up with Vasundhara Raje.

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