The Congress on Monday upped the ante against the National Democratic Alliance government, making Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, the focus of its attack in the controversy surrounding Swaraj's decision to facilitate businessman Lalit Modi secure travel documents. The issue has become the first major scandal to hit the 13-month-old government at the Centre.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, however, asked their leaders to defend both Swaraj and the PM in one voice. This followed some in the party, who believe defaming Swaraj was an inside job, threatening an all-out war if Swaraj was left to fend for herself. Earlier in the day, BJP MP Kirti Azad accused "snakes in the grass" within the party of colluding with people in the media to defame Swaraj.
In another tweet late on Monday evening, Azad asked Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for his opinion on probing those who had cleared the IPL in South Africa in 2009. "@LalitKModi being probed by #ED. Who were d members of #BCCI #EC who approved #IPL IN #SA, Shd they 2 not be probed? What say @arunjaitley."
The Nationalist Congress Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad and BJP ally Shiv Sena came out in Swaraj's support. The Trinamool Congress distanced itself from its MP Saugata Roy's statement that she had done something improper. Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu also defended Swaraj.
Several other parties, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Aam Aadmi Party and the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) questioned the PM's role and BJP's "double standards" in dealing with cases of impropriety when these related to its own.
However, others such as the Samajwadi Party's Ram Gopal Yadav defended Swaraj.
The controversy is gathering enough steam to potentially disrupt the forthcoming Monsoon session of Parliament and dent the government's reform agenda and have an impact on the Bihar assembly elections in September-October.
On Swaraj helping businessman Lalit Modi secure travel documents, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi sought the PM sack Swaraj. He, however, added Swaraj was "just a minor minister in the Cabinet. Only one man is running the government. PM should stop protecting (Lalit) Modi."
The Congress has labelled the issue #ModiGate scandal. It sought to know "was the Prime Minister helping a money launderer, a fugitive?" It alleged the PM was complicit in facilitating Lalit Modi with travel documents. "(Narendra) Modi is standing by another (Lalit) Modi," Rahul Gandhi said in Chhattisgarh.
He also questioned the government's commitment to bring back unaccounted money from abroad and deposit Rs 15 lakh in everyone's account. "Now, they (the government) are supporting black money masters on humanitarian grounds," he said.
In the afternoon, Congress communication chief, Randeep Surjewala, demanded Swaraj be booked under the Indian Penal Code for aiding and abetting a fugitive escape the law. Surjewala showed pictures of Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah at Indian Premier League (IPL) match venues. "We want to know what is the relationship between the PM and Amit Shah with Lalit Modi," he said. The Congress has put forward a set of 11 questions for the government to answer.
"While the minister's family was seeking help from Modi for securing admission of a relative, her daughter was Lalit Modi's legal counsel and all the while, Swaraj was trying to secure travel documents for Lalit Modi," Surjewala said. He added within 14 hours of Swaraj's intervention, Lalit Modi secured travel documents.
The Congress sought to punch holes in claims that the travel documents were facilitated on humanitarian grounds. The party pointed at emails which had reasons varying from "wife's treatment" to "friend's wedding". Voicing their protest, Youth Congress activists marched to Swaraj's residence.
The concerted attack forced the government to defend itself. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said the photographs of Narendra Modi, Amit Asah and Lalit Modi were taken in 2010, when Narendra Modi was Gujarat chief minister and president of the Gujarat Cricket Association, while Shah was its vice-president.
"There are photographs of Lalit Modi with Sharad Pawar, Rajeev Shukla and several other Congress leaders…How is it that Lalit Modi could leave India during the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) rule, just as Bhopal gas tragedy accused Warren Andersen was allowed to escape?" Javadekar asked. He also sought to know what kind of a visa Gandhi had secured for his recent 56-day vacation.
Sources close to Sushma Swaraj and her husband Swaraj Kaushal denied any quid pro quo. They said the couple didn't pull any strings with either British MP Keith Vaz or Lalit Modi to help their nephew secure admission into a law course.
In tweets on Sunday night and Monday morning, Swaraj claimed she didn't pass any benefit to Lalit Modi. In one of her tweets, she also took a swipe at a television journalist pursuing the story: "Look who is preaching propriety of the all the persons."
The controversy relates to British MP Vaz seeking Swaraj's help to facilitate Lalit Modi's travel documents. British High Commissioner James Bevan refused to comment on the issue. "We do not routinely comment on the detail of individual cases. This case was determined in accordance with the appropriate rules," a UK Home Office spokesperson told Business Standard. According to sources, the British government does not see any wrongdoing on the part of Sarah Rapson, director general, UK visas and immigration.
Meanwhile, at a press conference in Mumbai, Lalit Modi's lawyer said his client had been victimised since he had, in 2010, tweeted about the sweat equity that Sunanda Pushkar, the late wife of Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, held in an IPL team. "Some people are trying to destabilise a popular government," the lawyer claimed.