Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government is facing its first major scandal as the country’s main opposition party led calls on Monday (15) for the resignation of the foreign minister Sushma Swaraj over allegations she tried to help the former chief of India’s richest sports league obtain British travel documents.
Media organisations in India reported last Sunday (14) that Swaraj, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had last year asked British authorities to examine a request to provide travel documents to Lalit Modi. His passport had been revoked by Indian authorities in a graft case.
Swaraj has denied the allegations, saying on social media she was helping London-based Modi on “humanitarian” grounds, as he needed to visit his ailing wife in Portugal.
“I genuinely believe that in a situation such as this, giving emergency travel documents to an Indian citizen cannot and should not spoil relations between the two countries,” Swaraj said in a series of tweets.
Modi was suspended as the head of India’s cash-rich Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket competition in 2010 following allegations of corruption that also ensnared politicians.
Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the opposition Congress party, said the prime minister should sack Swaraj for trying to help an individual who is accused of wrongdoing.
In London, a spokesperson for the Home Office said on Tuesday (16) that Britain had acted “appropriately” and in accordance with rules when issuing travel documents to Modi.
“We do not routinely comment on the detail of individual cases. This case was determined in accordance with the appropriate rules,” the spokesperson said.
The department also confirmed that Britain’s permanent secretary was “satisfied” that Sarah Rapson, the director-general of UK visas and immigration, acted “appropriately and professionally in handling this case”.
Rapson was the senior official who received correspondence from Indian-origin Labour MP for Leicester East, Keith Vaz, in relation to expediting paperwork for Modi to be able to travel to Portugal in June last year.
Vaz has said Modi’s case was one of “hundreds” he had raised with the home office on behalf of individuals where he felt there was a wider problem with the immigration system – in this case, a delay in the issuing of travel papers.
He said: “There is no conflict of interest as I have no personal interest in this case and received no benefit from it. I actively encouraged people to bring to my and the committee’s attention examples of delays, inefficiencies and problems with the immigration system.”
Modi arrived in London in 2010 amid claims that the IPL cricket tournament was embroiled in alleged match-fixing and illegal betting. His Indian passport was later revoked, leaving him grounded in the UK. Lalit Modi has always denied any wrongdoing and says he left India for Britain because of death threats.
A series of reports in British Sunday newspapers has alleged impropriety on the part of Vaz, who also made a reference to Swaraj in one of his UK home office emails.
Meanwhile, Kathryn Hudson, Britain’s parliamentary commissioner for standards, on Monday (15) confirmed that she will not be investigating Vaz over the issue.
“The Commissioner received a complaint (against Keith Vaz) last week, but has decided not to investigate it,” a spokesperson for the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards said.
However, the row continues to brew in India as the opposition demands Swaraj’s resignation.
Congress party members added to pressure on Swaraj by marching in the streets of the capital New Delhi, waving posters and shouting slogans against her.
Swaraj did not answer phone calls to her home. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said he had no comment to make at this stage and Modi could not immediately be reached for a comment.
Narendra Modi, who is not related to Lalit, has not commented on the issue so far, but senior leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have publicly backed Swaraj, with party president Amit Shah saying the BJP was standing behind her.
“There is no need to make noise as the party doesn’t look at this as a propriety issue but purely as a humanitarian one,” Shah said.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley added on Tuesday that Swaraj acted with “good intentions” and the government and party were one on the issue.
“All allegations levelled are baseless. Her (Swaraj) statement and that of the party president that whatever she did was with good intentions,” Jaitley said. “She acted bona fide. The entire government and the party are one on the issue. There should be no doubt on this.”
Swaraj’s involvement in helping Modi first came to light when Indian media obtained an email trail from Vaz to Rapson sent last year.
In the email, the British MP reportedly said: “The Foreign Minister of India (Sushma Swaraj) has spoken to me, making it very clear that the Indian government has no objection to the travel document (for Modi) being granted which is contrary to what the refusal notice has stated. Mrs Swaraj has also spoken to Sir James Bevan, who even though is on leave, said he would speak to the relevant person in the Home Office.”
Modi stormed to power last year with promises of running a graft-free, transparent government.
“It is an act of great impropriety,” Congress’ national spokesman Sanjay Jha said. “(Swaraj’s) resignation ought to be a fait accompli.”