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How a divided Congress let Sushma Swaraj off the hook

Panini Anand | Updated on: 17 June 2015, 17:18 IST

The row

  • External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was in the dock for helping tainted IPL chief Lalit Modi get travel documents in the UK.
  • The BJP\'s factionalism landed her in trouble. The Congress\' divisions helped her escape.
  • The Congress had been demanding her resignation. Now it wants a SIT inquiry.

The fissures

  • The Rahul Gandhi axis wanted to push for Swaraj\'s resignation. The old guard didn\'t agree.
  • They thought Swaraj\'s ouster will help PM Narendra Modi.
  • Swaraj has had good relations with Sonia Gandhi; has not personally attacked the Gandhi family.
  • Lack of support from Opposition parties weakened the Congress position.
  • The party widened the attack to target the PM and bring in the issue of black money.

Plan ahead

  • Congress will use the Lalit Modi row to attack the PM\'s \'double standards\' on corruption.
  • With Vasundhara Raje\'s name also cropping up, it will also attack the Rajasthan CM.
  • But it has become virtually impossible for the Congress to seek anybody\'s resignation in this controversy.

If it was factionalism in the BJP that pushed External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj into the vortex of a storm, it is factionalism in the Congress that has come to her rescue.

The party might not push for Swaraj's resignation even though it is likely to intensify its attack on the BJP, especially with Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje's name also cropping up in connection with the Lalit Modi row.

Rahul brigade versus Old Guard

While the Congress is still demanding Swaraj's resignation, that isn't what it really wants.

Its aim was to hurt the BJP, which it has done. It seems the party was not desperate to see the external affairs minister go.

A BJP source explained, "If you want to hit a target, you tend to narrow your focus and define your target clearly. The Congress could have focused only on Swaraj. Once the Congress leaders started attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was clear that they were widening the target area instead of narrowing it. Then merely sacrificing Sushma was no longer a solution."

Despite the public fulminations of Congress leaders, there were two points of view on the Sushma Swaraj-Lalit Modi issue within the party.

Swaraj has good relations with Sonia Gandhi. She's never made personal attacks against the Gandhi family

The Rahul Gandhi camp was strident on the issue. It wanted to draw blood, just as the BJP had done in the case of Ashok Chavan and Shashi Tharoor.

The old guard, however, was more circumspect. Its argument was that Swaraj's exit from the Modi Cabinet would not only diminish any potential challenge to the prime minister, it would also mean that the Congress would lose the only Modi minister with whom they could engage in a reasonable manner.

Despite ideological differences, Swaraj has good relations not only with Sonia Gandhi but also with party general secretary Digvijaya Singh.

The Congress also sees her as the only BJP leader who has never launched personal attacks against the Gandhi family.

As a compromise, it was decided that the party would rake up black money transactions in cricket and target the prime minister.

That the party was going soft on the resignation of Swaraj was clear from Congress leader Anand Sharma's press conference. He only demanded a Supreme Court sanctioned SIT (Special Investigation Team) to look into the issue.

Action delayed is action denied

"Such a demand meant that despite the loud rhetoric, Congress was going soft on the issue. An inquiry does two things - it delays the matter and by the time its report comes out, the storm normally dissipates. The moment the demand for an inquiry is considered, there can be no question of anyone's resignation," a BJP source explained.

Congress isolated

Yet another factor which could have pushed the Congress towards widening the area of its attack was the lack of Opposition unity on Swaraj's ouster.

Other Opposition parties like Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Nationalist Congress Party and Trinamool Congress did not want Swaraj's resignation.

"We made it clear right from the beginning that this is an issue of propriety. The minister owes an explanation to the nation in this regard. She should explain. We will judge her explanation and then decide what the future course of action should be. We don't agree with Congress' demand for her resignation as of now," said senior NCP leader DP Tripathi.

Congress is likely to go after Raje in a big way, given the revival of their Rajasthan unit under Sachin Pilot

Even the Communist Party of India (Marxist) doesn't seem to have been in favour of demanding Swaraj's resignation.

"This is a very serious matter. Modi claims to be committed to a corruption free government. Therefore, there should be a thorough inquiry into this issue and only then should appropriate action be taken," said CPI(M) leader Nilotpal Basu.

This left the Congress all alone in its war against what it began calling 'Modi Gate'.

In the changed scenario, the Congress decided to dilute its stand as it needs the support of the Opposition to take on the government during the Monsoon session of Parliament.

No respite for BJP

Nonetheless, the Congress would continue with its agitation against the 'misconduct' of Modi's ministers.

"Our aim is not the resignation of this or that minister. We want to dent the image of the Modi government. That remains our top priority. Modi's hypocrisy on corruption needs to be exposed," argued a Congress insider.

What will make matters even more difficult for the BJP are reports that Vasundhara Raje had agreed to be Lalit Modi's secret witness in 2011.

According to a three-page note released by Modi's public relations team, Raje had supported his application for immigration to the UK in 2011, but on condition of strict secrecy. She was in the Opposition in Rajasthan at that time.

The Congress is likely to go after Raje in a major way, especially given the revival of the party's Rajasthan unit under Sachin Pilot. However, Raje is unlikely to resign.

Enemies within

The controversy has exposed the factionalism within the Congress and the BJP.

The latter at least has begun a process of patching up differences. That effort was evident when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Home Minister Rajnath Singh addressed the press jointly in support of Swaraj.

This was the result of an hour-long meeting in Singh's chambers between Jaitley, Swaraj and Singh. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) come under his ministry. The ED and the DRI had initiated several cases against Lalit Modi which had resulted in the impounding of his passport.

With inputs from Kunal Majumder.

First published: 17 June 2015, 17:18 IST
Panini Anand @paninianand

Senior Assistant Editor at Catch, Panini is a poet, singer, cook, painter, commentator, traveller and photographer who has worked as reporter, producer and editor for organizations including BBC, Outlook and Rajya Sabha TV. An IIMC-New Delhi alumni who comes from Rae Bareli of UP, Panini is fond of the Ghats of Varanasi, Hindustani classical music, Awadhi biryani, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd, political talks and heritage walks. He has closely observed the mainstream national political parties, the Hindi belt politics along with many mass movements and campaigns in last two decades. He has experimented with many mass mediums: theatre, street plays and slum-based tabloids, wallpapers to online, TV, radio, photography and print.