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Rank impropriety

The controversy surrounding External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has deflated the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s claim that its one year in office was bereft of corruption. It is unfortunate that scams in the previous ruling dispensation had reduced the idea of corruption to mere swindling of money. Corruption must not merely confine itself of money and the financial loot of the public exchequer. The word does defy a simple definition. Even the United Nations Convention on Corruption, of which India is a signatory, refused to articulate a single definition of corruption and in fact listed examples of corrupt practices that include favouritism, nepotism, abuse of discretionary power, exploiting conflict of interests and clientelism, among others.  One can argue that Swaraj’s improprieties cover some of the corrupt practices listed by the UN Convention.

The entire storm surrounding Swaraj was kicked up by a news report on Sunday, which alleged that as minister of external affairs, she had gone out of her way to get former Indian Premier League Chairman Lalit Modi travel documents from the British government, since his passport had been revoked by the Indian government for alleged violations of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) in March 2011. Modi had escaped to London in 2010, as allegations of illegal betting and match-fixing related to the IPL cricket tournament crept up. The former IPL honcho, however, denied any wrongdoing and claimed that he left India because of death threats. In addition, the Enforcement Directorate of India, which functions under the Finance Ministry, had also issued a blue corner notice against him for violating FEMA provisions. 

A blue corner notice is an international alert to law-enforcement agencies to obtain information about a person’s activities. Essentially, what Swaraj had done, was to assist someone who ran away from Indian law. It is merely another matter that within a few months of the BJP’s historic victory in the Lok Sabha elections, the Delhi High Court restored Modi’s passport and the new government chose not to appeal against the judgement.

The external affairs minister’s faults extend to her inability to follow due process. Swaraj’s claims that she had done nothing wrong except for taking <g data-gr-id="33">an “humanitarian</g> view” of Modi’s plight not hold any water. According to legal experts,  Modi was a fugitive who had escaped the Enforcement Directorate’s investigations into a multi-million dollar scam. The previous ruling dispensation had in fact on record advised the British government against giving him any travel documents.  Clearly no due diligence was conducted before she chose to revoke an existing government order against the former IPL honcho. 

The issue grows murkier with details of the personal equations Swaraj shared with Lalit Modi and the clear conflict of interest her actions had perpetuated.  News reports have emerged that the union minister’s daughter, a lawyer, represented Modi for seven years and that her husband had also given him legal counsel too. To make matters worse, it has been alleged that through British parliamentarian Keith Vaz, Modi had helped secure admission for Swaraj’s relative into a law school in the United Kingdom. If the Modi government wants to hold a higher moral ground on corruption, it must act swiftly and ask Swaraj to resign, pending a full-fledged investigation.
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