Across the Aisle: Speech is silver, silence golden
July 19, 2015
Across the Aisle – Monetary policy committee: vote or veto?
August 2, 2015

Across The Aisle: Sushma Swaraj, RTI and a Parliament question

I did not expect to write about the Lalit Modi-Sushma Swaraj controversy again this week. But it is the issue that has dominated media space, public discourse and Parliament for a whole week.  Irrespective of the wishes of the Prime Minister and the Government, it will not go away.

A news channel broke the story on June 14, 2015. Three days later, I addressed a media conference and read out a statement containing seven questions to the government. The questions could have been answered in a pretty straight forward manner, but that is not the way guilty minds work. No answers were forthcoming and there was deafening silence.

The RTI Request… 

Enter Mr Rayo, a citizen. He copied the seven questions and shot off an RTI Request on June 18, 2015. The Under Secretary (RTI), Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) sent a reply on June 26, 2015.

The first three questions sought facts that were within the exclusive knowledge of Ms Sushma Swaraj, the Minister of External Affairs: Why has the government not released the letters exchanged between the Finance Minister and the UK Chancellor? Why did Ms Swaraj not advise Mr Lalit Modi to apply for a temporary Indian travel document? Why did Ms Swaraj not advise Mr Lalit Modi to return to India first as a condition for issue of a travel document?

It is quite obvious that only Ms Swaraj could have provided answers to these questions. Presumably, she did, and the Under Secretary replied on behalf of the MEA as under:

“The office of the External Affairs Minister (EAM) has informed that the questions in Serial No. 1 to 3 of your RTI do not seem to fall under the purview of the RTI Act, 2005.”

According to Ms Sushma Swaraj, her conversation with the British High Commissioner and her failure to advise Mr Lalit Modi to return to India and apply for a travel document do not fall within the purview of the RTI Act!

If the audacity of that answer took your breath away, look at the answer to the next four questions: After the High Court’s order, who took the decision not to file an appeal to the Supreme Court and to issue a fresh passport to Mr Lalit Modi? Has the government lodged a fresh protest with the UK government? What steps has the government taken to enforce the Enforcement Directorate’s summons to Mr Lalit Modi? Is government incapable of protecting the life of Mr Lalit Modi in case he returned to India?

The answer given to these four questions will boggle your mind. The answer was:

“As regards queries at Sl No. 4 to 7, no information is available in EAM’s Office. However, your application has been transferred to Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Home Affairs and CPV Division, MEA w.r.t. points 4 to 7.”

The guilty mind is there for everyone to see. And both the answers, quoted above, unmistakably point to Ms Swaraj as the author of the answers.

…and a Parliament Q &  A 

Fortunately, the story does not stop there. Mr Arvind Kumar Singh MP asked question no. 33 in the Rajya Sabha. It had four parts. The sum and substance was how many passports had been cancelled during the last three years; how many were restored; details of cases where government had not filed an appeal against the High Court’s order; and who took the decision not to file an appeal in the instant case? There was nothing insidious about these questions. This was not under RTI, but in Parliament, and the government was obliged to answer the question. The MEA did, speaking through Ms Swaraj, on July 24, 2015. And in furnishing the answer, MEA has squarely and conclusively implicated Ms Swaraj of wrongdoing.

MEA’s answer candidly admitted that it may cancel a passport “on request from investigative agencies to that effect”. On not filing an appeal, MEA admitted that “the appeal against an order of a High Court before the Hon’ble Supreme Court is decided by the CPV Division of the Ministry of External Affairs at the instance of the concerned investigative agency and in consultation with the Ministry of law & Justice.”

It is now conclusively established that it was the CPV division of the MEA that took the crucial decisions — not to appeal the High Court’s order to the Supreme Court and to issue a fresh passport to Mr Lalit Modi. Were the decisions taken at the instance of the concerned investigative agency? I am absolutely certain the answer is ‘No’. Was the Ministry of Law & Justice consulted? I suspect the answer is ‘Yes’.

Three Ministers in the Dock

So, three Ministers have to answer the numerous questions that arise. Ms Sushma Swaraj, who is constitutionally responsible for the decisions of the CPV division; the redoubtable Mr Arun Jaitley on behalf of the Enforcement Directorate which is the investigative agency; and the clueless Mr Sadanand Gowda, the Minister of Law.

No amount of taunts can wish away the fact that the Lalit Modi-Sushma Swaraj story has abuse of authority, nepotism and conflict of interest written all over the pages. Mr Jaitley asked the Opposition, what offence has Ms Swaraj committed? He could take the Prevention of Corruption Act and turn the page to “criminal misconduct” under Section 13(1)(d)(ii) and (iii).