Indian cricket tycoon declares "war," rattles Modi government

Indian cricket tycoon declares "war," rattles Modi government
An Indian rickshaw-puller passes effigies of External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj and former cricket administrator, Lalit Modi propped up in the street prior to Congress supporters burning them in a protest in Kolkata on June 17, 2015.
PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Pressure is growing on India's foreign minister and a top member of the ruling party over help they gave to a disgraced cricket tycoon, as the first major scandal to touch Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government begins to threaten his reform agenda.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has faced days of scrutiny for her ties to Lalit Modi, scion of an industrial family who almost singlehandedly turned the Indian Premier League into the world's richest.

"This is war," Modi, who is not related to the prime minister, has declared in recent days from a hotel in Montenegro. He has used Twitter to attack opponents, such as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and members of the opposition.

Dissent bubbled up in Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on Tuesday, with one member of parliament saying Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje were wrong to have helped the tycoon in his bid for British travel papers.

The opposition Congress party, voted out last year amid corruption scandals, on Tuesday warned of plans to disrupt parliament after it opens next month, unless Swaraj and Raje resign.

The government hopes to pass major economic reforms during the session.

Modi fled India for London when tax and financial crime authorities raided his premises in 2010 in a money laundering and tax evasion investigation. He says his life was threatened by Mumbai mobsters.

"He (Lalit Modi) is a fugitive. His passport was rejected, he should be brought back and made to face trial," said the MP, R.K. Singh, previously the top official in the home ministry.

Swaraj says she met the British high commissioner in July 2014 to recommend that Modi be granted British travel papers, after his Indian passport was rescinded, and sent the same message to British Labour MP Keith Vaz.

Swaraj, whose husband and daughter have worked as lawyers for Modi, said her intervention was humanitarian, because he needed to travel to help his ailing wife.

There has been no suggestion of financial wrongdoing by Swaraj, but opponents question the legality of her assistance.

The foreign ministry did not respond to a query from Reuters whether Swaraj's help constituted a conflict of interest.

London's Sunday Times reported on Sunday that Modi also sought help from British royal Prince Andrew.

The case of Raje, an economic reformer from a royal family, is complicated by Modi's investment in her son's hotel, where he allegedly paid 96,000 Indian rupees ($1,509) each for shares with a face value of 10 rupees. Raje's son denies wrongdoing.

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