New Delhi: Minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor was politically isolated in Parliament even as his adversary, Lalit Modi, chairman and commissioner of the Indian Premier League (IPL), continued to face enquiries from the income-tax (I-T) department regarding the bidding process for the two new IPL clubs.
Under pressure: Shashi Tharoor speaks to the media on Friday. Atul Yadav / PTI
The IPL commissioner, however, sought to allay fears in an email communication to the franchisees of the eight clubs as well as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) that the queries by the income-tax authorities were no cause for worry and had concluded.
However, a BCCI official maintained on condition of anonymity that the investigation by the tax sleuths was continuing.
Tharoor was forced to make his defence to Parliament in a “personal” capacity as a law maker and not as a minister. In a further signal of his political isolation, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who personally orchestrated the defence of the government on Thursday in the debate over the recent Maoist attack in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, was not present in the Lok Sabha on Friday.
The Opposition, which forced repeated adjournment of proceedings in the Lok Sabha, did not allow Tharoor to speak; he had to eventually table his statement in the House. The Lok Sabha, which reconvened again at 2pm, was adjourned immediately afterwards following protests from the Opposition.
Tharoor’s fate will be decided after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returns to the country on Saturday.
According to a senior Congress minister, the party leadership is unlikely to force a resignation. “We have sent a copy of (Tharoor’s) statement to the Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh, who is in Brazil),” finance minister Pranab Mukherjee told reporters outside Parliament.
Meanwhile, in an email communication, the contents of which were read out to Mint by the BCCI official cited above, Modi assured the board that the checking by the I-T department was part of a process.
The I-T department was “satisfied” with its inquiries, according to the communication.
But according to an official in the I-T department in Mumbai, who declined to be named, the department is yet to conclude its investigation into BCCI.
Meanwhile, the BCCI official maintained that the senior officials of the board have been summoned to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, where matches are being held on Friday and Sunday, for an unofficial meeting to settle the controversy.
“There is news that the top BCCI bosses are meeting in Dharamshala this weekend to sort out all the issues pertaining to Tharoor, the handling of the Kochi team and Lalit Modi’s tweets,” the official said. “The governing council meeting is usually just a formality. All matters discussed there are usually decided beforehand.”
However, Niranjan Shah, IPL vice-chairman, who was in Dharamshala, denied any meeting planned this weekend.
Shah shrugged off any involvement of BCCI in the controversy. “I won’t comment on Kochi team or Modi because as far as the board (BCCI) is concerned, we are absolutely fine with the Kochi team owners and the consortium as it is,” he said.
NDTV news channel reported that income-tax searches were conducted at the offices of the Punjab Cricket Association and a member of the Kochi consortium. The reports couldn’t be independently verified.
Tharoor, meanwhile, faced a hostile Lok Sabha with the Opposition, Left parties and some of the friendly parties of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) demanding his resignation.
Similar scenes were witnessed in the Rajya Sabha, which was also adjourned without transacting any major business.
“Tharoor explained his innocence to (Sonia) Gandhi on Thursday,” a minister familiar with the development said, but wished to remain unnamed. “The government does not seem to be in a mood to sack him at the demand of the Opposition.”
Tharoor said his official position gave him “no advantage” in his attempts to mentor an IPL team for Kerala, won by Rendezvous Sports World Ltd by bidding $333.33 million (Rs1,483.2 crore).
The “allegation is particularly wounding because I have had a three-decade career in international public service that has never been sullied by the slightest taint of financial wrong doing,” he said.
The minister’s critics within the Congress were not satisfied. “The only one clarification sought by everyone is what’s the source of equity his friend Sunanda Pushkar has. If he or she is able to explain it, the matter will be finished there,” said a senior Congress minister, who did not want to be identified.
Pushkar, a close friend of Tharoor, was given a stake valued at Rs70 crore in the Kochi team for free. Defending her, Tharoor said in his statement: “It is unworthy of any member of this august House to imply that a reputed business professional and entrepreneur with a long track record of business success can, because of her gender, only be seen as a front for someone else.”
Critics within the Congress are particularly unhappy about the distraction that the entire episode has caused, forcing the government to backpedal on its policy agenda.
“I do not understand why we have to tolerate him. He has been an embarrassment for the party ever since he joined the government,” said a senior Congress MP, who claimed a majority of the party has become “hostile” to Tharoor. “He has taken away the focus of the government from its core agenda. The party and the government is in the news for wrong reasons,” he added, requesting anonymity.
Similarly, some Opposition MPs were heard saying inside the Lok Sabha that the House should not waste time on the “IPL issue” but should take up the issue of “price rise”.
BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad, who sought an explanation from the Prime Minister on why Tharoor has not been dropped from the council of ministers, said the Opposition would not divert its attack against the government on key issues. “We are determined to take up the issue of price rise and a nationwide strike is planned on 21 April. But this issue (of Shashi Tharoor) is also important as it pertains to the conduct of a Union minister. We will raise this issue again on Monday and we expect a reply from the Prime Minister,” Prasad said.
Santosh K. Joy and from Mumbai Khushboo Narayan contributed to this story.