NEW DELHI: 'Modigate' today snowballed into a major political storm with the Congress bringing Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the line of fire with Rahul Gandhi accusing him of protecting the former IPL boss and demanding immediate sacking of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Taking the party's attack on Modi to a new level, the Congress Vice President described Lalit Modi as a "symbol" of black money and said the Prime Minister was "standing" behind Modi while asking him to "stop protecting" him.
Battling its first major embarrassment since it came to power a little over a year ago, the government, which came out with a strong defence of Swaraj yesterday, fielded Union Minister Prakash Javadekar who pooh-poohed Congress' allegations of proximity between the Prime Minister and Lalit Modi.
He also rejected Gandhi's demand for sacking Swaraj, saying it was illogical and did not deserve a response.
First at an AICC briefing, Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala brought the Prime Minister in the line of fire, accusing Swaraj, BJP and the entire government of "aiding and abetting" a fugitive with the "tacit approval" of the PM. "The needle of suspicion rests at the door of PM."
Gandhi, who is on a tour of Chhattisgarh, tweeted, "There is only one man running this country and government, that is Narendra Modi; Modi should stop protecting Lalit Modi. It is
not a question of Sushma ji resigning, PM Modiji should sack Sushma Swaraj ji from the government."
"Lalit Modi is a symbol of black money. Mr Modi is standing behind Mr Modi. Who's Sushma Swarajji? She means nothing in this government," he said.
Replying to a question about the BJP standing behind Swaraj, Gandhi told reporters "Of course, the party will stand behind Sushma Swarajji. The party is Mr Modi. Mr Modi is standing behind Mr Modi."
Other opposition parties also joined the fray in attacking the BJP-led government.
Bihar Chief Minister and JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar said the way the government, BJP and the RSS have come out strongly defend Swaraj shows they will do everything their person even if a crime has been committed while they will go all out against opponents even if there is nothing against them.
CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said intervention by Swaraj in helping a fugitive in getting British travel documents is "completely unacceptable" and demanded a thorough probe.
Swaraj, however, found strong support from BJP ally Shiv Sena which insisted that she was being targeted as part of a conspiracy to weaken and destabilise the Modi government. NCP was critical of her action but stopped short of demanding her resignation, saying it is not appropriate at this juncture.