We’ve had a full week of hype and hypocrisy; of allegations and counter-allegations; of charges of bribery and conflict of interest; and of suggestions that illegal money is being used to purchase cricket teams. Now that we have a Sunday to reflect, let’s take stock of what we’ve learnt so far.
First of all, there’s the role of Shashi Tharoor. The first allegation against Tharoor is that he took far too much interest in a bid for an Indian Premier League (IPL) team from Kochi. Tharoor’s response is that he functioned as an MP from Kerala. He is a cricket fan and believed that his state deserved an IPL team. He was not part of the consortium, he says, merely a mentor.
In an ideal world, politicians would not be involved in sports management. But we live in a very imperfect world where politicians regard sport as part of their ambit. Suresh Kalmadi controls the Indian Olympic Association. Sharad Pawar runs cricket in India. And state associations are full of political figures: Arun Jaitley, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Rajiv Shukla, etc.
In such a situation, it is not necessarily unusual for a politician to push for an IPL franchise or even to throw his weight behind a consortium. It shouldn’t happen. But it happens all too often.
The problem arises with the second allegation. It is suggested that Tharoor was not acting for the benefit of Kerala but for the benefit of Shashi Tharoor. He was a secret member of this consortium and his 5 per cent equity pay-off was handed over to a benami, his girlfriend Sunanda Pushkar.
The consortium and Tharoor both deny this allegation. Pushkar was hired to do marketing and PR for the company and the equity was in lieu of payment. Frankly, this is the weakest part of Tharoor’s case. Are Pushkar’s skills so desirable that she is worth 5 per cent sweat equity?
Tharoor seems to believe they are. Besides, he says, if he had wanted a kickback he could have disguised it better. Why accept the equity in the name of someone that close to him?
That leads us to another can of worms. The only reason why Pushkar’s equity became a subject of debate was because Lalit Modi, the IPL’s tsar, tweeted about it. Modi had no valid reason to reveal Pushkar’s shareholding. The exact ownership of IPL teams is confidential and he has not been so forthcoming about other teams.
Why then did Modi do the dirty on the Kochi consortium? According to the Kochi group — and Modi’s many detractors within the cricket world — he had hoped that the winning bid would come from another group, the Adanis of Gujarat, and was peeved when Kochi won. He then tried to force Kochi out and leaked damaging information about the consortium.
While Modi’s motives remain the subject of debate, there is no doubt that he was out to get Kochi. He raised all kinds of issues about the composition of the consortium and according to the Kochi group, even offered a bribe of $50 million if Kochi would withdraw and enable him to award the franchise to somebody else.
As far as Modi was concerned, Pushkar was collateral damage, a person of no consequence who was only a means to hurt Tharoor. Perhaps he hoped that the controversy he successfully generated would lead to the exit of Kochi from the IPL and leave him with a vacated franchise to redistribute.
Whatever your views on the morality of this strategy, there is no doubt that Modi is a controversial figure. On the one hand, he is a genuine visionary who created the IPL, easily the sports phenomenon of the 21st century. On the other hand, he is frequently derided as a political bagman who made hundreds of crores in pay-offs when the BJP was in power in Rajasthan.
Naturally, Modi denies these charges. But his detractors within the cricketing world argue that he has run the IPL as his personal fiefdom, awarding franchises to friends and family while refuting allegations that he holds benami stakes in several teams. He has relatives in the Rajasthan Royals and the Kings XI Punjab consortium and other relations and cronies crop up in the IPL’s operations.
Such is Modi’s confidence, however, that when he began his operation to destroy the Kochi franchise by smearing Tharoor and his girlfriend, it never occurred to him that attacking a minister of the Union government could backfire.
In fact, though Tharoor showed a wimpy unwillingness to fight back, Modi’s own enemies seized the opportunity to try and bring him down. Within the cricket establishment, rivals leaked stories about Modi’s own conflicts of interest within the IPL, other factions tried to dilute his hold over the IPL and MPs from all parties called for an investigation into the IPL’s finances.
When the income-tax department swooped down on Modi, there was none of the outrage one might have expected. (You could reasonably claim that the government was victimising him for attacking a minister.) Instead, politicians and the media took the line that his affairs needed to be probed.
Where does all this leave us? Well, it is obvious that Modi has overplayed his hand. It would be quite wrong to victimise him unless the authorities can find evidence of actual wrong-doing. But equally, it is clear that the IPL cannot continue as a one-man show. It needs checks and balances and some element of regulation. Modi cannot run it as an example of crony sports capitalism or as a family business.
As for Tharoor, the situation is more clear-cut. It is true that while a variety of adjectives has often been applied to him — arrogant, glib, irresponsible, over-smart, strangely-accented, etc. — there has never before been the slightest suggestion of dishonesty.
Now he must demonstrate that the sweat equity awarded to Pushkar was not a kickback to him. Not till he persuades the prime minister and the country of his innocence in this matter will he recover the goodwill with which educated Indians have always regarded him.
But clearing up Tharoor’s involvement is the easy part. He seems convinced of his own innocence and believes it will not be difficult to disperse the cloud over his name.
The more difficult part consists of cleaning up the mess that is Indian sports. This controversy demonstrates that even when things go well — and the IPL is a spectacular success — the marriage of Indian politicians and dodgy businessmen guarantees that Indian sports will always be coated in sleaze.
The IPL affair offers us an opportunity to drain one such cesspool. We should grab it.
Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times