Fixed: Lalit Modi’s take on cash and corruption in cricket

  • Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 12, 2016 14:35 IST
Lalit Modi at a press conference in Mumbai in 2010. (Puneet Chandhok/HT Photo )

An excerpt from Fixed! Cash and Corruption in Cricket, Shantanu Guha Ray’s very readable book on the underbelly of Indian cricket

Through June and July 2015, Lalit Modi, the enfant terrible of world cricket—he personally prefers to be called Cricket’s Rasputin—preferred spending more time on his handset tweeting than on food, wine or sleep. He gave two interviews to the media, called one of India’s leading news anchors a ‘monkey’, and simply told other reporters who had flown over to meet him next to the bay at Montenegro to ‘buzz off ’. And then he said he was sorry; actually it was his lawyers who had asked him to adopt ‘a silent mode’.

Aditya Varma, the Bihar Cricket Association president who took on N. Srinivasan, warned Modi on the phone: ‘You should not tweet too much, talk too much, and do not make too many enemies. That could be a matter of concern for you. I have a feeling you are antagonizing every politician, every political party. That is not good news for you, and us,’ Varma told Modi, reminding him of March 2010.

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Modi remembered it well.

A Cessna Citation II aircraft had taken off for Chennai from the private base at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji airport, carrying three passengers—Venugopal Dhoot, Videocon chairman; Manoj Jain, the first cousin of Nigeria-based businessman and Modi’s brother-in-law Suresh Chellaram; and his wife Reema, daughter of the late Bollywood actor and director Raj Kapoor. They all returned to Mumbai at 3.33 p.m.; by then bids for two new IPL teams had been closed and Videocon had lost the race. An enraged Reema Jain rued the great miss.

And then, all hell broke loose.

Modi’s blackberry started buzzing, cabinet ministers got involved, so did power brokers in the Indian capital. Seventweets later, the life and fortunes of Modi were in total disarray. He was suspended as IPL commissioner on charges as serious as betting and money laundering. He had no option but to leave India. Five years later, Modi was still desperately trying to buy peace.

Fixed! Cash and Corruption in Cricket

His father, K.K. Modi, once told a few people in Delhi that his son should create a league of his own and forget the BCCI. But that did not happen. Modi knew he was no Kerry Packer to trigger a rebel league. Many—especially Subhash Chandra of Zee Telefilms—also remembered how Modi had busted the Indian Cricket League (ICL) by banning current Indian Test players from participating in the same. But now his cash was under the ED and IT scanner, so were his yacht and private aircraft, used extensively by Vasundhara Raje, the chief minister of Rajasthan, with whom he was closely linked.

High on the ED radar was also the $80 million paid by Multi Screen Media (MSM), formerly Sony Entertainment, toWorld Sports Group (WSG) as ‘facilitation’ fees to withdraw from the telecast rights contract. WSG had bagged the rights for $918 million for a decade, but the contract was cancelled and a new one signed between IPL and MSM for $1.69 billion for a nine-year period. ED officials were probing whether $25 million of the $80 million paid by MSM to WSG was routed into the illegal accounts of Modi, his associates and political benefi ciaries and if Modi used this money to buy his corporate jet through a Cayman Islands company.

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Holed up in London, Modi has slowly lost his friendships with those in power in India, and both the ruling BJP and Opposition Congress have asked for his extradition. Once, he had—on 15 April 2010 to be precise—reached out to Mukesh Ambani, and sought his help. He was turned back, the richest Indian making it clear that Modi must fi rst explain to the investigating agencies that his cash was clean.

He has few friends in the Indian media too. Once he had rubbed Vineet Jain, the owner of India’s largest newspaper chain, The Times of India, the wrong way when his men unceremoniously unseated him from a box in Mumbai during an IPL match. The owners of Delhi’s other big daily, Hindustan Times, have irreconcilable family-related differences with Modi. Even worse, the flashy IPL guru had once called the editor of an influential daily and wanted to know ‘who was that twit’ trying to dig up details of his yacht; the person concerned happened to be the daily’s head of investigations.

Lalit Modi is not one to be browbeaten. He has not fallen off the public radar either. He tweets now and then, creating ripples in Delhi. People check their handsets for the latest update from him. Modi has told his friends that he is enjoying every moment of his newfound glory, a star despite defeat staring him in the face. After all, his on-the-edge potboiler script is making life difficult for many—all those who have been professionally or personally connected with him. People remember his past. As a student at Duke University in the US, he was charged with drug trafficking, kidnapping and assault after a busted cocaine deal. He returned to India without finishing his probation, pleading ill-health, but was totally unrepentant.

Friends who know him claim that Lalit Modi knows he can survive after burning bridges, writes the author. Modi says his best author is Paulo Coelho and Arjuna from the Mahabharata his favourite character.

Friends who know him claim that he knows he can survive after burning bridges. Modi says his best author is Paulo Coelho and Arjuna from the Mahabharata his favourite character. In the past, he loved name-dropping because he was powerful. Now, out of power, is still name-bombing. That is his way of staying relevant.

Not everyone hates him though. In the I-Love-Lalit bandwagon are a bevy of former judges, a former top cop, a top editor and a seasoned economist, their revelations giving instant ammunition to a stressed BJP leadership. Former Supreme Court judges, Justice Jeevan Reddy, Justice S.B. Sinha and the late Justice U.C. Banerjee have supported Modi, arguing ‘he is not a fugitive’. The judges were backed by former Mumbai Police commissioner R.D. Tyagi. The New Indian Express editor Prabhu Chawla has stood witness for Modi in a case along with his wife Mrinal and father K.K. Tyagi in a London court. Interestingly, Chawla—whose son Ankur, a lawyer, often represented the BCCI—was once keen to acquire an IPL team in partnership with some friends.

Another journalist, Surjit S. Bhalla, a top economist, had penned an opinion piece in The Indian Express, arguing why it was not wrong for Vasundhara Raje and Sushma Swaraj to help Modi. Bhalla’s moot point was the same as the judges: Modi is not a fugitive. But their collective stand did not silence Delhi’s guns of opposition.

Officers in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) are wondering what action to take against Vivek Nagpal, a controversial businessman, whom Modi described as a hawala dealer in Delhi, and Omita Paul, President Pranab Mukherjee’s powerful secretary, whom Modi claimed he is close to. That Nagpal was sitting in a special row during the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi’s cabinet last year is not good news for the ruling BJP. Worse, Modi—almost like a Guy Fawkes of cricket—has attached a seventy-five-page document in PDF format on Nagpal in one of his tweets, offering loads of detail on this controversial businessman.

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‘He is making baseless statements. The party’s position is clear, he is a fugitive and will be brought back to India soon,’ argued BJP’s Sambit Patra, who has been spending a little over fourteen hours in news studios and offering telephonic comments. The party, it is reliably learnt, has even set up a core team to handle the Modi crisis.

The BJP is also worried because there are reports that officers of the Income Tax department—some of them on a high after the PM told them not to fear any minister—are keen to probe whether Modi used a charge card of Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje for expenses abroad. IT offi cers, it is rumoured, could even hand over the files pertaining to the charge card issue to the Enforcement Directorate.

Having successfully set a storm in the ruling elite in Delhi, Modi is happily enjoying life. His friends in Delhi claim that the former IPL chief commissioner is partying regularly, regaling his friends with what he calls ‘the story of my assassins’. He said he borrowed the line from a novel written by journalist Tarun Tejpal, who started Tehelka, an investigative magazine. ‘Where is that bloody fellow, hiding somewhere in India?’ he even asked a London friend. Modi even spoke to writer Shobha De about his biography but the seasoned columnist and a publisher backtracked after they had read one chapter.

‘That was scandalous, scandalous, scandalous. We all would be in jail. Modi was saying all politicians—he named almost everyone—linked to cricket were corrupt. We dropped the off er,’ De said in an interview in June 2015. Modi, meanwhile, was back on his tweets.

‘So all those (who) are on a witch hunt—time to know you all live in (a) glass house. By the way I document every meeting when someone asks for a bribe and I circulate to my lawyers (xyz) has asked for this in exchange for this. Off course I never paid. But record I did,’ the disgraced cricket czar tweeted recently. The thinly veiled threats never fail to hit their mark. One recent tweet speaks about how he dined with Priyanka and Robert Vadra a year back at a London restaurant. And how Varun Gandhi, BJP leader and son of NDA minister Maneka Gandhi, had met him in London and promised to resolve his case by ‘talking to Sonia Gandhi’.

Troubled with his tweets, former law minister H.R. Bhardwaj said: ‘Lalit Modi has started a storm and no one will be able to escape it.’ A fl abbergasted Congress spokesperson, Randeep Surjevala, even called Modi a juvenile, almost like a teacher admonishing a Class III student, and kept quiet at that. Probably Surjewala did not know how the Vadras would react to the tweet. Modi then castigated the current IPL head, Rajeev Shukla, asking about ‘secrets of his wealth from a lowly reporter to a television magnate’. There were rumors that he would soon drop some more names to link Shukla to some ‘questionable characters’ in cricket.

Shukla, who refused to comment on the tweet, has—it is reliably learnt—already tried to reach out to Modi, who has not responded. Consider this one, another Modi beamer, to those who sought favours from him: ‘I have record book 4 each and every ticket seat no wise. What value it was and who paid for it cash or check or free,’ tweeted Modi.

The disgraced cricket czar does not want to talk but drops hints of fi re, indicating in his interview with a news channel how ‘in time of war the general never sleeps, you have to be ready for the unexpected’. He has also demanded that the Congress come clean on its association with the ‘Modi family’. ‘My specifi c query to Congress Party—specifi cally— has the Modi Group or as a matter of fact any group ever provided you any of your MPs any hospitality, favors, election funding, rides on planes, hotel, cars, dinners, plants in your constituency etc etc,’ he tweeted.

A file photo of Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje and Lalit Modi (R) at an IPL match in Jaipur. (HT Photo )

Modi knows he has enough ammunition in his kitty as he has meticulously maintained his records and taped his conversations. He is wanted by the ED for economic offences but positions himself as a crusader against corruption in politics. A line added to his Twitter profile reads: ‘Busy cleaning Political Mafi a’. He has even gone after finance minister Arun Jaitley, asking him to ‘tell the truth, for once’.

Writer-filmmaker Pritish Nandy says he has become a fan of Modi: ‘Whether you like @LalitKModi or not, follow his twitter ID. It’s explosive. I have a feeling he has law on his side and hence, confident.’ Former CBI director R.K. Raghavan, who once headed Interpol in India, said in a telephonic interview that one should not read anything into the pictures of Modi with former Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble which have been floating around. ‘Dubious people often want pictures with powerful people. But Noble has left the Interpol and you should not take everything Modi saying as gospel truth.’

Noble, in fact, told The Indian Express that New Delhi never sought the extradition of Modi during the time he was with the Interpol. Raghavan said that even if the ED gets enough evidence against Modi to seek his extradition, ‘it would take several years before anything of signifi cance takes place’. He cited the example of former Indian Navy Lt Commander, Ravi Shankaran, involved in the War Room leak case at the Naval Headquarters. Shankaran is currently holed up in London and India has not been able to extradite him despite substantial evidence against him. In fact, a UK court quashed an extradition order issued by the British Home Secretary.

In short, it is evident that Delhi does not have a solid case against Modi, who has certainly shaken up the political establishment, forcing everyone to duck for cover. And the BJP is nervous. Arun Jaitley, Vasundhara Raje, Sushma Swaraj—some of the big wickets have already fallen.

But no one knows how to control Modi. Strangely, it was the BCCI who had alleged that Modi had manipulated the IPL process, handed out favours and run the tournament for the benefi t of a coterie of family and friends. But now the world’s richest cricket board is totally silent. While Modi threatens to clean Indian politics like Gandhian Anna Hazare. Except, as a portal wonderfully remarked: ‘Cricket’s consummate insider is the antithesis of Hazare, with his Armani suits, Rambagh Palace suites and jet-setting exile in London and Ibiza and Montenegro, akin to the chemo that destroys everything in its path—good, bad and indiff erent.’

The Lalit Modi story is far from over; the fugitive cricket czar has not changed his ways of talking, and living. In the first week of July 2015, he was asked by a television reporter about what he was drinking when the latter heard a slurping noise while having a conversation with Modi.‘Coconut water,’ Modi replied.

‘Oh, I thought you were having vodka. There is only one other person associated with Indian cricket who loved coconut water,’ the reporter replied. ‘Who is that?’ asked Modi. ‘N. Srinivasan,’ replied the reporter. ‘Damn you,’ Modi banged the phone down. And then he called again: ‘Well, very soon I will be out of this cricket czar, cricket fugitive mess. I am planning something big.’ ‘What is it, Lalit?’ the reporter asked. ‘A football league on the lines of La Liga and English Premier League in China,’ replied Modi. He knows how to keep journos on their toes.

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