Prime time news television thrives on the idea of a daily enemy, someone who can be court-martialled every night and then pronounced guilty by the news anchor playing the double role of judge and prosecutor. Politicians are the staple accused, but in the last 18 months our netas have had competition from a cricket official. In news television’s imagination, N Srinivasan has come to exemplify the rot in the country’s number one sport and there have been loud calls for his removal from the cricket board. But much like our netas, Srinivasan too hasn’t been willing to budge, his bulldog-like brazen refusal to quit making him a walking talking advertisement for Fevicol. But is the big boss from Chennai really the ‘bad man’ of Indian cricket?
To be fair, Srinivasan is not like some of our politicians who see cricket administration as just another sticker on their CV. He is a genuine cricket lover, his family and company India Cements have been involved with patronising the sport for almost 50 years now. There is also no evidence that he has been involved in spot or match fixing, or that his wealth has come from the sport. Srinivasan’s ‘crime’ is not corruption as is popularly understood, but an abuse of power stemming from a blatant ‘conflict of interest’.
It is this notion of ‘conflict of interest’ that lies at the heart of the Supreme Court’s trenchant observations against Srinivasan. As the court observes: “You are the person managing the BCCI. You are also the person having a team in the IPL as owner of the Chennai Super Kings. Is it not a conflict of interest?” The standard legal definition of ‘conflict of interest’ is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.”
Clearly, Srinivasan in his dual role has violated this principle: How else can one explain the attempt to whitewash the entire betting controversy involving the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Srinivasan’s son-in-law Gurunath Meiyappan, absurdly referred to as a “cricket enthusiast”. Or that captain of the CSK and India team MS Dhoni is also the vice-president of India Cements?
But the larger question is this: Is ‘conflict of interest’ really a concept that is taken seriously enough, or is Srinivasan simply symbolic of a deeper malaise in public life? Interestingly, the rules of the IPL were amended to allow Srinivasan to own a franchise when Sharad Pawar was BCCI president and Lalit Modi the driving force behind the league. Modi has denied it, but the fact is, there have been persistent allegations that he distributed select franchises like Rajasthan Royals to relatives and friends.
Pawar too exemplifies “conflict of interest”: Remember he was the country’s agriculture minister for a decade even while having vast personal interests in the agricultural sector. Could sugar policies, for example, not be ‘fixed’ by Pawar for individual benefit, and was this issue raised strongly enough when he was in power? Would he not have been better off in another ministry where he didn’t have to face such a charge?
The fact is, we have members of Parliament who might own an airline and yet be on the standing committee on civil aviation; own a television channel and be shaping policy on broadcasting; be in the mining business and seek changes in mining regulation. While Parliament’s rules are meant to prohibit such ‘conflict’, the obvious ethical transgressions are rarely seen as such.
A few years ago, actor-turned-politician Hema Malini landed herself in a spot of bother when in a rare intervention in Parliament she asked for an excise cut for water purifiers that used reverse osmosis technology. What she forgot, or didn’t wish to reveal, is that she had a direct commercial link with one such equipment manufacturer as its brand ambassador. When confronted later, her weak response was: “I don’t know nothing about any such rules, I speak for people’s concerns.” The innocence was touching, but few would believe it. Indeed, a sting operation a few years ago revealed how the entire business of asking questions in Parliament can be influenced at times by commercial considerations.
The solution to these glaring instances of ‘conflict of interest’ lies in equally open disclosure norms. If a newspaper or a channel, for example, is doing a story on a particular sector or business in which it has direct pecuniary interests, it must be incumbent to disclose that interest. A few do, a majority don’t. Are there bureaucrats whose children work in private firms whose fortunes could be influenced by the decisions the officer takes? Are there judges who choose to frame a law which might help a firm in which a family member has a stake? Sadly, in an opaque society, there is a tendency to hide information rather than place it in the sunshine of the public discourse.
Which is why Srinivasan perhaps didn’t even bother with the glaring conflict in his dual role as BCCI head and owner of an IPL team. And which is why even today he is unwilling to either sever his ties with the Chennai franchise or step out of cricket administration. After all, like so much else in a cosy club like the BCCI, it really is all in the family where the rules are made and bent by those who are often its direct beneficiaries.
Post-script: Interestingly, another former senior BCCI official and now finance minister Arun Jaitley has set a seemingly healthy precedent. He has apparently recused himself from all matters pertaining to the `20,000 crore Vodafone tax dispute and delegated decision-making in this regard to the junior minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, and the revenue secretary. Jaitley had advised Vodafone as a senior lawyer in the case.
(Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.)