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Lalitgate: Cricket wars camouflaged as a political battle

Lalitgate could well be all about cricket wars seeking to camouflage themselves behind the cover of political battle.

columns Updated: Jul 06, 2015 17:57 IST

I have absolutely no interest in Cricket — there I said it — I have never been to cheer an IPL match on the grounds, have only half-heartedly watched a handful of games on television, mostly to give my ageing granduncle company, and no, I have never interviewed Lalit Modi, not even when he was still in India and feted as the genius who married gumption with glamour to father a hugely successful sporting league.

But like most journalists this past fortnight I have found myself sucked into the subterfuge of leaks and counter-leaks in what is beginning to feel more and more like an espionage plot gone rogue.

Even for political observers familiar with the territorial battles both within the BJP and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), it’s hard to get a grip on who is out to get whom.

Without getting into the specific charges they confront, is it a coincidence, accident or design that the two women under both friendly and enemy fire are not seen to be the favourites of the Narendra Modi camp of the party? Just when you get the merit of that conspiracy theory, there is just as persuasive an argument that both Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje could not possibly have been targeted by the same individual or faction.

In fact, the whispers within the BJP are that the ‘secret’ Raje papers were placed in the public domain to take the media heat off the external affairs minister’s impropriety. The fact that at least in Raje’s case it was Lalit Modi’s public relations firm that first released a portion of the damning documents speaks not just to the now-damaged relationship between the Rajasthan chief minister and the former IPL commissioner but to the fact that in many ways Lalit Modi has ripped the veil of unity off the BJP’s veneer to reveal a fractious and fractured party.

So, if Swaraj and Raje have different antagonists, is Lalit Modi the target or the attacker or possibly both? Is the irrepressible but angry veteran lawyer Ram Jethmalani, who only just publicly announced his ‘break up’ with the prime minister one more clue in the whodunit mystery? Or are the contradictory ambiguities in the BJP response to Lalit Modi (party spokespersons have variously called him a ‘shady deals’ man who must be brought to justice and a ‘victim of Sonia Gandhi’s witch hunt’) manifestations of that old familiar simmering tension between Union finance minister Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj?

Jaitley’s supporters point out that a time when the government has crucial legislation pending, the Goods and Services Tax Bill being top of the list, a stalled Parliament session is hardly a risk he or anyone in the government would have wanted to take.

Then there’s the rather reasonable conjecture that the spy games of the last fortnight, the hacked emails, the clandestinely-recorded phone conversations are really all about cricket wars seeking camouflage behind the cover of political battle.

That it all boils down to the camp rivalries between N Srinivasan and Lalit Modi and the one man who knows much more than he is saying is Sharad Pawar, who has breezily spoken of meeting Lalit Modi a few weeks ago in London but remains curiously untouched by the raging row.

Cricket enthusiasts familiar with the underbelly of the BCCI even trace it all back to the years when the prime minister was still chief minister and industrialist Gautam Adani bid for an Ahmedabad franchise, supported by Lalit Modi; a bid he eventually lost to the Kochi team and Shashi Tharoor. One BJP spokesperson has even gone on record to link the UPA probe against him to Tharoor’s resignation as minister and what he called “Sonia Gandhi and her family’s cricket links” to make a case that Lalit Modi has suffered because of her vindictiveness.

As the BJP struggles to present a coherent, unified response, Lalit Modi has swiftly shifted the discourse to the Congress by underlining his support for Narendra Modi and tweeting tantalisingly about running into Robert Vadra and Priyanka in London or suggesting that their estranged cousin Varun came to see him to mediate on behalf of the family.

While his words have become lethal weapons, his war is bi-partisan when it comes to two men — P Chidambaram and Arun Jaitley. As ironies go both are linked to why Lalit Modi has always been a little angry with me as well. I broke the news about Chidambaram’s refusal to spare security in election season for the IPL in 2009, when the league was then moved to South Africa.

Common friends told me then that Modi thought my reports were empathetic to the government view and that I was batting for the wrong side. More recently, in 2013, he and I sparred directly on Twitter. Though the details of our exchange fail me I recall that he charged me with being biased in favour of Jaitley, then leader of opposition.

I retaliated with aggression and asked him why he was in another country instead of facing the law here. He threatened to sue and within a week I received a legal notice. As my lawyers were drafting a reply, I got a phone call from Swaraj Kaushal, who had, like many others, read the altercation online. He persuaded me not to escalate an unnecessary battle and said he had asked Lalit Modi to do the same.

It is then that I learnt that Kaushal had been one of Lalit’s lawyers for several years. Of course at the time, with the BJP in opposition, I did not have the prescience to know that Kaushal’s professional equation with him would snowball into a political conflagration later.

Now as we sit back and wait for the next instalment of Lalit ‘Leaks’ for the moment, he is having the last laugh. Like a master puppeteer controlling the strings and watching the pantomime of Indian politics play out.

Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective
The views expressed are personal