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HindustanTimes Sun,13 Jul 2014

MS Dhoni: the hero in question

Samar Halarnkar   June 05, 2013
First Published: 22:54 IST(5/6/2013) | Last Updated: 16:01 IST(6/6/2013)

It took the parody account of an ageing Australian commentator to send out a message that India urgently needs to understand (but probably won't). "Indians," tweeted the fake Richie Benaud, "just don't get 'conflict of interest'. Srinivasan is bad enough, but Dhoni is just as bad."

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With good reason, wags are expanding the acronym of cricket's richest body, the BCCI, to be Board of Control for Conflicts of Interest. Unless you were hiding in the deepest corner of the country, you would know of Narayanswami Srinivasan and his outrageous conflict of interest, of being the BCCI (okay, it's actually Board for the Control of Cricket in India) chief and owning a team that participates in the BCCI's domestic T20 league.

But remember the issue was never significant until Srinivasan's son-in-law was arrested during a spot-fixing investigation, after which the truculent BCCI chief was deemed a fit target for a media mob.

Of course, Srinivasan's exit solves nothing because the system that let him do what he did remains intact. Further evidence came earlier this week when the Economic Times (fooled as they were into believing the fake Richie Benaud was real) uncovered Indian cricket's latest conflict of interest issue.

Vice-president of India Cements — yes, that's Srinivasan's company — and Captain India, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, it was revealed, is (or was) part owner of a company, Rhiti Sports, which manages cricketers Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja and Pragyan Ojha.

It is the same company that previously managed spinner Harbhajan Singh and fast bowler RP Singh among its present clients boasts the Chennai Super Kings, the domestic T20 league team captained by Dhoni and owned by Srinivasan.

As far back as August 2011, Boundary Line, a Yahoo! cricket blog, warned that Dhoni had a "clear commercial interest" in picking players backed by Rhiti. "Could this explain why Harbhajan was given a long rope despite his horrifically bad form and how RP Singh is back when he wasn't even part of India's plan all this while?" asked blogger AR Hemant, who pointed out that an unfit RP Singh was pulled out from a holiday in the US and went on to bowl what Ian Botham called "the worst over in Test cricket" at the Oval.

Hemant wrote: "Despite the wonderful things that Dhoni has done as captain, it is worrying that some of his selections may have not been influenced by cold, hard cricketing reason."

Even if you grant that Dhoni did not profit from his involvement with Rhiti — this is far from clear — in general, making decisions on cold, hard reason is not an Indian quality.

Self-interest, emotion and manipulation come easier to us than do the common good, logic and the rule of law. Conflict of interest, which now appears so endemic to cricket, is at the heart of endless public improprieties in India.

It is common for ministers with commercial interests in companies to oversee ministries whose policies determine the fortunes of these companies. This is what disgraced railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, minister of state for finance in 2007, did by appointing his chartered accountant to the board of Canara Bank, which then disbursed loans to companies owned by his family.

Bureaucrats run departments that often further the interests of fellow officials, such as awarding land out of turn. Many IAS/IPS housing societies across India are evidence. Inquiry committees are sometimes supposed to investigate the same people who appointed them, as Srinivasan has done.

I can offer personal experience. At festival time, newsrooms are always inundated with gifts from companies and others hoping for favours from the media. Others appear harmless.

In the course of running newsrooms in Mumbai and Delhi, I issued a black-and-white directive: no gifts. But while you can turn away a microwave — sent to my doorstep one Diwali by the chief minister of Maharashtra — or pens made of silver or watches of gold, can you or should you really refuse flowers and little boxes of sweets? It gets murky. Like the rest of India, the media for the most part have few official guidelines.

The law in some sectors isn't quite as fuzzy. For instance, Indian company law says that a director can neither vote on nor be part of a board meeting that discusses an issue in which he or she has an interest.

This is well and good, except that same director can vote in a general shareholder meeting that discusses the same issue. In any case, the interest of directors who do step out often stays protected.

The good thing about the conflict-of-interest rumpus is that India is being made aware that it's wrong to accept what it did with equanimity before. The BCCI constitution was changed in 2008 to allow Srinivasan to buy the Chennai Super Kings.

This was approved by former BCCI chief and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, who last week joined the Srinivasan-must-resign chorus. Even when Srinivasan became BCCI chief in 2011, there was little popular concern that the president owned a domestic T20 league. 

So it was that same year with former Indian captain Anil Kumble, who did not see a conflict of interest in being a director of a company managing players and president of the Karnataka Cricket Association and chairman of the National Cricket Academy.

"I have to look after myself," he explained. "Otherwise you'd have to become like Gandhi and give up everything."

Let's face it: The conflict-of-interest issue was merely convenient ammunition in attacking the more sensational target: the alleged misdemeanours of Srinivasan's nephew. 

What will become of Dhoni? He has no errant family, and unlike the glowering Srinivasan, he's an Indian hero, a tough, humble and amiable small-town boy who took India to cricketing glory.

I suspect Indians will not be keen to get after Dhoni, especially not for transgressions related to something that does not really bother them or influence the way they live their lives.

(Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.)


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