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Is this man a genius or a bad guy?

india Updated: Apr 18, 2010 10:41 IST
KS Tomar
KS Tomar
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Lalit Modi is a player.

Last week, when the 46-year-old creator and Commissioner of the Indian Premier League (IPL) sent out a tweet about a government minister's "role" in procuring a team, he knew fully well that the bright in-your-face circus lights were going to swivel away from the cricketers, the pitch, the cheerleaders, the crowds, the gladiatorial bouts under the floodlights and the after-match parties to a more shadowy zone off the field.

That suits him just fine. Because Modi, described by someone from a cricket franchise as "the black sheep of his family", is perfectly comfortable in the shadows. He's been in and out of them throughout his life.

The mythology swirling around this driven man with a sugar addiction — he takes at least four spoons in his coffee — is rich, almost gobbling up the real Lalit Modi, whose rise, and rise to the power centre of Indian cricket — a giant hall space where money, politics and glamour have all set up their stalls — is by itself a case study of controlled chaos.

His vertiginous climb really started not in the still safari-suited corridors of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) during the Jagmohan Dalmiya years in the 90s, but in the mid-80s, when India was still content to bask in the 1983 Prudential Cup victory afterglow, and Oliver Stone's Michael Douglas-Charlie Sheen-starring Wall Street was the iconic film for young driven men lusting for money and, above all, power.

The 20-year-old Modi was one such driven young man, who, as a student in Duke University in the United States, was also honing his skills working in the American tobacco company Philip Morris in 1985 and cosmetic giant Estée Lauder in 1986.

It was during this time as a Duke University student that Modi was convicted in 1985 for possessing 400 grams of cocaine and charged with assault and kidnapping, for which he was given a suspended two-year prison sentence.

Today, more than 20 years after entering a plea bargain in a North Carolina court, he vehemently denies the charges.

"I've got no idea about these allegations, which have been investigated and nothing was found. Several people, including [industrialist and former BCCI vice-president] Kamal Morarka had raised the issue but in vain."

The Times, London, edition of March 1, 1985, in the newspaper's archives still records an Associated Press news report headlined: 'Drug buyers robbed at gunpoint: Duke students charged in robbery', with the paragraph, "Lalit Kumar Modi of New Delhi, India, a Duke sophomore. He was arrested Tuesday night on charges of conspiracy to traffic cocaine and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill."

It was clearly time for Modi to go back home.

Back from the USA
After a stint as president of the Ghaziabad-based Modi Enterprises-owned International Tobacco Company from 1987 to 1991, he was appointed in 1992 as an executive director of Godfrey Philips India Ltd, India's second-largest cigarette manufacturer. It was during this time that Modi realised that it was in the big, phat world of entertainment where he would shake his moneymaker.

The early 90s and the return to India didn't quite change the "work hard, play hard" high-energy jinks of Modi. The tales of him spending raucous, intoxicated evenings at the Taj Mahal hotel's coffee shop, Machan, and nightclub, Number One, are not yet forgotten by well-heeled Delhiites. As one of them remembers,

"He used to get drunk and pick on foreigners twice his size. Daddy's friends in the hotel industry had a regular job in saving him from being beaten up."

Another story has Modi losing more than a crore rupees on a Diwali gambling night at the then Lalit Suri-owned Inter-Continental Hotel in Delhi.

"He couldn't pay up and the winners refused to let him leave the hotel. Mr Suri had to call up Modi Sr who had to provide the money. Only then could Lalit leave the hotel."

But at the same time, Modi was getting into the relatively untapped field of sports entertainment. He was tasting success.

His Modi Entertainment Network in 1993-94 started distributing the Disney-owned American sports channel ESPN in India. Some credit him with persuading ESPN to start showing cricket matches on the channel. In 1994-95, he also floated what was then considered a strange idea: an Indian Premier League modelled on the English Premier League in football. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) wasn't interested.

"I don't know the reasons and compulsions of the BCCI. But I was determined to achieve this mission," Modi said from Dharamsala on Friday.

"I had even formed an Indian Cricket League but failed to implement my plan to start the IPL."

Any other person, perhaps, would have packed up his power point presentation, settled down in a profitable sports entertainment distribution business and been content with working up the chain in the family business empire. Not Lalit Modi. He was a player, even then.

Realising a dream Modi realised that to get the BCCI to realise his dream of making cricket in India a mega-corporate entity, he would have to enter the BCCI citadel itself. The journey from the boundary to lording over the pitch started in earnest in March 2003 when Modi got himself nominated as the president of the Nagaur District Cricket Association in Rajasthan.

He managed to rope in former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje to oust the Rungta family, which had controlled the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA) for 38 years. To facilitate his entry, the Raje government got IAS officer Sanjay Dixit (who is the current RCA general secretary) to come up with the Rajasthan Sports Act.

This single stroke changed the rules of elections, providing a major say to district units during the RCA presidency elections, which until then in Rajasthan and unlike, say in Delhi and Kolkata, did not allow members to elect the state cricket association president.

Modi defeated Kishore Rungta and was RCA president from February 2005 to March 2009 — enough time to hone and perfect the masterplan from within the BCCI citadel.

His unorthodox entry into BCCI earned Modi many enemies. But some of them don't deny the man's sheer drive for success and ability to deliver.

Kishore Rungta, Modi's predecessor as RCA president, is generous about his usurper's talents.

"Modi is one of the top-level managers and the IPL is proof. He fought the election against me but that can't take away the credit of his taking cricket to new heights."

Modi's arch-rival and RCA Secretary Sanjay Dixit, however, is less diplomatic. "He rubs everyone the wrong way and doesn't believe in functioning in a democratic style."

It's this arrogance, devil-may-care haughtiness that Modi has never cared to hide which makes him the larger-than-life, much-larger-than-cricket anti-hero.

"He doesn't sleep for more than two to three hours, and has an incredible amount of energy — energy that can make him suddenly scream at underlings and employees for no real reason and at the same time shower them with gifts from his own pocket," says someone who has seen him from close quarters during the last three years of IPL.

Family man
Hard as it may be to imagine, the IPL man, surrounded by all those swirling tales of sex-drugs-n-rock-n-rolling-in-cash, is also a father and husband. There is Lalit Modi, the family man.

His wife Minal has been ailing from breast cancer for the past 12 years. Older than him, she was Lalit's mother's friend, and he was disowned by his family when they got married.

His 17-year-old son Ruchir studies at the American School in Mumbai and his 16-year-daughter Aliya in a school in Switzerland.

When with them, Modi hardly seems what the British daily, The Independent, described him as: "A man who could divide the Red Sea."

But then, Modi is certainly, at least in his own head, a Moses taking on the Pharoahs of the Indian establishment, whether they be politicians or fellow cricketwallas. He certainly didn't sound perturbed on Friday, the day after the Income Tax Department officials carried out a 'survey' and 'recovered documentation' from Modi's IPL office at the Four Seasons Hotel in Parel.

"It's success that attracts all sorts of criticism. I've got nothing to hide and I'll cooperate with income tax authorities or anyone else. It's only if you're unsuccessful that everyone leaves you alone."

It's that gumption, that chutzpah, that makes Lalit Modi stand out — both as a visionary with a genius to make an Rs 40,000 crore entertainment empire out of a gentleman's game, as well as the bad boy who doesn't care about the rules as long as the game afoot is won.

It's this in-your-face, high-energy contradiction in one guy in Guccis with a perpetual sugar rush that makes Lalit Modi a player.

He's certainly not done playing yet.