There’s probably a good Lalit Modi and a bad Lalit Modi, or maybe, as many say, he has several alter egos and there’s a mad Lalit Modi thrown into the mix too.
For instance, the youngest vice-president of the Indian cricket board and the man who changed the global cricketing landscape with the concept and execution of the Indian Premier League once paid a whopping £1,600 for a lone seat to watch a game of cricket. He gave Yuvraj Singh a Porsche after the latter hit six sixes in an over during the T20 World Cup.
But, at 44, he’ll probably never live down the fact that when he was a student at North Carolina’s Duke University, he pleaded guilty to charges of possession of cocaine, abduction and assault before being let off on probation after a suspended two-year sentence. Many say his being the scion of the KK Modi family helped him get out of that scrape without more serious damage.
He dabbled in businesses, got in and out of FTV, the TV distribution business and, as adman Suhel Seth puts it, was probably “desperately looking for his calling”.
But the IPL commissioner on display at Friday’s second major IPL auction in Goa definitely seemed to be the good twin of the man who handled the first one on February 20, 2008.
This savvily dressed Modi wasn’t freely abusing his staff, telling journalists to “shut up” or demanding that people listen or “be thrown out”. This man was calmer, receptive to questions and suggestions, even cracking the occasional joke.
Perhaps we’re finally seeing the maturing of Lalit Modi. Or perhaps the evil twin has been temporarily buried by the problems of the last few months, especially in Rajasthan, where he is battling on several fronts. An uprising against him in the Rajasthan Cricket Association, allegations of forgery in buying land in Nagaur; accusations of buying historic havelis by using his alleged influence in the previous Vasundhra Raje government.
Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who campaigned on an anti-corruption plank, had been unsparing of Modi in his speeches. “Who is he? Why is there an extra-constitutional authority in the state?” Gehlot would ask the electorate. He now says: “All acts of omission and commission of the previous government will be probed, though I do not believe in witch-hunts.”
Yet, 2008 was also the year when Modi made the top 20 list of the world’s most powerful sports administrators, won major business awards from top media firms and was dubbed the ‘Brand Builder of the Year’ by the Asia Brand Conference.
Behind all this though, behind the flash and dash, what is brand Modi really? Seth believes that the past year and the IPL have given him the legitimacy he was craving and “something to do”. “He is finally wielding power through the heady concoction of Bollywood, cricket and entertainment and he’s loving it.”
The problem now though, says Seth, is for Modi to make the jump from hanging on to someone else’s coattails and doing it on his own steam. “He was first the son of a very rich father, then he was known as Vasundhara Raje’s gatekeeper and finally, even with cricket, his legitimacy was based on Sharad Pawar’s power. That umbilical cord has never been cut.”
But with the IPL, Modi actually has a realistic chance of cutting that cord. There is no question that it is a phenomenon, one that others have talked about, but never really attempted.
Inderjit Bindra, the president of the Punjab Cricket Association and Modi’s closest associate in cricket’s power circles agrees, as he describes him as “dynamic and market savvy, with a visionary zeal”.
Ask him if Modi is misunderstood. Pat comes the reply: “He is, because he’s slightly brash, shoots from the hip and doesn’t mince his words. Yet, once they know him, even those who misunderstand him cannot help hold him in grudging admiration.”
And then he adds, “During the IPL, he didn’t sleep for days together. He’s like that, completely intense. Even now, when he’s been going through lots of personal problems of late, with his wife not keeping well, he’s finding time and energy for what he set up.”
But again, as Seth puts it, Modi has no choice here but to succeed. And be graceful about it. “It will be good as long as it lasts but he will have to reinvent himself as Santa Claus, don’t just talk, for instance, about helping other sports in India but do something. Abrasive brands built out of conflict always face the danger of being pulled down if they are not careful. And in Modi’s case, he has the problem of “I”. In this country, you should never replace “we” with “I”. Then you become an isolated, identifiable target. Modi is that. So he’ll need to work hard to establish peace.”