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As Lalit Modi row swirls, Indian political league has come alive

Senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai talks of his interview with former IPL chief Lalit Modi - of high-profile visitors, IPL franchise owners, business dealings, and powerful connections.

columns Updated: Jun 26, 2015 01:46 IST
Lalit Modi,Travel documents controversy,Sushma Swaraj

Like the brand line of the cigarette company which his family owns, Lalit Modi likes living life king size.

Just before the 2010 IPL, I had gone to interview him at the penthouse suite of the Four Seasons hotel in Mumbai, which he had converted into an office-cum-residence space because his home had ‘burnt down’. As I waited for him, in the adjoining room I spotted a stream of high-profile visitors: IPL franchise owners, business leaders, actors, politicians, board officials, the rich, famous and powerful filing in.

When Modi finally arrived, he was quick to remark with typical swagger, “All my friends you see, all my friends!”

Five years later, the friends have become, well, “frenemies”, but as the Lalit-leaks controversy swirls, what is apparent is that the original IPL — the Indian political league — is alive and kicking.

Cricket’s IPL is owned by the BCCI: Indian sports’ richest body whose membership cuts across political party lines. Little surprise then that despite a stinging parliament report in 2010-11 into the board’s finances, the income tax (IT) and enforcement directorate investigation has gathered dust.

Lalit Modi was a bit of a gatecrasher into this incestuous world, a buccaneer-entrepreneur with an eye on the main chance. He broke the BCCI club rules when he created the IPL almost as a personal fiefdom, and in attempting to become larger than life, paid a heavy price.

Like cricket’s IPL, its political avatar too is a cosy club of the movers and shakers, only their power play is well beyond the cricket fields. Many of our top netas are members of this elite group that is secular and non-partisan in its interests. This well-networked gathering works on strict rules of power and patronage, wherein you are expected to protect and promote each other, look after relatives and distribute largesse to cronies.

In a crisis, this club (or ‘tribe’) quickly unites, subverts the legal machinery and ensures a code of silence is maintained.

The ‘Lalit leaks’ broke this code, creating a rare disruption in the political league. For example, Lalit Modi has revealed his personal friendship with Sushma Swaraj’s family and that the external affairs minister’s husband, Swaraj Kaushal, would provide him free legal help. Which is perhaps why the minister didn’t even think of an obvious conflict of interest while bypassing protocol and speaking directly to British lawmakers to have his impounded passport revoked.

Modi has also not hidden his long-standing friendship with Vasundhara Raje, which is likely why the Rajasthan chief minister was happy to stand witness for his British residency claims. Modi has also reminded us that the likes of Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel, Rajiv Shukla have all tried to help him, if only to prove that his list of friends aren’t restricted to the saffron camp.

Indeed, this case shows how almost the entire political class has been compromised by its club motto of ‘one for all and all for one’.

The Congress, for example, may now direct its ammunition against the BJP, but the fact is that for almost four years between 2010 and 2014, the UPA did little to pursue the case of Modi’s deportation from Britain. Even the two letters sent by then finance minister P Chidambaram to his British counterpart in 2013 can hardly take away from the reality that for the rest of the UPA’s ruling arrangement, Modi was hardly seen as an absconder.

The Narendra Modi government, of course, has gone a step further in keeping the case on the back burner. The fact that the government did not appeal against the high court verdict restoring Modi’s passport last August confirms the lack of keenness to pursue the matter. Now, if the Enforcement Directorate (ED) is threatening to send a red corner notice, it appears like an after-thought, occasioned more by a desire to appease prime time media outrage rather than a serious intent to ensure that the law is supreme.

Indeed, the role of the ED and IT — often seen as a handmaiden to settle scores with rivals or ‘protect’ disproportionate assets of club members — is questionable: Either it doesn’t have a strong case against Modi, or else it has chosen to keep it deliberately weak.

A good example of the privileges of being an IPL ‘club’ member is the parallels in the cases of Robert Vadra and Dushyant Singh, one a son-in-law of the Congress president, the other the MP son of the Rajasthan CM. Both seem to have made windfall profits from a business model, which is primarily based on proximity to power and not any tangible investments.

Before the Haryana elections last year, the BJP had vowed to ‘expose’ Vadra; once in power, the investigation appears to have made little progress. Similarly, the Congress in Rajasthan rode to power in 2008 by promising to unearth the Vasundhara-Dushyant-Modi nexus. However, once in office, the Ashok Gehlot government made scant headway, perhaps because by then fingers were also being pointed at the chief minister’s own son.

Interestingly, the prime minister’s supporters claim that Narendra Modi is the quintessential ‘outsider’ who wants to break the IPL’s stranglehold on power. This is why the revelations of the ‘other’ Modi are now a test case: if he is indeed the anti-establishment hero, then why is the prime minister conspicuously silent on the fallout of the Lalit leaks? Or, as a former Gujarat cricket association president (a post now held by his key aide Amit Shah), is he too a privileged member of the exclusive club?

Post-script: While interviewing Lalit Modi in Montenegro, I was given a peep into his charmed circle. Without revealing names, one can only say that if in 2010 his powerful friends were mainly ‘desi’, now his network has gone truly global!

(Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and an author. The views expressed are personal.)

First Published: Jun 25, 2015 21:50 IST