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Cricket in India: caught and bowled by greed

The more we learn about the IPL, the more it seems to resemble a gravy train. Till now, attention has focused on Lalit Modi and on allegations that he is a benami shareholder in several teams, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Jun 06, 2010 11:17 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

The more we learn about the IPL, the more it seems to resemble a gravy train. Till now, attention has focused on Lalit Modi and on allegations that he is a benami shareholder in several teams. When Hindustan Times printed details of the actual ownership of the IPL teams a few weeks ago, many of us were shocked. People who claimed to be owners were revealed to be relatively minor shareholders. And faceless corporations registered abroad kept cropping up in the lists of team owners.

But on Friday, The Times of India suggested that the rot went beyond Modi and his friends. When the IPL controversy first broke, both Sharad Pawar and his daughter Supriya Sule denied that the Pawar family had any commercial interest in the tournament. Allegations that linked them to companies owning telecast rights were misconceived, they said.

And by and large, most of us believed them. Pawar is one of India’s richer politicians and though he has been dogged throughout his career by charges that the only thing he values more than politics is real estate, cricket has always seemed too small-time for a man with his stupendous wealth.

The Times of India story got us all thinking again. According to ToI (and its sister TV channel, Times Now) the Pawar family owned two companies which, in turn, owned 16 per cent of a construction firm called City Corp. The company is run by a man called A. Deshpande, who is one of Pune’s better-known builders and its board of directors includes Lalit Adani. City Corp put in a bid for an IPL team but was narrowly beaten by Sahara.

ToI made the obvious point. Should the Pawars have been so self-righteous about having no commercial interest in cricket if one of their companies had been involved in an unsuccessful bid?

Many of us were intrigued by the question. So intrigued, in fact, that the media did not even focus on why Sharad Pawar needs to be an investor in one of Pune’s better-known building companies. Does the man’s passion for real estate know no limits? Does he ever talk about his own investments in this sector when issues of urban development are raised? How many dodgy businessmen is he involved with?

Instead, journos focused on the cricket propriety issue. And here, the Pawars had their defence ready. City Corp had no business bidding for the IPL team. The bid was really made by Deshpande in his individual capacity.

To back up this claim, the Pawars produced a City Corp board resolution that ruled against bidding for an IPL team and a chastened Deshpande appeared on TV channels to declare that it had all been his fault and that the Pawars were truly wonderful people.

This didn’t satisfy the critics. The BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad called for Pawar’s resignation and suggested that perhaps the board resolution had been backdated to get the Pawars off the hook. As for Deshpande, his hangdog expression on TV channels suggested that he had just gone 15 rounds with Sharad Pawar and would do everything possible to avoid a further thrashing.

I pass no judgements about what really happened with the City Corp bid. It is too early to tell whether the Pawars are telling the truth and until conclusive evidence against them emerges, we are obliged to regard them as innocent.

But I can’t help wondering: even if Deshpande had acted of his own volition, Pawar must have known that City Corp had submitted a bid. Why did he not say a word about this apparent conflict of interest when he was making all those declarations about no commercial involvement in cricket? Why are these explanations only being trotted out now after the story has broken?

The latest Pawar scandal is worrying because it tends to confirm the view that Indian cricket is not just run by people who care more for money than they do for cricket, but by people who only care about how much money they themselves can make from cricket.

If you look at the way the BCCI is run, it is clear that few of its members are troubled by ethical issues. Conflict of interest is a way of life. The Chennai team is openly owned by a key BCCI functionary. By his own admission, Lalit Modi called up friends and relatives and told them to buy IPL teams. (This was because others were not coming forward before the first IPL, says Modi.) Chirayu Amin, the current head of the IPL, admits that he pledged to invest 10 per cent in a consortium that bid unsuccessfully for an IPL franchise. Amin says that he did nothing wrong. His involvement was no secret and he kept the BCCI informed.

He may well be telling the truth. If all the teams contain investments from BCCI bigwigs, their companies, their friends and their relatives, then clearly, nobody on the board worried unduly about conflict of interest.

Rather, they saw the multi-million dollar success of the IPL and decided to quickly get rich themselves.

Till now, my primary criticism of the way cricket is run in India has been that the board is dominated by rich businessmen and politicians who treat a few former players as their kept cricketers. In many cases, the line between politics and business is blurred. Sharad Pawar may well be one of India’s most famous politicians, but he is also head of a huge business empire that includes investments in property, construction, wine, grape farming and God alone knows what else. Lalit Modi is the businessman who dreamt up the commercial framework of the IPL. But he is also a political financier with strong links to the BJP’s Rajasthan unit.

There are BCCI board members who are in it only for the love of the game but over the last few years they have been overshadowed by this cosy politico-business coterie. Things had got so bad that when the last round of franchises was being awarded, there was open speculation about how the bids would be fixed and who the benamis were.

In many ways, cricket administration in India reminds me of the crony capitalism that flourished till the economy was liberalised in 1991. In those days, businessmen paid politicians off, politicians made the rules and the businessmen made the profits. That arrangement collapsed in the 1990s and the Indian economy has thrived as a consequence.

But when it comes to cricket we are still in a pre-liberalisation era. Crony capitalism flourishes and when the truth threatens to come out, the board throws a sacrificial lamb to the wolves (in this case, Lalit Modi)), gives itself a clean chit and returns to money-making as usual.

My hope is that the latest Pawar scandal will mark the beginning of the end of the scam that is cricket administration in India. It is time for sweeping reforms, for a liberalisation process that is as far-reaching as the one Manmohan Singh unleashed in 1991. Till that happens, the politicians and the businessmen will continue to make their ill-gotten millions. And Indian cricket will pay the price.

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jun 06, 2010 00:55 IST