There is no point repeating the questions already debated for two weeks without any answer: is Lalit Modi right or wrong, is he a crooked fugitive or a devil-may-care whistleblower, a human bomb or a kamikaze crusader? As his claims, charges, revelations, allegations over these days, including his two exclusive interviews to the India Today Group, prove, he is all of the above in parts. A more interesting question therefore is: what is better, to be seen by Lalit (using first name not because we’re buddy-buddies but to distinguish him from the Prime Minister) as an enemy or as a friend? Or more precisely still: which is worse?
Ask his friends, Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje, both widely seen to be leaders on the up in the BJP, even likely claimants for the top job in the future. Irrespective of whether they survive now or not, association with him has caused both permanent damage. Or check with his enemies, whether cricketing (Arun Jaitley, Rajeev Shukla, N. Srinivasan), political (Pranab Mukherjee, his trusted aide Omita Paul, and lately even the Gandhi family) or many in the media, notably Vineet Jain of the Times Group and prime-time judge-executioner Arnab Goswami. Everybody has emerged singed from his scorched-earth warfare, albeit only electronically so far. And you can be sure as hell that everybody, including Raje and Swaraj, is cursing him. Damned by friendship, cursed by enmity. And yet Lalit, in his 15 days of fame, has realised the one ambition that I suspect he secretly harboured: of being more famous than the cricketers he made so much richer by launching the marvel of IPL.
He has ended up harming friend and foe not because he is stupid, if suicidal. But because of three other reasons. One, he doesn’t understand Indian politics and doesn’t care. Two, his ego often gets the better of his judgement. And three, and most important, is something he can do nothing about, the nature of the tight-knit club Indian cricket’s holding company of sorts the BCCI is. If I were a modern-day commentator and not old-fashioned, I would have preferred mafia to holding company, and let me clarify, not because it is a club of criminal thugs and extortionists. It has,
The politics of the BCCI is made much more complex—or simple, depending on which way look at it—by the fact that it is also Indian poli only genuinely multi-partisan politics that works. S« enemies in the world at large, Sharad Pawar, Narer zrt Modi, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Anurag Thakur (Dhumal I. : Joshi, Amit Shah, Arun Jaitley, Farooq Abdullah, La. Yadav and Rajeev Shukla, even third generation sc: of regional political dynasties, such as current board Y President Anirudh Chaudhary (late Bansi Lai’s grar: son), all become the most loyal of friends once inside BCCI tent. I was invited by my friend James Astill, form- r India bureau chief of The Economist, to moderate a cc versation with Arun Jaitley and Rajiv Shukla during t: release of his brilliant book, The Great Tamasha: Crick- Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India, s New Delhi’s British Council. Desperately searching for : line that would draw some interest from the audience found refuge in politics. It was some months before ti 2014 Lok Sabha elections. So I said, I can’t be so foolhar: as to predict the election result. But one thing I can say f r sure is that if the NDA wins, Rajeev Shukla will head th- IPL. If the Congress wins, it will be Arun Jaitley. Everyboc laughed, and nobody, including .Shuk ^ and Jaitley, complained.
The political power they bring has been very beneficial for cricket. Mom it had begun to mop up sufficient, enough even before IPL. But it is or- game that rarely faces the sarkari cha. lenges the others do, over visas, clearances, land allotment for stadium? policing arrangements (except in 200- when P. Chidambaram as home minister exiled the IPL to South Africa as it coincided with the General Electiom. even chartered planes from the IAF to carry broadcasters’ equipment, or
domestic commercial flights, additional and rescheduled. Cricket has also become the one sport in India where the game’s tsars have been able to get newly built stadiums named after themselves, and that too in their lifetimes (Wankhede, D.Y. Patil, M.A. Chidambaram, Sahara, Sharad Pawar) rather than the usual Nehru-Gandhis.
Before the political class discovered cricket, it was managed by rich, royal lovers of the game, of whom Raj Singh Dungarpur was the last as we will count the Scindias as politicians, not royals. Then came the era of chartered accountants, the last of which to ride the BCCI were Jagmohan Dalmiya and Shashank Manohar. Both still survive, Dalmiya is in fact resurrected, having made peace with the same ruling cabal which now Lalit is fighting and which had once destroyed him, even filed criminal cases of defalcation against him. A few bureaucrats came in and were evicted, Punjab’s IAS officer and former Zail Singh aide I.S. Bindra among them. But another interesting group entered this changing mix: mid-sized, but reasonably wealthy corporates were attracted by the love of the game as well as its glamour. The most prominent of these were Srinivasan and Lalit, both hereditary rich, but involved in highly regulated old-economy businesses, namely cement and cigarettes. The most fascinating thing is that first it was the CAs that clashed (Manohar and Dalmiya) and then business tycoons (Lalit and Srinivasan). The political core remained solid as titanium, and the side it backed won in each case. Lalit refuses to accept the reality that politicians hang together in the BCCI, and they win.
ow well do I know Lalit? Not too well, except I interviewed him on camera once, at Feroz Shah Kotla, glowing with the first year of IPL success. He was flattered that I introduced him as Indian sport’s Jerry Maguire, the lead character of a nothing-is-impossible American sports agent played by Tom Cruise in the eponymous film. He spoke in detail about how he designed the IPL over endless hours on his laptop, gaming this miracle of his to perfection. And have I met him in London? Well, I’ve run into him where Indians run into fellow Indians routinely in London, at the Taj Group’s St James Court. He was having lunch with Bindra at a corner table, and I got the impression neither was particularly happy to see me butt in.
The success of the IPL and the rising power of the BCCI both went to his head and at some point he got ahead of
himself. He tasted this global power early when sent by the BCCI to negotiate terms for Australians to play in the first IPL, and his influence and the lure of the bucks he promised cricketers and the Aussie board (percentage of player fees) subsequently helped troubleshoot in Australia in the wake of the Harbhajan Singh-Andrew Symonds “Monkeygate”. His arrogance, swagger and exercise of raw BCCI power swung it India’s way, with an umpire (Steve Bucknor) fired and Bhajji getting off very lightly. But it got India bad press across the cricketing world. It also gave him the bully image he began to like. This rose to megalomania by 2009 when he took the IPL away to South Africa, thumbing his nose at the UPA government and in cahoots with deeply conflicted Sharad Pawar and Rajeev Shukla. If you remember— or check out on YouTube now—Lalit was the star of that IPL. Scores chased him for autographs at South African stadiums, cameras followed him—by this time he fully controlled the media coverage of the IPL, to the extent that the footage of Bhajji slapping S. Sreesanth in Mohali was never seen and was buried forever. I witnessed his new fame in a place that couldn’t be farther away from cricket. At the concluding grand soiree at Davos, where South Africa was the theme, Miss South Africa, towering over me by several inches, looked at my name-badge and said, oh, you are from India, do you know Lalit? This was just after his 2009 conquest of South Africa through IPL.
The decline followed shortly thereafter, coinciding with the rise of the other tycoon, Srinivasan, as understated in personal style as Lalit was flamboyant, but much shrewder at dealing with politicians, with one exception, J. Jayalalithaa in his home state. He was helped by the reckless buccaneering style of Lalit which drew disapproval of conservatives and envy of peers. Even Pawar, who remained friendly with him, wasn’t able to help.
Whatever the substance in the ED’s cases against him, this combined power is what Lalit is taking on. He can praise Narendra Modi, thank Raje and Swaraj, but they will all distance themselves. Having called him a fugitive (which he isn’t) repeatedly and having blamed the UPA for his “escape”, the Narendra Modi government will go after him, probably using criminal money laundering laws and pressure on the British government to get him deported. Unfortunately for Lalit, the political class will stay united against him. Because if the old wisdom says that only cricket and war unite Indians, only war over cricketing power will unite Indian politicians.
Follow the writer on Twitter @ShekharGupta