Who's this man?

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By A crack negotiator and marketing wizard, Lalit Modi has made the BCCI richer than ever. As IPL 2 gets underway, Debaashish Bhattacharya looks at the man behind the dealmaker
  • Published 19.04.09

It is not just about his car — it is all about who and what Lalit Modi is.No matter how convincingly father Krishan Kumar Modi argued against it, college-going Lalit wouldn’t budge an inch from his demand for a Mercedes. K.K. Modi, the chairman of the Rs 4000-crore Modi Enterprises, which owns a number of companies including the tobacco giant Godfrey Phillips, and his wife, Bina, were with their son to help him settle down as an undergraduate student in the United States in the 80s. When Lalit wanted a car, his father gave him $5000 and asked him to pick up an inexpensive one. Instead, Lalit used the money to pay the first instalment for a brand new Merc.

It was a jolt to the premier business family — Lalit was the first in the Modi clan to buy a car in instalments.

“The problem with Lalit is that once he decides on something, nothing on earth can make him change his mind,” says the 69-year-old father, sitting in his plush villa in Delhi’s Maharani Bagh.

Some were hoping that Lalit Modi, 45, would change his mind about moving his baby, the Indian Premier League (IPL), out of India this season. But faced with a clash of schedules between the ongoing general elections and the IPL matches, and the resultant security concerns, he coolly took the game to South Africa. Modi, one of the vice-presidents of the Board of Cricket Control for India (BCCI), was unconcerned about the elections and suggestions that the IPL schedules be changed. The series started with a bang yesterday.

His friends say he has a mulish streak in him. But it’s this never-say-die spirit that has largely made Lalit Modi what he is today — a shrewd negotiator, a marketing whiz and one of the men behind the success of the BCCI.

But who is Lalit Modi? Little is known about the man who cocked a snook at the government. What’s known widely is that he conceived the IPL — a 20-over cricket game that has become wildly popular ever since its start in India last year. Lalit Modi hasn’t responded to the questions or the reminders The Telegraph emailed him, but insiders explain how it all happened.

“He saw cricket was played only for a month in India and realised there was not much to show on television despite it being the most popular game in the country. So, he wanted a format with foreign and Indian players that would be played through the year, spinning money for television networks and its advertisers,” says a source.

Modi’s gamble worked. But then the man has always had a reckless streak in him. In his early teens, he zipped through the roads of New Delhi in his family car without a driving licence, much to his parents’ concern. Keen to go to the US for higher studies, he skipped his school-leaving examination in India. Since he was no longer eligible for any of the Indian colleges, he figured this was one way to make his reluctant parents send him to the US. To his credit, he had scored well in SAT, or the Scholastic Aptitude Test, essential for admission to American colleges.

Modi’s life is the stuff of racy fiction. As a student at Duke University, he got sucked into the world of drugs, winding up with charges of possessing drugs, kidnapping and assault. “It was very upsetting but we stood by him and helped him come out of it,” says his father.

But it’s clearly a subject the family would like to bury. “I don’t know why anyone needs to dig into his past, which has no bearings on him now,” says an annoyed Charu Modi Bhartia, Lalit’s sister who runs a private university in Delhi in collaboration with an American institute.

Charu argues that Lalit had acted under peer pressure. “These are the normal things kids do in colleges to fit in. But in Lalit’s case, it was blown out of proportion because of the famous family name,” she says, sitting in her farm house on the outskirts of Delhi. At 46, Charu is the protective eldest of the three Modi siblings. The youngest, Samir, 37, runs a retail chain called 24X7, a direct marketing venture called Modicare and ColorBar Cosmetics Private Limited, all under the Modi Enterprise.

But the story that rocked his family and friends was Lalit’s unconventional love affair. While he was still a student in the US, he fell in love with a married woman called Minal, who was his mother’s friend. She was nine years his senior and was then living in London with her family. Minal got a divorce, and she and Lalit were married in Mumbai despite his family’s initial disapproval.

“We tried to dissuade him. But he made it clear that he would marry only this friend of my wife, no one else,” says K.K. Modi. He says the family finally relented and attended his marriage.

His past was, by all accounts, quite a tumultuous one. No one in the family remembers exactly how many schools Lalit had changed before he moved to the US. Lalit hated life in boarding schools in Shimla and Nainital. Charu still remembers the “ingenious” way — though she declines to spell out the details — Lalit ran away from Bishop Cotton School in Shimla.

Lalit was not “bookish”, friends say, but neither was he greatly interested in sports. A childhood friend recalls he played cricket as a student but was more interested in football and tennis. “As far as I remember, Pele and Bjorn Borg were his sporting heroes, not any cricketer,” he says.

Cricket came into his life much later when he started distributing ESPN as part of a joint venture he floated with Walt Disney after a short stint in the family’s textile unit in Mumbai. Disney then owned ESPN. “He spurred ESPN to get into cricket despite the American company’s initial reservations,” says K.K. Modi.

It is, however, another story that Rupert Murdoch’s STAR network later formed ESPN STAR sports with Walt Disney and the Modis lost their distribution rights in India. Murdoch had met Lalit and his father in the Fox Studio in Los Angeles with the proposal of acquiring ESPN for the media tycoon was then “not on talking terms” with Disney, a Modi family source says. No wonder Lalit Modi counts Murdoch’s son, James, among his friends.

Eventually, the family sold off the joint venture, WD Consumer Products Limited, to Walt Disney for Rs 60 crore, making a cool profit of more than Rs 59 crore against an investment of Rs 50 lakh or so. Modi Entertainment now distributes Fashion TV in the country.

But by then, Lalit, whose friends include actor Shah Rukh Khan, had got a taste of the cash-rich, glamour-studded world of cricket. His father says Lalit decided to get into the country’s cricket administration when the Jagmohan Dalmiya-led BCCI “blocked” his efforts at starting a year-round, limited-over cricket league.

Dalmiya refused to talk about Modi, whom he had earlier accused of hounding him with “false and fabricated” cases after he lost the BCCI election a few years ago.

But Lalit had begun to find a place for himself in the cricket administration.

In his bid to enter the BCCI, he bagged the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA) in a 2005 election of the state body, using a controversial government ordinance (later made into law) that took away the voting rights of 59 RCA members and allowed only 32 district cricket associations to vote. Only office-bearers of state cricket associations can contest the BCCI elections.

“It was grossly unfair to individual RCA members but Lalit Modi used his clout with the then chief minister (Vasundhara Raje) to bring about this ordinance and the subsequent law to ensure his victory,” says present RCA secretary Ashok Ohri. He says many of the individual members were loyal to the rival camp, headed by former BCCI treasurer Kishore Rungta, a Modi critic. “It was morally and ethically wrong,” adds Rungta, who filed a case in the Supreme Court challenging the act. The case is pending.

One of Modi’s most powerful backers is Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar. Though few know for sure how the two came together, sources say former BCCI president I.S. Bindra may have played a part in it. Bindra is the president of the Punjab Cricket Association, while Modi is its vice-president. “They are very close and consult each other all the time,” the sources say.

A BCCI insider says Modi and Pawar were “united in their intense dislike” for Dalmiya, who had aborted Pawar’s bid to enter the BCCI in 2004 by backing Ranbir Singh Mahendra. “They made a common cause and went after Joguda (Dalmiya’s nickname),” says a Dalmiya confidant.

Pawar took to Modi’s idea for IPL almost instantly and saw it as a money-spinner for the BCCI. “Their opposition to Dalmiya was the intial glue that held them together, but it has now been cemented because of the success of IPL,” he says.

Figures are hard to come by. But a BCCI source says the success of IPL has jacked up BCCI revenue beyond $ 1 billion. Modi himself is worth millions. He is on the board of all Modi Enterprise companies and actively involved in the running of blue-chip Godfrey Phillips and Modi Entertainment.

His in-your-face style rankles critics. But Modi is anything but a wallflower. He still drives a Mercedes, wears his Armanis and likes to spend his New Year’s Eves at Amanpuri in Phuket, listed by the American Conde Nast Traveler magazine as one of the world’s best resorts.

A source says he had almost talked Hollywood star Russell Crowe into buying an IPL team, using his old Walt Disney contacts. Crowe apparently got cold feet after the prices of IPL team soared.

Modi is businesslike, generous with money but not with time. “His words are clipped and he can be abrupt at times, almost to the point of being rude,” says a former RAC office bearer. “He wants you to be on the ball all the time and wants tomorrow’s things done yesterday.”

The IPL boss was in the news again last year when his critics called him a “super chief minister” because of his closeness to Vasundhara Raje, who is some 10 years older than him. Family sources point out the Modis’ ties with the Gwalior royal family go back a long way. Lalit’s grandmother and Vasundhara Raje’s mother were close friends and devotees of spiritual leader Anandamoyee Ma.

The anti-Modi camp says the vegetarian and teetotaller Modi was a powerful entity in the former Raje government. “There was always a long line of IAS and IPS officers outside his plush suite in a five star hotel whenever he came to Jaipur,” says Anil Shekhawat, general secretary of the Samajwadi Party in Rajasthan.

The Congress, too, pointed a finger at Modi, accusing him of being behind several lucrative land deals signed in the BJP regime during its November 2008 poll campaign, a charge both Modi and the BJP have publicly denied. “Who is Lalit Modi?” reads a Congress poll ad, seeking to make a political issue of him.

Barely four months after the BJP lost Rajasthan to the Congress, the Lalit Modi group tasted defeat in the March 1 election to the state cricket association, with Sanjay Dixit, a senior IAS officer, replacing him as the RCA president.

“There was tremendous political pressure to remove him in the last election,” says Jaipur Cricket Association president B. R. Soni, who was deputy president of the Modi-headed RCA.

Raje was unavailable for comment. BJP state president Om Mathur too refused to speak on the Opposition charges that Modi had emerged as the de facto chief minister in the Raje regime. “All I will say is that we lost the assembly election not because of Lalit Modi but because of the rebel candidates who cut into our votes,” Mathur says.

Modi loyalists say as RCA president, he spent some Rs 20 crore building cricket infrastructure, turning Jaipur’s once-decrepit Sawai Mansingh Stadium into one of the best in the country with two new blocks, media rooms and galleries.

“Lalit Modi is a man with vision. Earlier, there was nothing at this stadium. He has built everything,” says former Rajasthan Ranji player Shamsher Singh, who was operations manager of the Rajasthan Royal team.

Modi spent Rs 7 crore building a state-of-the art cricket academy, complete with 28-appointed rooms, a gym, a restaurant, two conference halls and a swimming pool. RCA officials say it was contracted for three years to a private company, which acts as a service provider and pays the RCA Rs 7 lakh a year.

“It’s nothing short of a scandal. We own this academy but we have had to pay this service provider Rs 1800 per room per day if our cricketers stay there,” says RCA secretary Ohri. The RCA has now appointed a four-member committee, headed by an IAS officer, to probe the alleged financial irregularities during the Modi regime.

Samajwadi Party’s Shekhawat, a member of the inquiry committee and a chartered accountant, says the report will be submitted in three months. “There will be more surprises for Mr Modi,” he says.

But when it comes to money for cricket, he doesn’t hesitate. “If you ask for Rs 2 lakh to do something, he will give you Rs 5 lakh,” says Soni. The RCA secretary agrees. “He is always generous with money and in each of the few weddings that he attended in Jaipur in the last few years, he gifted the newly-weds Rs 1 lakh or more,” says Ohri.

But it’s not all well with the present committee either. Within a month of the election, an unseemly fight has broken out between RCA president Dixit and Ohri over sharing of power. “We drove Modi out of the RCA because of certain compulsions but now things are going back to square one,” the RCA secretary acknowledges.

And that could only spell good news for Modi, who has publicly expressed his desire to return to the helm of the Rajasthan cricket body. Both his backers and detractors say that Modi never takes no for an answer.

At the moment, Modi — a self-confessed family man who lives in his Juhu bungalow with his son Ruchir and daughters Aliya and Karishma (who is from his wife’s previous marriage) —is possibly going through the most difficult phase in his life. As he remains busy in South Africa overseeing the IPL, Minal, who has acted as an anchor in his life, is in the United States, undergoing treatment for cancer.

But Modi soldiers on. When he is down, a family source says, Lalit Modi draws strength from Robert Frost’s famous line: “I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep.”