BENT AND BEAUTIFUL INDIA - Tharoor is only the symptom of a deeper malaise

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  • Published 16.04.10

Nearly eight years or so ago, just as India was settling into a state of newly-acquired prosperity, a political writer described the country’s upper echelons as being dominated by the “bent and the beautiful”. Today, that commentator is, alas, a high official in the prime minister’s office and gagged by concerns of propriety from proffering his comments on one of the most sordid scandals to hit the country, a scandal that serves to showcase a bent and beautiful India.

The irony of the turbulence that has shaken the Indian Premier League is that it coincides with the astonishing commercial success of an improvised game that departed from the niceties of traditional cricket. India’s domination of the economy of international cricket is one of the highlights of contemporary life and its implications have been profound.

In 1988-89, the great unwashed spent an hour each Sunday morning glued to an episode of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana; two decades later, some 32 evenings of March and April are taken up by a T20 fever that generates Rs 15,000 crore of economic activity. From a reverential preoccupation with a folksy, quasi-religious idiom of entertainment, India has changed gear to a fast-moving, choreographed amusement that involves the best international stars and oodles of glamour.

In the sphere of mass culture, the IPL commissioner, Lalit Modi, has done to today’s India what the Beatles did to Britain in the 1960s: secured an image overhaul. The Ambassador-dominated, shortage-ridden India of the past has been subsumed by a curious animal that breathes money, aspires to style and oozes self-confidence. The pom-pom girls at IPL matches may seem farcically tacky but their pathetic gyrations are lapped up by a crowd that is only too pleased to witness Caucasians dance to an Indian tune.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that the magnitude of the IPL’s success was unanticipated. When the initial auction for the teams took place four years ago, there were only a handful of corporate organizations which considered the high investments and the long gestation period as a risk worth taking. This may explain why there was a heavy dependence on high net-worth individuals and glamourous film stars. Today, that scepticism has yielded way to a bout of unbridled exuberance and expectations of near-instant returns. In addition, team loyalties, which seemed somewhat fragile in the first two years of the tournament, have given way to firmer attachments. Compared to the empty stands and the free tickets that were a feature of IPL-1 (IPL-2 was played in South Africa), IPL-3 has been a sell-out. Having an IPL team in the state has become a regional imperative and may explain why politicians are anxious to earn brownie points with the electorate by being perceived as cricket lovers.

It is the commercial and popular success of the IPL that is at the root of the present distortions caused entirely by the involvement of politicians. The controversy surrounding the flamboyant minister of state, Shashi Tharoor, illustrates the point vividly.

That Tharoor detected political opportunities in mentoring a consortium that was intent on giving Kochi an IPL team is understandable. Yet, his role was more than that of a benign ‘patron’, as he now claims. Tharoor took an active interest in the operational aspects of the bidding process. He personally called on various bigwigs in the Board of Control for Cricket in India, including Sharad Pawar and Arun Jaitley, before the auction and was present in Chennai around the time the bids were opened. After his consortium won the bid and chose Kochi, Tharoor exulted publicly and attempted to extract maximum political mileage for himself in Kerala. From being the outsider, he projected himself as the personification of Malayali pride.

It now transpires that Tharoor did more than assume the role of a mentor to the consortium: he offered them political protection against a rival political grouping promoting the interests of two unsuccessful bidders. According to details given to Business Standard on a non-attributable basis, two of the seven investors in Rendezvous Sports World were “summoned to the residence of a Union Cabinet minister and told to back off from bidding for Kochi or else. ‘We have many ways to take care of the likes of you’, the two… were told at the end of a conversation with the minister that began at 10pm and went on till 4am. They were told to go to Delhi to meet another minister from the same party, who… repeated: ‘Get out of the IPL. Sell the team.’” Other sources have indicated that Tharoor was used as the conduit to appeal to the Congress leadership to stop this harassment.

If Tharoor did indeed play knight in shining armour, fighting a political mafia, his role is laudable. However, it now seems that prior to taking up the political challenge, he was aware of and ‘supported’ the allotment of five per cent unpaid or sweat equity to Sunanda Pushkar for her marketing and networking expertise. The market value of the equity donated to Pushkar by RSW is anything between Rs 50 and Rs 70 crore, a sum that hardly stands up to the claim of being a “minor” stake in lieu of services rendered. It is estimated that in three years’ time the equity would be worth approximately Rs 500 crore. For this sum, almost every marketing guru in the world would have been queuing before the RSW offices with an application form.

It is a different matter that Tharoor’s liaison with Pushkar is an open secret in Delhi, with the venerable Press Trust of India reporting (a day before her stake holding became public) that the two planned to get married after the minister sorted out his divorce with his present wife. Since neither Tharoor nor Pushkar have denied their proximity, the surmise that the five per cent equity was for political consultancy rather than marketing expertise is legitimate. It’s a surmise that the Opposition too has made, and the resulting furore could bring Tharoor’s political career to an abrupt end.

However, Tharoor is only a symptom of the malaise. It must be remembered that he was brought into the RSW orbit only because the consortium rightly feared an organized bid to ‘fix’ the IPL auction. As commissioner, Modi has contributed enormously to the innovation of T20, popularizing it beyond the narrow circle of discerning cricket lovers and milking its commercial potential. At the same time, he has allowed himself to be buffeted by pressure from politicians who see it as a convenient business opportunity. At one time, politicians saw business as the milch cow of election funding and nurtured crony capitalism to ensure a reliable source of resources. Today, many politicians have begun to see business as an extension of politics and are less inclined to respect the relative autonomy of business. The IPL is in danger of falling prey to this shift in priorities and the hurdles put in the way of the Kochi franchise is indicative of the blurring of lines.

The shift has to be resisted, not least because cricket involves the public interest. The worst solution would be any increase in the government’s role in cricket administration. A more meaningful approach could involve complete transparency of financial transactions and the appointment of a professional chief executive accountable to a board made up of both the BCCI and the different franchise holders. Despite his pioneering role, Modi has shown that his neutrality and fairness cannot be taken for granted. Correctives are needed before the rot sets in deeper.