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“New” India, “Old” Politics: Business, Governance and the IPL June 7, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Stoddart, Brian , trackback

Brian Stoddart

One of the late Warren Zevon’s greatest songs was entitled “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, suggesting that the intersection between force/authority, finance and governance would determine most contretemps either officially or otherwise.  There might be some now in India reflecting that Zevon was not entirely wrong when it comes to cricket, business and politics.

When we left the Indian Premier League (IPL) a few weeks ago its Commissioner was stood down but threatening to “spill the beans”, the tax authorities were investigating the league and its franchises, the UPA was forced to dump a junior Minister, several other Ministers were ducking and weaving along with some prominent industrialists and film stars, while mere players were wondering about their next season pay packets.

As always happens, the media coverage went quiet with focus shifting to matters like the new dialogue with the USA, rising security concerns, another bout of nuclear capability banter with Pakistan, on-going Naxalite challenges, and rising political issues in Jharkhand and elsewhere.

The IPL issue has quietly developed though, with the tax authorities raising serious concerns about several matters, and just in the past few days some further issues relating to politicians and their possible business deals have refreshed attention.  At this point, though, while the IPL details are interesting enough the principles they raise are probably more important.

In particular, this simple cricket competition has produced serious questions about the intersection of business and politics, the so-called “club” commented upon by several commentators in recent years.  As a subset, that in turn raises questions about the efficacy or otherwise of several political figures and the parties to which they belong.

An easy starting point here is with Shared Pawar, Union Minister for Agriculture.  He is about to become President of the International Cricket Council, capping his career as President of the Maharashtra Cricket Association and of the Board of Control for Cricket in India where his most famous public role was in his ousting of Jagmohan Dalmiya, the Bengal cricket boss and industrialist responsible for making India the cricket power it is now. At the same time, of course, Pawar traversed through being Chief Minister of Maharashtra and then, in 1999, after being expelled from Congress for trashing Sonia Gandhi as a foreigner, becoming leader of the new National Congress Party (NCP).  Politics being politics, the Congress need the NCP support to form the new UPA government and Pawar was back in favour – well, almost, because the Gandhi clan never forgave him, so that all negotiations there were effectively via intermediaries.

The “old” politics require networks, of course, and Pawar has those perfected.  While he himself in official returns shows minimal assets by most standards, he is long rumoured to have much bigger holdings particularly by way of various land deals in his home state (especially around Pune) and elsewhere, some at least of which have been to subject of legal proceedings.  Some of those rumours are reinforced directly and indirectly through his networks.  For example, his cricket successor in Maharashtra, Vidarbha specifically and now at the BCCI is Shashank Manohar, whose father was Advocate-General during Pawar’s Chief Ministership.  He was effectively Pawar’s handpicked replacement.

That Vidarbha connection is reinforced even more powerfully in the form of Praful Patel, Pawar’s right hand NCP man and the currently beleaguered Minister for Aviation presiding over the post-Managlore tragedy aftermath and the Air India strikes.  Patel is widely known as the “Bidi King of Vidarbha”, having inherited from his father a business conglomerate spanning tobacco, pharmaceuticals and real estate.

Then, every magnate needs a dynasty.  Enter Supriya Sule and Poorna Patel.  Supriya Sule is Pawar’s daughter and a now nationally elected MP from Maharashtra for the NCP – it is said that Sonia Gandhi’s agreement to the nomination was negotiated by Praful Patel.  His own daughter, Poorna, went to work as a hospitality manager and executive – with the IPL.  When Shashi Tharoor’s actions led to his dismissal and IPL supremo Lalit Modi’s effective sacking, one interpretation has Poorna Patel passing on to Tharoor via her boss’ email and her father’s secretary confidential IPL assessments of the franchise values in advance of the bidding process.  That was said to have advantaged Tharoor’s favoured Kochi bid team that then won and upset Modi’s preferred Pune team.

Supriya Sule, meanwhile, is married to Sadanand Sule who inherited his father’s Sony empire in India and associated businesses.  In official declarations made when running for election, Supriya admitted personal wealth of Rs 16 crores with her husband’s standing at Rs 35 crores.  One of those associated Sule businesses has now surfaced as a major issue in the IPL saga.  Put simply, one of the Sule businesses has a substantial stake in the company that won the telecasting rights for the IPL, and in which the tax authorities are most interested because of an alleged “commission” (for which read “inducement”) fee was involved.  Naturally, Pawar and Patel denied they had any knowledge or role in any of this, but the family connections kept producing issues – one of the better IPL stories, for example, is about how an Air India flight was cancelled (remembering who is Minister for Aviation) to allow Poorna Patel to charter the plane for herself and several IPL players.

As is the way, of course, much of this plays out as a mix of fact and speculation, but late last week came another twist, courtesy of the ever industrious Lalit Modi.  He claimed that one business partner in the unsuccessful Pune bid, that lost to Tharoor’s Kochi one, was none other than a Pawar family company.  Moreover, he suggested, a party to the Pawar share was none other than Chirayu Amin, yet another Maharashtrian business tycoon in the pharmaceutical industry, boss of Vadodara cricket and, delightfully, the man directed by the BCCI to replace Modi and clean up the IPL mess.

Amin has acknowledged his role but declared it all above board.  Pawar and Supriya are adamant that their “company” bid was, in fact, solely the initiative of their manager in his own right, but legal commentators and others are casting serious doubt on the validity of that defence.  That doubt is now intensified further with the latest twist, Pawar admitting that the family business also has a share in the Royal Challengers (Bangalore) IPL franchise, courtesy of a stake in Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher conglomerate that, among other things, owns the franchise.  While no one is suggesting any illegality in the business arrangements, there are serious doubts about such a prominent cricket and political figure effectively keeping news of that share quiet.

Three particular lines emerge from this.

The first is that the timing of all this is poor from Pawar’s political  point of view.  Improved Congress electoral performances have emboldened some its members to raise doubts about the necessity of the NCP link.  While no one is suggesting, yet, that the results of the various IPL inquiries will bring down the government as a whole, it might well prove problematic for Pawar.  The BJP is going hard at Pawar and his connections in all this, led by the redoubtable Arun Jaitley who is himself the boss of Delhi cricket and the Daredevils in the IPL.

The second is that this sort of political dimension to sport is coming under serious question in India.  The government recently caused a massive stir by suggesting that national sports bosses should have a fixed term, to prevent them creating power bases.  The reaction was immediate and intense – led by Suresh Kalmadi, President of the Indian Olympic Committee, Chair of the Organising Committee for the upcoming Commonwealth Games and, coincidentally, Congress MP for Pune, several notable figures rebelled, falling back on the defence that such a move would fall foul of Olympic rules.  That simply underscored the point being made by the Government.  In cricket alone the political bases are obvious: Jaitley is a clear point; the Orissa boss is son of a former politician; the Himachal Pradesh supremo is a BJP politician and son of the Chief Minister.  Lalit Modi himself was close to the former Rajasthan BJP Chief Minister, Vasundhara Raje.  Then there is Laloo Prasad Yadav, long-time political boss in Bihar, provincial cricket President and leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal that was once a Congress government ally, too.

One immediate practical question here is obvious – how do people like Pawar, Patel, Kalmadi, Laloo and the rest actually fulfil their roles given the multiplicity of them and the time available?

The third is the clear concern arising about the links with business created by political leaders.  While none of this is yet proven conclusively, it is clear that the tax and other inquiries have pinpointed several cases where the possibility of collusion arises, and that is not good from a governance perspective.  Part of any conflict of interest matter is that perception is as important as actuality – and the perceptions are certainly here in these and related cases.

Much of what happens next will swing around Lalit Modi’s defence against the charges levelled against him by the BCCI.  The lasts is that initiated by Giles Clark, the colourful Chair of the England and Wales Cricket Board.  Clark is an Arabic speaker and business entrepreneur who is one of the wealthiest people in the United Kingdom.  He suffers no fool gladly and is outspoken, claiming that Modi undermined the future of cricket.  Modi claims this charge arises out of pure personal animus.  And people think cricket dull!

That aside, the intertwining networks here have clearly had an impact on the evolution of IPL, and that in itself guarantees the matter will become a political one that may well embarrass a lot more people than Shared Pawar whose own position as imminent ICC President might well become tarnished.

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