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Sports, politics, prestige and power: the struggle over the new bill September 30, 2011

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

Brian Stoddart

While Suresh Kalamadi and colleagues sit it out in Tihar jail, awaiting results of their post-Commonwealth Games charges, Sports Minister Ajay Maken is struggling to gain acceptance for his Bill that would reform India’s sports management and administration, one measure against many to counter both the suggestions of corruption and international criticism. This is no simple matter. An earlier attempt, before the full catastrophe of the Games emerged, was roundly defeated as several Government Ministers including Kalmadi and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar (better known as the Chair of the International Cricket Council and former President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)).

One of the central issues this time round is that Maken – a Delhi man with a trades union background – wants all sports bodies in India to be subject to the Right To Information (RTI legislation). This is being fought bitterly by many if not most of the sports bodies, and principally by the now extremely cashed up BCCI. Automatically, that leads many to think that the opposition emerges from the need not to have all or certain information emerge to full public scrutiny. The push for the RTI angle comes obviously in the Games’ aftermath amidst the revelations of alleged kickbacks, preferential tendering, bogus tenders and invoices, tampered bids and all the rest, but why the ferocious attempts to prevent the measure.

A good deal of this comes from the complex and intertwined social, financial, business and political roles played by leading sports administrators, as the cricket case reveals.

N Srinivasan has just recently become the new President of the BCCI via his influential role as President of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. Srinivasan is a renowned cricket backroom player, and as Secretary of the BCCI was instrumental in having Lalit Modi removed as boss of the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) and having charges laid against him. He has had a reputation in the south for keeping all the cricket constituents happy, which has meant mainly keeping their finances healthy – in other words, he has spread the largess of the TNCC well. His day job, as it were, is as boss of India Cements, one of India’s largest suppliers that was established by his grandfather and later run by his father. That business has boomed in the “new” India and has spread into other areas as diverse as sugar and shipping. Among those new interests is the franchise for the successful IPL team, Chennai Super Kings whose players have included Matthew Hayden and Mike Hussey from Australia. While the company holds the franchise it is very clearly run by Srinivasan, and that has provoked a serious Supreme Court challenge.

The challenge goes to an obvious point – can and should Srinivasan hold the Presidency, or any office in the BCCI, when he holds such a strong commercial interest in what is a subsidiary of the BCCI? That is, does he not have a massive conflict of interest under normal governance guidelines? The Srinivasan defence (raised at an earlier lower court hearing that ended up with a split decision and a referral to the higher powers) is simply that India Cements is the franchise holder, not him.

That is all interesting enough, but the complexity is taken to another level entirely when the challenger is identified as Dr A C Muthiah. Muthiah is also a former President of both the BCCI and of the TNCC, and in many ways was a Srinivasan supporter and mentor. Muthiah’s centrality to south Indian cricket and commerce goes even deeper than Srinivasan’s, though. His father was M A Chidambaram, who was TNCC boss for 32 years and whose name now graces the stadium in Chennai where the Super Kings play and where test matches are staged. His grandfather, into the bargain, was Raja Annamalai Chettiar who was knighted by the British in the 1920s, served in the national legislative council, and became the first Rajah of Chettinad. The main family business that emerged from all this was South Petrochemical Industries Corporation, A C Muthiah’s day job, which was once an Indian blue chip but whose fortunes are now challenged by some poor investment decisions.

Just to add further to the complexities, Rajah Annamalai Chettiar was a co-founder of several banks that are now central to the national economy, like the Indian Bank. Many of his co-founders were family and relatives, including the family of one P Chidambaram, the present Home Minister who is also a member of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Chetti Royalty’. This is not to say that Chidambaram is in any way involved in any of the cricket struggles, merely to point out that A C Muthiah is a relative of Chidambaram to emphasise the social as well as political linkages that emerge from any analysis of the leadership of Indian sport.

Muthiah has had a tough run in sports as well as general management, despite holding several important posts. He became the President of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, for example, but only after an earlier attempt was called off when the cricket match-fixing revelations erupted during his BCCI Presidency. Around the same time he was accused of commercial activities that, at best, misled the then Tamil Nadu government. One of his co-accused was none other than J Jayalitha, the current and frequent holder of the Chief Minister’s post in Tamil Nadu, another nod towards the political links.

So why is Muthiah challenging Srinivasan in court? The ostensible reason connects into Ajay Maken’s attempted legislation – to make cricket, among other sports, transparent and subject to good governance. It is, for example, nigh on impossible to determine precisely how wealthy is the BCCI, rolling in the billions generated by the IPL and by India’s rising cricket success that has in turn boomed television rights and associated commercial profits. The totals are in the billions of dollars.

There is a sneaking suspicion, however, that the motive might be as much about personal rivalry. Muthiah was effectively sidelined by Srinivasan after the pair were instrumental, along with Pawar, in driving out Jagmohan Dalmiya of the West Bengal Cricket Association and architect of the new riches. Srinivasan got close to Dalmiya’s successors and played the numbers, while Muthiah faded out. This might, then, be as much an attack on Srinivasan’s Tamil Nadu power base as a crusade for good governance.

That is why there is so much interest in both the case and in Maken’s Bill. If he succeeds, then bodies like the BCCI and the TNCC and all the rest will have to make public all their books and operations. Given revelations so far about how Modi ran the IPL, and about how Kalmadi ran the Commonwealth Games, that will be making not only the sports bosses happy but also many of Maken’s parliamentary colleagues (of whom a good number, of course, are also the sports bosses in question). In many ways this goes to the essence of the ongoing and now deafening debate about corruption that has so much resonance both within India and, increasingly, outside the country, as observers see it as a block to further development.

Perhaps that is why the recent passing of the great Mansur Ali Khan, the former Nawab of Pataudi and father of Saif, produced such a strong wave of public commentary, sadness and nostalgic reverence. Not only was he a great player and captain, but it was also so much simpler back then and much more just about the game.

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