Would the skeletons tumbling out of the Indian Premium League (IPL) cupboard over the past few days, shaking the conscience of the cricket loving public, lead to a clean up of the cricket establishment which is reeking of malfeasance and licentiousness? Or is it going to be a flash in the pan – merely another chapter in India’s voluminous record book of sleaze and graft involving the rich, powerful and famous? It depends. Cover-up after cover-up has forced many to cynically accept such sordid affairs as our way of life. Will it be any different this time?
Sack Shameless Shashi
Union Minister Shashi Tharoor, who is in the eye of the storm, has tried to put on a brave face in response to the serious allegations of impropriety and corruption. His defence so far, however, is unconvincing to say the least. He says that he was ‘mentoring’ the consortium which bid for the Kochi IPL team. What exactly does ‘mentoring’ imply? Rendezvous Sports World is a business enterprise. It was bidding in an auction held by a private body. What possible role can a Union Minister or Member of Parliament have in this process? What role did the Minister actually play? Were his colleagues in the Ministry and the Government informed about his ‘mentoring’ of the private consortium? Did they approve of it? Rather than clarifying on these issues related to the propriety of his actions, Shashi Tharoor has been busy shamelessly singing the “I did it for Kerala” tune.
What strikes one is Shashi Tharoor’s brashness in defending what is a very questionable conduct on the part of a Union Minister. He has not only publicly admitted that he made a phone call to the IPL Commissioner on behalf of the consortium, but has also justified it. What exactly transpired during the telephonic conversation, however, is unclear because there are two conflicting versions. The Minister says he was protesting against the harassment of the Rendezvous promoters. The IPL Commissioner says that the Minister was trying to pressurize him to overlook and help to conceal the name of some of the shareholders of the consortium. Who does one believe? Can either version be taken at face value?
The Minister has sought to defend his actions on the grounds that he was taking up the cudgels on behalf of the Rendezvous consortium because they had agreed to have the team based in Kochi, Kerala. Thus the Minister has tried to project himself as someone who is trying to promote cricket in Kerala by getting an IPL team based there. But the fact that Ms. Sunanda Pushkar, whom the Minister self admittedly “knows well”, got a significant chunk of equity in the Rendezvous consortium raises very serious doubts regarding the Minister’s motivations in the entire episode. The Minister has himself stated in his sole televised interview so far, to NDTV:
I was approached by one of the guys called brothers (sic) who was putting together this consortium, as far as I am concerned, if anybody else had approached me, another business consortium approached me, I would have gone with them. In fact, I think it can be revealed that there was an earlier consortium differently constituted with only some elements of this consortium that made a bid in the first unsuccessful bidding round and Sunanda Pushkar was not a part of that. It was a different group that was involved and as far as I am aware, if a third team had come to me and said would you help us, my only message was this, think of Kerala… (emphasis added)
(Source: Full Transcript of Shashi Tharoor’s interview at ndtv.com)
The Minister’s revelations make it clear that an earlier bid by some of the promoters of the Rendezvous consortium for an IPL franchise was unsuccessful. However, they emerged successful in the latest round of the IPL auction. In between two significant things have changed vis-à-vis the “earlier” consortium: (a) Mr. Tharoor has started ‘mentoring’ them because they agreed to “think about Kerala”; (b) Ms. Sunanda Pushkar, who was earlier not “a part of that”, has been provided equity in the consortium. It is noteworthy that Ms. Sunanda Pushkar’s participation in the Rendezvous consortium was not disclosed by the promoters of the consortium or by her. It was revealed by the IPL Commissioner on Twitter. Therefore, when the Minister says he has nothing to hide, it cannot be taken at face value. Doubts get reinforced because the Rendezvous promoters have failed to clarify at what phase, on what basis or on whose recommendation they appointed/accommodated Sunanda Pushkar as a stakeholder in their consortium. Prima facie it clearly seems to be a case of quid pro quo, given that the Minister self-admittedly “knows” Sunanda Pushkar “well” and he was also “mentoring” the Rendezvous consortium. The arguments offered by the Minister to refute this charge, go like this:
That means I am really dumb Barkha because if I really wanted to do something corrupt I would have done it in public in a relaxed way, I mean for gods sake, it's precisely because there is nothing to hide, I have not hidden anything, the entire point is that if I wanted to do something corrupt it would have never occurred to me because I have never been corrupt in my life so I don’t think that way but if I was to do it, then I would have asked some other personal friend or whatever to come over with me, it’s really insulting that how our media can’t accept the notion of an attractive woman being a capable professional in her own right.
(Source: Full Transcript of Shashi Tharoor’s interview at ndtv.com)
It can easily be seen that Tharoor is offering no arguments, but a set of assertions. What if he is indeed “dumb”? What if he has indeed indulged in “something corrupt…in public” in a “relaxed way” without realizing the consequences? If anything, his controversy-ridden track record as Minister betrays a penchant towards acting without thinking about consequences. Moreover, how come if he has not been corrupt in his life so far, he knows precisely which is the smart way of doing corruption and which is not? May be this is his first shot and therefore this dumbness.
The truth can only be established through a probe and not through the Minister’s cavalier assertions of innocence. The Government and the Congress Party’s hesitation in defending Tharoor and leaving him to fend for himself, has already made his position untenable. His cheeky refusal to step down from his Ministerial position and clear his name through a probe makes it incumbent on the Prime Minister to sack him summarily and institute an inquiry. Failure to do so would only strengthen suspicion that others in the Government and the ruling party are involved in this racketeering.
Break Nexus, Shake-up the System
While the Government continues to dither on Shashi Tharoor’s fate, some action is visible on the IPL front. Whatever be the motivations behind the timing and the targets, this is entirely warranted. The IPL, to begin with, has been designed as a hyper-commercialized money making machine – a heady cocktail of sixers and cheerleaders to dazzle eyeballs even as big money from the rich and famous enters and leaves the circuit, growing bigger. The bubble peak came some time back with IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi’s hubris filled burst that “there is no recession in the IPL”, even as the world continued to reel under the shock delivered by Wall Street’s toxic derivatives. Like all bubbles, this one too seems to have pulled in its own share of toxicity. Reports suggest that funds have been routed through tax havens into several of the franchises – Mauritius, Bahamas, Hong Kong and the Gulf.
The Enforcement Directorate and the Revenue Intelligence must seriously investigate whether this money making machine has also been converted, as is being widely suspected, into a money laundering one. The public also needs to be told about the extent of tax giveaways that have been awarded to this jamboree at a time when duties on fuel are being hiked to meet the fiscal crunch. Unless all allegations surrounding the IPL are thoroughly probed in a time bound manner and the illegalities severely punished, the doubt of murky racketeering beneath the IPL surface will linger, eroding its already damaged credibility. The cricket lovers will feel cheated.
What cause apprehensions that things will eventually be shoved under the rug are the ruling coalition’s procrastination vis-à-vis Tharoor’s continuance as Minister on the one hand and the BJP’s attempt to underplay the substantive issues and divert attention towards trivia on the other. It is not surprising, because these are precisely the votaries and beneficiaries of the market driven “reforms”, which over the past two decades have commoditized and commercialized all aspects of our life, including sports and entertainment. These “reformers” have blurred the distinction between business and politics, accorded legitimacy to cronyism and made the accumulation of ill-gotten wealth look respectable. Under their aegis, a nexus of power mongering politicians, shady businessmen and unscrupulous cricket administrators have matured and eventually hijacked the game.
This nexus will do everything possible to ensure that things are covered up so that nothing upsets their apple-cart. They may try to find some scapegoats here and there but will steadfastly resist any attempt towards systemic shake-up, in terms of who manages cricket in our cricket crazy country, and how it is managed. But if we want to avoid fiascos like the present one from recurring, we have to ask tougher questions: should this nefarious nexus of bourgeois politicians and businessmen be allowed to rule the world of cricket any longer? Shouldn’t cricket be managed by a professional, transparent and accountable body, given the money and stakes involved? Shouldn’t those who have played the game with repute and are known to be committed to the game have a larger role? We need to find creative solutions to these questions and move beyond the status quo. We owe it to ourselves as a cricket loving people.