Summer of 2010

By Sanjay Jha

(As Published in The Sunday Pioneer on Sunday, May 2nd 2010)

The IPL scam is symbolic of a larger, deeper, terminal enervation of India, feels Sanjay Jha as he pitches for a drastic overhaul to rejuvenate the tarnished brand

We are a maverick freakish nation, forever skating on thin ice, circumspectly maneuvring Maoism one day, food price escalation the other, extraditing David Headley at one end but ultimately crashing headlong into a slippery subject called Sunanda Pushkar, a singular personality who abruptly threatened the world’s largest democracy. Welcome to Incredible India! Till a few weeks ago, Sunanda Pushkar would have sounded like the latest entrant into Raj Thackeray’s MNS, giving it some much needed urban respectability and gender diversity. But no, her name became an overnight bestseller, thanks to an orchestrated attempt by IPL Commissioner (the title itself bestows a peculiar power of unilateral authority) Lalit Modi to insinuate a secret cover-up for monetary gains by one of India’s dapper but controversial Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor. Sweat equity was soon the new buzzword. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was introduced via the media’s proxy medium to Ms Pushkar while attempting deft diplomatic negotiations in Washington with President Barack Obama. An Indian private corporate league tournament meant to be a summer show was snowballing into a political crisis, with the ruling party’s coalition partners allegedly having some deep, dubious, vested interests in the billion dollar plus property. Modi had waxed eloquent on the IPL’s reality TV entertainment quotient; ironically enough, he had himself become its lead performer.

As an economics post-graduate student of the early 1980s I remember reading that India’s population explosion was best explained by the fact that our able millions had produced babies because there was absence of any other form of entertainment. So perhaps unwittingly enough Modi and his august IPL colleagues have contributed to some major national priorities like enhancing per capita income by keeping the IPL matches on till close to midnight hour, and then further extending it by having fashion shows, late-night parties et al to ensure minimum risk of deviation. Maybe that is why IPL even has an entertainment tax waiver? Either way, in the IPL, cricket itself made a grand guest appearance.

By scheduling 60 matches in approximately six weeks through relentless cricket, pre-match discussions and post-match analysis on three hours of hit-and-run chase, the IPL meant to calculatedly numb the human mind into complete fuzziness; all other worldly pursuits could wait. Everything was meant to fade before Robin Uthappa’s towering sixes, Shilpa Shetty’s perennially expanding grin and Lalit Modi’s feverish autograph signing. Bollywood main releases shut down in acute nervousness, news channels were compelled to adulate Yusuf Pathan’s brutalities prior to covering the Prime Minister’s national priorities and for almost two months everything and everyone else appeared like cardboard props, the back-office inventory of the IPL juggernaut. Crowds shouted and shook, cheerleaders danced and corporate czars looked on with a smug expression at their fantasy land. Modi as usual blew his trumpet and the world genuflected in front of his “fool-proof business model” that would have made John Maynard Keynes sweat in his grave. Everything seemed like a hunky-dory joy-ride. Almost. All that Modi had to do was to let loose his irrepressible vanity van through a cocky snide innuendo on Twitter. The rest is history, so I will spare you the subsequent sordid developments which hint at arms money, tax havens, huge bribe transactions, political involvement at the highest levels, power play, and daylight violations of fundamental principles of governance. A scam appears like an understatement.

Lalit Modi is a manifestation of India’s new powerful rich. Everything is measured by commercial exploitation and political contacts; adhering to ethical standards, basic human decency and respect for the law of the land is considered being old-fashioned. Self-aggrandisement and blatant self-promotion are the dominating influences in this new enterprise. What helped his cause was the unquestioned support he received from eminent names such as Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri and others in the IPL Governing Council who have assiduously maintained a stony silence on the subject. One man literally ran amok to bring the IPL to such ridicule.

The IPL, from becoming a frivolous, flippant, fun-like distraction, instead, now raises some pertinent questions we cannot ignore: Are we becoming a morally bankrupt nation, possessing a rhinoceros’s thick hide? Are we so unaffected by such flagrant corruption, opportunism and violation of norms? A poor hungry man who steals a purse or bread is called a thief and gets lynched to death by a violent mob but the same group happily overlooks big-time swindling of tax-payers funds and alleged criminal misconduct by dark-suited well-articulated Page 3 kind of wheeler-dealers? Isn’t that our shameless double-standards on display? What else can prompt post-Independent India’s classic statement hallmarking hubris: I am still Chairman-just suspended. Imagine Satyam’s R Raju saying, I was Chairman-just jailed now.

The franchisees quietly played along in the dubious game that Modi unleashed — the racket of financial valuations. Nobody knew the exact numbers of the franchises’ financial performance in Profit & Loss (P&L) or balance-sheets but rumours were frequently dished out that some of the franchisees had not just broken even but had even become profitable. It was deliberate falsehood being spread. Franchisees were guilty of not denying them, as transparent and professional businesses do. Instead, they fuelled it. The IPL was a happy cozy club, uninterrupted over champagne celebrations. Cricket and the common man were secondary priorities.

Across the entire spectrum comprising of political parties, corporate sector, industry associations, sports federations et al, India’s biggest challenge is its leadership. In the IPL it was evidently woefully lacking. The lesser said about the sleeping Big Brother BCCI, the better. Modi thus became like a swashbuckling buccaneer, the self-styled megalomaniac who cared two hoots for anything remotely resembling sensible governance.

There were two things that perhaps gave Modi his cocooned comfort and serene umbrage: Firstly, his vast political contacts, and secondly, his belief that even if things should go horribly wrong, it would still not affect him. It is a damning statement on the abuse of office by some elected representatives in Indian Parliament. The involvement of political personalities in sports requires a serious national debate in the light of the IPL.

Will we have an IPL 4 given the unpalatable mess we are in? Assuming the IPL can be resuscitated from its current crisis, a drastic overhaul is necessitated to rejuvenate the tarnished brand.

In short, the IPL scam is symbolic of a larger, deeper, terminal enervation of India. It is alright to keep beating the war-drums about our impending domination of world economic affairs and our unstoppable consumer-labour markets, but if we don’t get our house in order that tall promise might just remain a pipe dream. The clock is ticking. And fast.

The following could be the way forward. My suggestions are:

  • As the first round of franchise bidding seems to have been conveniently manipulated to suit favoured parties, ideally fresh franchise auctions ought to happen with terms being listed in the public domain. Clauses barring conflict of interest etc need to be incorporated. The existing franchise owners should be given the right to re-bid or match the highest bidders in the fresh auction to retain their franchises. Essentially, they should have the first rights of refusal. Alternatively, fresh bidding should be done for those franchises where the ownership patterns are questionable. Those who fail to reacquire their franchises must surely be knowing that all businesses come with a risk of failure.
  • The IPL Governing Council should have 11 members.
  • There should be at least three members representing “other” international cricket boards on the IPL Governing Council whose players participate in the IPL.
  • The ICC (International Cricket Council) must be represented to ensure that the tournament is conducted on international norms with presence of Anti-Corruption squads and dope testing etc.
  • If 2 and 3 are enacted, the IPL can then request for being part of Future Tours Programme of ICC and teams can have their best players throughout the tournament.
  • The franchisees must nominate one amongst them to be part of the IPL Governing Council.
  • The Players Association needs to be resurrected and they should have a nominee as well. Who else can argue against that ludicrous salary cap?
  • The BCCI should nominate five eminent citizens including distinguished former players with no conflict of interest issues.
  • There should be an Ombudsman-kind of position created as the eleventh member with a casting vote on sensitive issues which get deadlocked.
  • There should be no salary cap on player earnings and franchises should be allowed to hire any player based on their financial capabilities and risk appetite. This will create the missing element in IPL, the absence of clear-cut heavyweight favourite teams and also give the cricketers their real commercial worth. Local players can have a fixed share of 3-4 places in the playing team.
  • Only 8 teams should play every year with the bottom two relegated on an annual basis. This will ensure that we will not have a mindless 94 matches in 50 days.
  • One comment

    1. I agree with your views Sanjay, though I feel that you have over-emphasised on the non-cricket part of IPL. Living in a hostel, we used to discuss the matches, keep track of scores and do our own Sunny Gavaskar analysis. Match finished, we didn’t bother who is partying with whom. Its finally the cricket that matters.

      Salary caps are insane and we should have heavyweight teams. Imagine EPL having all equivalent teams.

      I think there should be a clear investigation if there was wrongdoing in allocating franchisees in the first round. If something is found wrong, then only we should go for re-biddings.

      IPL is a great sports brand. I praise Lalit Modi for that. His problem is that he became too obsessed with his personal brand.

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