Rohit Kumar's Views

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The Indian Premier Leak

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IT’S THE open secret no one wants to acknowledge: the IPL is not about cricket. The ugly controversy surrounding Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor and IPL chief Lalit Modi – over Tharoor’s friend Sunanda Pushkar owning 4.9 percent free sweat equity in the Kochi team that Tharoor helped put together – is merely a warning sign pointing to a much deeper dirt pit that comprises in equal parts big money, politics, glamour, greed, sex, drugs and intense backroom jostling.

The reason the Tharoor-Pushkar controversy snowballed at the speed it did is less to do with the facts of the case than this unsavoury combination that underpins everything to do with the IPL these days. Unfortunately, much of the news about these seamy dealings is still merely in the realm of gossip and speculation: murmurs in a baroque gossip bazaar. Yet, recounting these murmurs is enough to outline the shape of things. After all, remember, the murmurs are all emanating from insiders. But to put things in perspective, first the primary question: What are the facts of the Tharoor- Pushkar case? With the IPL announcing that it would invite two new franchises to join the league, a few months ago Tharoor actively began to promote the idea of a Kochi team and helped cobble together a consortium of investors – Rendezvous Sports World – to sponsor the team. As a cricket enthusiast and MP from Kerala, Tharoor was presumably motivated by his zeal to bring home turf Kerala into the lucrative circle of the IPL. Ordinarily, the fact that a female real estate professional close to him was given 4.9 percent free equity in the team would have raised absolutely no eyebrows. After all, prima facie, there was no allegation of any money transaction or public funds being misused, nor had Tharoor extended any ministerial favours for the franchise. So why the disproportionate stink?


Why did the Tharoor fracas threaten to disrupt Parliament? Why did news of it reach Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in far away Washington and overshadow his talks with President Obama on Afghanistan and the Nuclear Liability Bill? Why did Tharoor have to spend two-anda- half hours on Thursday morning, April 15, with one of the Capital’s top corporate lobbyists and troubleshooters (who works for one of the richest men in the world) seeking help? After all, as one of the protagonists said, “It’s common knowledge that other politicians running across aviation, agriculture road transport and the Opposition, are minting money and have undeclared stakes in every cricket pie. Why has there been no uproar about all that?”


The answer is, wittingly or unwittingly, Tharoor had disturbed equations in the dirt pit. Rumours are, when the Kochi team won the bid, many carefully laid plans by others were laid to waste. To understand this, for a moment, return to the facts: the other stakeholders jostling for a franchise were the Sahara Group, owned by Subrata Roy; the Pune team sponsored by Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor and relatively lesser-known businessmen; and an Ahmedabad team sponsored by the Adani Group, one of India’s top infrastructure companies.

Subrata Roy, of course, outplayed everyone by making an astronomical bid of $370 million, prompted by his numerologist. Pune was out of the running. That left Kochi and Gujarat running neck and neck.

So what made Lalit Modi suddenly twitter innocuously last weekend about Sunanda Pushkar and how Tharoor had allegedly asked him not to inquire into who she was – the kindle that lit the fire stack? It’s common knowledge that Modi and Tharoor are friends, so why this sudden and ugly fall out? (Friends of Tharoor say that Modi is misusing a bantering remark the minister had made to him over a drink. Tharoor is, indeed, set to marry Pushkar but is waiting for a divorce from his Canadian wife Christa Giles to come through and, therefore, has been loath to make his relationship public. This is why when Modi asked him in a nudge-nudge sort of way, “So, who is Sunanda Pushkar?” Tharoor had laughingly evaded the question saying, ‘Don’t ask me that as yet.’ So what made Modi turn that into something sinister?)

The answers lie muddied in the pit and snake back to earlier events. When Lalit Modi lost the elections to the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA), he not only lost a fiefdom, he lost much-needed immunity. With a Congress government replacing the BJP in the saddle, his political patronage was blown and more than 20 cases were opened against him, relating to tax evasion and financial irregularities when he was at the helm of the RCA. He desperately needed new armour, and a firm foot back in the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI). The rumour mills say that Lalit Modi had approached Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and was assured by the latter that if he could ensure that the Gujarat team wins the franchise and brings both glamour and money to the state, he’d be made the secretary of the Gujarat Cricket Association (of which the chief minister is the president).

At first, Modi tried hard to make friend Tharoor back off so that the Adani bid could be more competitive. He even tried to mislead the Kochi group by telling them that all they needed to win the race was $299 million. The consortium, however, was reportedly alerted by former Indian skippers Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri that Modi was actually seeking $322 million. The Kochi team was also told that they would face many technical hurdles to block them from winning the bid.

But instead of backing off, the Tharoor- mentored Kochi consortium bid an astronomical Rs 1,500 crore and won the franchise. Powerful men – potential investors and politicians – across the country flew into a tizzy. Allegations began to fly fast and thick. The Kochi consortium alleges that Modi offered them a $50 million bribe to abandon their bid after they had won the Kochi franchise. They refused. The desperation in different quarters soared.

The rumour goes too that, at one point, Modi made an urgent call to Tharoor saying things had gone beyond him and if Tharoor didn’t back off, Modi’s life would be in danger. But Modi was not the only angry man. Rumour also has it that Tharoor finds himself politically isolated for other reasons.

Such is the jostling for stakes in the IPL money-glamour-influence pie, a very senior UPA cabinet minister from Maharashtra and a former classmate of Tharoor’s, had called the latter asking him to get Rendezvous Sports to offload its stakes in favour of an owner of a Maharashtra- based white goods giant. (In a serpentine twist, this businessman had apparently first paid Modi money for a chance to invest in the Ahmedabad team. When that franchise bid was foiled, he wanted to invest in the Kochi team.) However, apparently driven by some sense of chivalry to the original consortium, Tharoor refused.

Soon after, a senior functionary of the BCCI sent Tharoor a similar message in favour of the corporate giant. Tharoor again declined. He had just made himself another enemy within the world’s richest cricket board.

The further irony is that, according to highly reliable sources in the cricketing management fraternity, the 4.9 percent free sweat equity Sunanda Pushkar is being pilloried for does not even belong to her. A mere .5 percent is reserved for Pushkar. Disturbingly, the rest belongs – off paper and on trust – to two iconic cricketing giants, one of who is still playing for the Mumbai IPL team. This free equity is the quid pro quo they demanded for helping put the Kochi team and its promoters together – not a rank corruption perhaps in the larger scheme of things, but certainly an impropriety.


One has a greater sense of the fantastical world of the IPL and what passes for right and wrong when you take into account the fact that Tharoor is probably right in saying the equity will not benefit him and is commensurate with what Pushkar was bringing to the table as a highly attractive and successful marketing professional. Yet, he is caught in a twilight zone where he is honourbound and cannot entirely disclose why he is saying this. (This might be why small white lies seem to be sprouting around them. Pushkar claimed in a written statement to the media that she had been approached by Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) to assist them as a marketing consultant. While it seems true that top-line event management professional Karim Murani associated with KKR is a friend of hers, KKR co-owners Shah Rukh Khan and Jay Mehta, actor Juhi Chawla’s husband, have denied the claim outright.)

BUT MONEY, influence and ambition are only one set of ingredients in the IPL dirt pit. Each match is accompanied by a swirling constellation of late-night parties and beautiful women that moves with it across cities. Drugs and sex, then, seem to be another equally potent mix driving rivalries and events in the world of IPL.

Back to murmurs in the rumour bazaar then. It appears a thwarted franchise bid is not the only reason Lalit Modi set out to discredit the Kochi team in the hope that he could have it disqualified. He has other personal reasons for declaring war on Tharoor.

Sources in the rumour business say that the night before Tharoor met the city’s most influential troubleshooter, he and his Man Friday, Jacob Joseph, had put together what they claimed were documents that would sully Modi’s reputation. A few days earlier, newspapers had carried front-page stories linking a beautiful South African model, Gabriella Demetriades, with Modi. It seems Modi no longer wanted the association and had requested Tharoor’s office, as Minister of State for External Affairs, to deny Gabriella a visa. Piqued by the backroom pressure and anxiety Modi had been visiting on his boss and the Kochi team, Tharoor’s aide Jacob Joseph refused to entertain the request and not only expedited the visa but apparently taunted Modi’s aides about it. The story goes that when Modi found out, he called Tharoor in a rage at night and slammed the phone down, vowing vendetta.

Modi has consistently told the media that he does not know Gabriella and has nothing to do with her. Unfortunately for him, however, he seems to have left an e-mail trail when he wrote to Joseph for help about denying the visa. These mails contravene his claim about not knowing Gabriella because in his hurry to shunt her off, he apparently forgot to delete his chain-mail exchanges with her. “In the mail to her, Modi clearly tells Gabriella that he will handle the visa and that there should be no problems. So why did he change his mind? Is there a fear that Gabriella would spill some beans he would not be able to handle?” says a senior BCCI functionary, who is aghast at the Modi-Tharoor row and the way it has blown craters in the reputation of a tournament that, till recently, was being touted as the world’s fastest growing sports show.

There are other pieces in the counter-campaign being prepared against Lalit Modi. Among them is the assertion that Modi was not only booked for drug abuse in college but is involved in a court case for cocaine abuse as recently as 2006 in the UAE.

The April 15 meeting with Delhi’s top corporate troubleshooter also seems to have paid other dividends for Tharoor. Support has started pouring in from many quarters. The office of Subhash Chandra Goel, Chairmain Zee Telefilms, for instance, has offered clinching evidence of Modi’s involvement in a lottery scandal in India’s northeastern states for which a court case has been going on for years. (It’s in keeping with the dirt pit that Goel has, of course, been at loggerheads with Modi ever since his Indian Cricket League (ICL) was scuttled by Modi and his IPL with the backing of the BCCI, even though the ICL had been first off the block.)


“It’s become a free for all,” BCCI top man Shashank Manohar told TEHELKA in disgust over a brief telephonic conversation. “The IPL is now becoming the dirty underbelly of Indian cricket.” Manohar – who has been named as IPL co-chairman – insisted every issue would be discussed and debated at the BCCI-IPL sub-committee meeting scheduled next week and asserted that he would happy if all franchisees opened up their stakes for review in a transparent manner.

As this story went to press, in fact, news began to trickle in that the Income Tax department had launched a raid on the IPL headquarters in Mumbai.

This would probably be worrying news for almost everyone involved in the IPL. To open up everyone’s stakes is equivalent to yanking the lid off a can of worms. In the grimy mess that would ensue, Sunanda Pushkar’s 4.9 percent would probably look like a child’s playtime snack.

Sources in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) say that when one of the richest men in the country says he owns a team through personal wealth, it is something of a lie. The stakes have apparently been bought through his company with shareholders’ money, which makes the Rs 43 crore his team lost last season an unlisted liability for public shareholders.

But as the cliché goes, this is merely the tip. There are also rumours that a key protagonist and IPL official has holdings not just in Rajasthan Royals, but also in Kings XI Punjab and KKR. IB officials add that this functionary also has a stake in a media company associated with the IPL and owned by a relative.

There are other lateral movements afoot – unfortunately motivated more by a need for secure pastures it seems, than a consideration for the game. KKR skipper Saurav Ganguly, for instance, has apparently approached fellow Bengali Subrata Roy for possible absorption in the Sahara Team. A top KKR official says Ganguly has also advised many of his fellow players to jump ship. The rumour mills say Yuvraj Singh has also sent a similar message to the Sahara chairman.

But these are relatively minor moves. The bazaar gossip says the editor of a major media house, whose son had recently come under the radar of corporate intelligence bodies, is also trying to get into the IPL franchise racket.


In the middle of all this, a third angle is brewing silently that threatens to queer things for those batting themselves sixers through the IPL. This involves the former BCCI and ICC president, Jagmohan Dalmiya, who has been camping in Delhi for the last few days.

Dalmiya, totally sidelined within the BCCI and left watching the IPL circus from the wings, is now determined to force the IPL to share its profits with the state cricket associations – thereby divvying up the money pie. Currently, IPL – which earns more than Rs 700 crore a year – pays a pittance of Rs 4 crore to each state association. Dalmiya wants to raise that to around Rs 30-40 crore. He has enlisted several politicians cutting across party lines in this campaign. By getting the state cricket associations to back him, the wily gamester could get a chance to reinsert himself into the big game.

The pity is nothing it seems is above board with the IPL anymore. Even spectators have a scam going on. Last month, Income Tax officials were alerted across the country to find out whether IPL officials were fudging tickets and avoiding tax. Their findings were in the affirmative. In a demeaning instance of ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’, it appears corporates were buying loads of lower denomination tickets yet accessing box seats that come with complimentary liquor and food. This was helping IPL organisers to avoid paying entertainment tax.

With the IPL having stooped so low, it might really be time to blow the whistle officially. The irony is that this must have been the last thing on Lalit Modi’s mind when he tweeted about Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar last weekend. But his tweet has indeed become a whistle.