Time for a gag order?

The front pages of the national dailies this morning were revelatory — not of new information, which is what you would expect from such prominent positioning, but of how far the media is behind the news curve.

Take as exemplar the Times of India. These are the four stories it front-paged: IT raids push LKM onto the back foot; questions over fairness of first auction; Modi to face governing council; ToI ‘discovers’ there was more to LKM’s past than a drug charge.

Of these, the last story is the most amusing. ‘Discovered’? Where? Here you go [see page 4, story headlined ‘Drug Buyers Robbed at Gunpoint’] — a link that has been doing the rounds of Twitter for a week now, and had surfaced earlier, on two occasions: the first, at the time of the first auction [there was no Twitter then, before someone points out the seeming anachronism] and again, when the opposing faction in the RCA used the drug/robbery charge to challenge Modi’s election as president of the Rajasthan association. Discovered in your own archives, you mean?

IT raids? Yeah, we saw that on TV from around 4 pm the previous day, and the story, which leads the page, adds absolutely no information that was not already known. Worse, the fact that IT raids were on the cards was the stuff of common knowledge, and had been mentioned on this blog and other places as early as three days ago.

Modi to face governing council? Dudes — Shashank Manohar actually said that two days ago: that there would be a governing council meeting at which Modi’s misconduct would be discussed.

And oh yes, questions about fairness of first auction. Questions that were raised at the time of the first auction itself. Also see this transcript of the Yorker show of yesterday — scroll down to 4:10, and you find this Q&A:

Dhairya Roy: hey found out that lk had taken a loan of 90 crore from reliance yearsv back for his family business

Prem Panicker: Oh, which brings up another story no one is talking about. Someone should ask LKM how he managed to keep Anil Ambani out of the IPL in season one, at the behest of the elder brother.

As always, ToI missed the story. Here’s what the report says:

A day after TOI first reported that Lalit Modi allegedly called all the parties bidding for two new IPL franchises and ‘advised’ them how much to bid, questions are now being raised about the first auction in 2008 too.

“Do you know that ADAG (Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group) had also bid for the Jaipur franchise and their bid was just Rs 1.2 crore ($300,000) less than what Emerging Media was ready to pay?” a highly placed official closely involved with the developments told TOI.

Emerging Media, backed by Modi’s brother-in-law Suresh Chellaram, won the bid for $67 million, the lowest price paid for any of the IPL teams.

Rajasthan Royals now has a valuation of over $225 million and the owners divested about 11.7% in it for $15.4 million last year. “Why should I believe that there was no favouritism back then during the initial auction?” asked the official.

Here’s what happened: At the time of that auction, “interested parties” wanted Anil Ambani kept out of the IPL. League honchos accomplished that through a favorite trick that, in this instance, killed two bird: ADAG was told how much to bid, and it turned out that the bid was just that much lower than the one filed by Emerging Media [that the EM backers included LKM’s brother in law was one of those strange coincidences the history of IPL is replete with].

When asked how come a large number of people related to him ended up having a finger in the IPL pie, LKM disingenuously claimed that at the time the franchise was nothing more than a nascent enterprise, no one knew how big it would become, so there was a shortage of bidders. Really? Mukesh Ambani, Vijay Mallya, the Reddys of the Chronicle group, India Cements [that is another story, but we won’t go there now] — there was no shortage of big ticket players. More to the point, Anil Ambani was dead keen to buy in — so much for “shortage of bidders”.

The point of all this is not to underline this blog’s omniscience — everything mentioned above has been common knowledge in media circles since 2008. The point is merely to underline how far behind the news curve the media really is. And the reason for that is the increasing reluctance to run from the front on the story, and the related dependence on TV to surface something before print picks it up and embellishes it with a lot of “first reported” puffery.

[Incidentally, TV reporters have been asking LKM questions like “Was any money seized from your offices?”, which only shows you how out of sync with the times the guys with the mike are. Dude, the days when folks kept sackfuls of cash lying around are long gone — LKM happily hit that particular softball out of the park. It is about documents, mate. Not currency.]

Ideally, the print media needed to run in front of the story, to tell us what the future possibilities are, to provide a basis on which to interpret unfolding events of the next day [in newsrooms they call it the forward spin]. Here’s an attempt to fill in the blanks:

Shashi Tharoor: His role in the affair has been reduced to a political pie-fight. Without the ammunition. The question that needs to be asked is, what was the sequence of events? Particularly, at what point in the process was equity gifted to Sunanda Pushkar and others?

While on that, Pushkar was not the only recipient of free equity — it is odd that only the one name is repeatedly being raised, while no questions are being asked about why the others got similar gifts. That question is one of the keys: If only Pushkar had gotten free equity, that skews the story one way; since many have, Pushkar becomes merely one part of a larger puzzle that no one is bothering to look at.

Back to the main question: when was the gift made?

It is no secret that several politicians, including Tharoor, Praful Patel and Sharad Pawar, intervened at the time of the first auction and got it postponed. It is also no secret that each of these politicians had an agenda — to push a franchise towards a preferred city and/or entity.

So if the gift was made when the bids were submitted — that is to say, before they were opened and the names of the winners announced — it permits of one interpretation: that Pushkar was part of the consortium from the get-go; that therefore Tharoor had an additional interest in helping Kochi win, besides the “welfare of Kerala” theme he has been banging on about.

If however the gift was made after the bids were opened and Kochi was named, then the implication is dramatically different: it means, without ambiguity, that the consortium was rewarding Tharoor for his successful intervention on its behalf, through a conduit.

Hence, the timing of the gift is crucial to understanding Tharoor’s role in the affair: in the first instance, it smacks of impropriety [in the sense of a Central minister intervening in the conduct of a private enterprise]; in the second instance, it smacks of corruption — a far more serious charge. And for all the noise now being made, no one is looking to assess Tharoor’s role after determining that central fact.

Lalit Modi: The case of the IPL commissioner is a whole other can of worms. There is corruption, manipulation of supposedly closed auction processes to favor particular parties [starting with season one], and a total lack of transparency in the ownership patterns of various franchises despite LKM’s constant claims that it is all out there in the public domain [for instance, could we have the holding pattern of KKR, please? As far as the public knows, Red Chillies owns it. Really? Let’s have the percentages — if only because Red Chillies owning a sizable stake impacts on brand valuation one way, while RC/SRK owning an insignificant stake can impact on its value another way].

But then what? That LKM has run the IPL largely for self-interest, and for the interest of others within the BCCI hierarchy, is no secret. Question is, what is going to be done about it, and by whom? The IPL’s governing council is split between voices that matter, and voices that don’t. Ravi Shastri, Sunny Gavaskar and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi belong in the latter class: the IPL’s token nod to “involving ex-cricketers of repute”. Rajiv Shukla is primarily there to tilt the outcome to what 10 Janpath wants it to be. Manohar, Srinivasan, Bindra and Pandove will stack up against Modi; Jaitley and to a lesser extent, Chirayu Amit will line up behind Modi. The others are floating votes, with both camps tugging on the strings.

On one thing they are all aligned, though — it is in no one’s interests for too much information to come out of the IT ‘raids’ [hence the careful insistence that these are not raids, merely routine evaluations]. In that sense, these are not raids in the accepted sense of the word, but a thinly veiled warning by the government to the IPL and its commissioner: Don’t touch one of our own, is the message being conveyed in unsubtle fashion, and once the message is taken on board, the “raids” will prove to be lacking in any real result, to no one’s surprise.

Equally, it is in no one’s interests for too many questions to be asked about the holding patterns of the various franchises — the last thing the league wants is for scandal to pile on scandal and drive down the currently rocketing valuations [more so as the season ends, and various parties look to sell part or all of their stake at hugely inflated valuations]. So stand by for that question to fizzle out, too [all it is going to take is for some other celebrity to get married or divorced anyway].

It is however in the interests of several of the stakeholders to bring Modi down a notch. Not because they are fundamentally opposed to corruption — too many members of the governing council are direct beneficiaries of the IPL’s largesse — but because they just flat out don’t like the high-flying Modi and his habit of treating his fellow council members like they don’t exist. So he’s going to get a couple of official minders [the exact ‘designations’ will likely be worked out before, or immediately after, the governing council meet] — and the only outcome will be, instead of one individual running things in whatever fashion he sees fit, we will get the governing council and its main honchos carving out larger slices of the pie for themselves.

Seems a heck of a waste of a good opportunity for systemic cleanup — but like I mentioned in a post yesterday, it’s one heck of a reach to put ‘BCCI’ and ‘clean up’ in the same sentence.

Given all of that, the “news” of today morning’s headlines, and of the television channels right now, is largely noise. Time perhaps for a gag order?

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48 thoughts on “Time for a gag order?

  1. The argument that Tharoor is hanging on to for dear life is that he has not used his office for personal gain. Well it is Sunanda pushkar that stands to gain – for now, ofcourse it will be different when she becomes Biwi No 3. What kind of mentoring has he been providing anyway – when he is talking directly to IPL on behalf of his paramour and his OSD is present at the IPL bid, that is not mentoring.His smooth talk and charming looks might help distract the media but his carefully constructed PR image has a few dents now.

    Mr Tharoor has a history of weakness for the fairer sex and it is clouding his judgement, not the squeaky clean image of a diplomat but more and more taking on the hues of true IPL -Indian Politician’s Life. He is all over cyberspace and airwaves propounding ‘change’ – he has on the other hand shown no change instead there emerges a pattern of lapses. Even his former colleagues in the United Nations show little respect for him – http://www.unforum.com/UNinsiderMay07.htm

  2. Amazing piece of writing , Prem. Hats off you!!
    It is really applaing that no one in media -print or TV is asking grilling questions to both parties. The Barka Dutt – Buck stops here appeared to be a favour to Tharoor to play victimised and gather sympathy votes.
    I am was feeling sad when Shashi Tharoor missed on the UN top post. Following this scandal, I am thankful to God that Tharoor is not the UN General Secretary. I am in no one saying that Tharoor is a liar or rightly accused in IPL gate (alas truth will never be known) but this episode clearly shows that there is something fishy about the man and also he lacks basic tact. E.g. – in his official statement on IPL allegation he said he was mentoring the RSW in the IPL bid. Mentoring=lobbying=kickbacks….thats a game every politician plays especially when you have a close confidante who is going to benefit.

  3. Oh dear….the piece is so cynical. The IPL is less about cricket and more about dirty money. I will be glad if this whole IPL circus shuts down. But it wont be and the way you put the facts down…there’s nothing going to happen to the status quo. Then why even open this darned can of worms. It could have spared all of us the naive general public all this ink and gamut of emotions. Why cant anything change? Its soooo sad!

  4. What about Sharad Pawar’s role in the whole saga with him being the master as far as BCCI is concerned and now even Pune getting a franchise? Why did Sahara select Pune as the franchise base when there is one for Maharashtra in Mumbai?

    • Not to mention the direct benefit, considering his ties to Sahara. Of course. In fact, that has been the point I have been driving at throughout this sham — that rather than focus on one little piece, whether it is Tharoor or Modi, this is an opportunity to clean the whole damn thing up. Unfortunately, the focus remains small, and hence we will end up missing yet another opportunity for the clean up Indian cricket so desperately needs, and richly deserves

  5. Great Piece, Sir.

    Do you think people, the voters really care about corruption? Isnt that a fanciful notion of democracy that people are squeaky clean. Are our citizens clean? Not just Indians ? Do majority of human being display integrity ? I dont think so.. I think all people look at what’s in it for them. May not be for individual gain.

    For eg, a citizen of Israel may condone covert actions by Mossad. Like Bal Thackeray may back Pawar as long as its for the perceived greater Maharashtrian good (that’s just an example,maybe money/power is the bigger motivator). So despite all the expressed shock and anguish in the media and Parliament, probably the voter in Trivandrum is happy that he’s getting a team. Very much like, some of us were happy to have Advani as PM despite he his blatant contribution to disturbing communal harmony.

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