Tharoor and after

So over the weekend, Shashi Tharoor fell on his own sword ‘in the party interest’.

The late Sunday evening denouement was against the run of play — as late as Sunday morning, he was set to continue, with an ‘official reprimand’ — the party strategy was to push back at the Opposition if it continued its clamor, and to rake up BJP-era wrongdoings to point out that ministers ‘accused’ in public do not historically resign, until and unless there is evidence of wrongdoing.

The set-piece play was that Sunanda Pushkar would ‘surrender’ her sweat equity, Tharoor would ‘offer to resign’, the offer would be rejected, and the government would just tough it out.

And then something happened, between late morning Sunday and early evening of the same day, that blew the minister out of the water. Buzz says Pranab Mukherjee had a falling out with the MoS, and the latter, feeling pilloried, bit back hard. Miffed that a junior talked back to him [a bigger crime than corruption, in Pranab-da’s scheme of things — he is used to hectoring his colleagues unchallenged], the FM is understood to have put his foot down and demanded Tharoor’s head on a platter. The MoS is expendable; at a time of rising prices and with various finance related bills due in Parliament, the FM was not.

[In a case of supreme irony, CNN-IBN is as I write this quoting the Finance Ministry as saying Tharoor did not benefit from the Kochi deal. True — he could not have, since there is as yet nothing to benefit from. The damn franchise has to get up and running for there to be any monetary benefits. At a larger level, it is faintly ridiculous for Mukherjee to take the lead in getting Tharoor out, and then have his ministry give him a clean chit].

So the party dumped the minister, and made a virtue out of internal necessity by making a play for the high moral ground. Abhishek Sanghvi was fielded to scale that mountain and plant the Congress flag on the summit of moral probity — and he did that by quibbling about the difference between “morality and legality”, and contrasting the Congress action even in the absence of any official proof of wrongdoing with the BJP’s vacillation in the case of Bangaru Laxman, or the Reddy brothers of Bellary, and others. [In fact, the counter-offensive on those lines has already begun.]

Nice try, and it would have worked in the wonderland of Indian politics except for the inconvenient fact that a certain A Raja continues as telecom minister despite the CBI, as recently as November 2009, filing a charge sheet — note, a charge sheet, not an accusation on Twitter — of large scale corruption in the 2G spectrum auction.

Makes sense, however. Tharoor is one Congress MP — one who, note, has only resigned as MoS and not as a party member. Losing him does nothing to the numbers in the Lok Sabha, but losing ally DMK, which could be a consequence of getting all hot and bothered about Raja, could be critical to the UPA’s continuance.

The Congress claims of morality over legality, and the media’s drumbeat about its anti-corruption credentials, is further hollowed by the fact that neither the party, nor the media, has shown the cojones [In the case of Barkha Dutt I use the word metaphorically, of course] to question the role played by Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel [the BJP could do well to look at Arun Jaitley, while we are about it] in the recent auction process.

Equally, the Congress and its the government’s investigative arm needs to examine the role Tharoor played in the Kochi franchise bid, quantify the nature and extent of wrong doing, and make the findings public. Without such a definitive denouement, this story will never attain closure — and given the fuss there has been already, we deserve to know.

I’ll eschew the usual round up of weekend media stories — too much ink, not enough insight or information. Outlook magazine largely remained content with rounding up the various elements into a cover story and topping that off with a generous dollop of the salacious. However, two other stories surfaced that for various reasons merit your time. The first is by Shantanu Guha Ray in Tehelka — a racy pastiche of fact, supposition, rumor and gossip filled with pointers to the behind-scenes shenanigans, but in the final analysis devalued a tad because it has clearly been sourced from a single person or at least, a single camp [read the story, compare it with the official statement of Tharoor both in the public domain and in Parliament, and spot the echoes].

At the other end of the spectrum is P Sainath, with a piece that argues the need to look an inch or two beyond your nose.

Many in the media and politics are happy to reduce it all to issues of propriety or personality. For, the BCCI-IPL is one platform where the Congress and the BJP cohabit, normally with ease. Big money is, after all, a secular, bi-partisan space. (Or tri-partisan: let’s not deny the central contribution of the NCP to this phenomenon.) It’s also interesting that the media, though now compelled to give the IPL’s underbelly some coverage, are still reluctant to ask larger, harder questions. To go beyond their Modi-Tharoor feeding frenzy. And to avoid induced amnesia.


How about questions on public subsidies going to some of the richest people in the world? The BCCI-IPL cost the public crores of rupees each year in several ways. The waiving of entertainment tax worth Rs.10 to 12 crores for the IPL in Maharashtra alone was discussed in the State’s Assembly. It was little reported and less discussed in the media. Maharashtra has extended other support to the IPL, which is yet to be quantified. This, despite being a State whose debt will cross Rs.200,000 crores in the coming year. And there are similar subsidies and write-offs extended to the BCCI-IPL in other States, other venues.

A whole raft of concealed freebies from public resources to the BCCI-IPL is also not discussed. We have no picture of their full scope. No questions either on why a public sector company should be billing itself as the “sponsor” of a team owned by the fourth richest man in the planet. No questions asked about issues ranging from super-cheap land leases and stadia rentals and low-cost stadia security. We don’t even know what the total bill to the public is: just that it is probably in tens of crores. We do know that these supports to the IPL from public money come at a time when subsidies to the poor are being savaged. But we don’t want to go down that road. An inquiry into the IPL must cover the BCCI as well and must record all the open and hidden write-offs and subsidies that both get.

While on looking beyond your nose: Now that Sunanda Pushkar has “voluntarily” given up her free equity [and of course, this has “nothing to do” with Shashi Tharoor — a statement that comes to you with a bag of salt supplied gratis], I am left with an unanswered question: Who are Shailendra and Pushpa Gulati, Puja Gulati, Jayant Kotalwar, Vishnu Prasad and Sundip Agarwal?

Senior journalist Swapan Dasgupta, who has on his blog and on Twitter been beating the drum for Tharoor to go, reacted to news of Pushkar’s renuciation with this question:

“In law, if a thief returns the stolen goods, does the charge of theft go away?”

Very good question — and what is most striking about it is that free equity is tantamount to “theft”.

So then, since “free equity” is theft, and we are all naturally outraged by the possibility of such evil — Shiva Shiva, what is this world coming to when people get free equity?! — why is the media, including Swapan, not similarly asking who those other six people are? After all, they too received free equity. Yet there is not a modicum of interest about why they got these gifts, about the size and scope of these gifts, and about whether there are any hidden beneficiaries, in the same manner than Shashi Tharoor is alleged to be the hidden beneficiary behind the free equity gifted to Sunanda Pushkar.

Why is that question not important enough to merit one moment of airtime, one line of print? Why is the “investigation”, the outrage, so selective?

If the media needs a clue that this angle might be worth its while, here you go:

Why were you, Kisan and Pushpa Gaikwad, Shailendra Gaikwad, Sunanda Pushkar, Jayant Kotalwar, Vishnu Prasad and Sundip Agarwal given free equity? From what we understand, you are a director in the company and your husband helped structure the deal. What role do the others mentioned here have?

Straight off, my husband (StanChart’s Director Public Affairs Sushen Jhingan) has absolutely no role to play in this, and I am extremely upset that he was dragged into this. This is something that I have been involved in for a few years, as have some of the others. We were a group of friends and friends of friends, all cricket lovers, who got together in this some time ago.

As mentioned earlier, there is no free equity. Rendezvous Sports World Private Limited is responsible for rendering management services for which no management fee or consideration is going to be charged. You will appreciate that to run a franchise is not an easy task and till the break-even is achieved, a lot of funds need to be pumped in by investors/other shareholders. All the shareholders/stakeholders of the UJV (unincorporated joint venture) have reposed confidence in Rendezvous Sports World Private Limited that we will perform duties which will be allotted to us and shall cross the break-even as per the business plan.

Till the break-even is achieved, there is no return which will accrue or be realised by any shareholder or Rendezvous Sports World Private Limited. You can check with the owners of other franchisees how many of them have crossed the break-even stage after three seasons. The bidding for IPL IV has seen new heights. If we are required to pay franchisee fees, which are huge, we have to work very hard to ensure that the break-evens are achieved, as no investor puts in monies to earn losses. We are under tremendous pressure to perform and these rumours will only add problems to our performance.

A simple question is met with a 274-word response that is non-responsive. What does that tell you?

And while on such questions, who are the two former India players turned commentators who played a backstage role in getting Kochi the franchise? Why did they devote their energies to this project? What did they get in return — besides of course the altruistic satisfaction of having given Kerala in general and its cricket in particular a leg up? [Done laughing yet?].

None of this is to suggest that the Shashi Tharoor angle is not worth probing. The question is, why is it the only angle? Because Lalit K Modi focused on it in his tweets, and the media is only capable of picking up cues and amplifying them? Or because there are others involved in this mess it is in no one’s interest to question?

Meanwhile, the government is now intent on stepping up the heat on Modi. Sruthijith, a friend you can follow on Twitter here, adds significantly to the sum of our knowledge with a story that opens thus:

‘Mr Lalit Modi has had a trail of failed ventures and defaults till four years back but has a lifestyle now that includes a private jet, a luxury yacht and a fleet of Mercedes S class and BMW cars all acquired in the last three years.’

Thus opens a highly confidential and explosive report by the income-tax department that has been in the possession of the government for six months now but formed the basis of any action only on Thursday evening after a raging controversy over secret ownerships and sweetheart deals in the Indian Premier League, or IPL, stalled both houses of Parliament.

Highly-placed sources in the I-T department and the Congress party told ET that Mr Modi has been on the government radar for quite sometime. The alleged opaqueness with which he conducted the multi-billion dollar cricket tournament and the manner in which he took on home minister P Chidambaram in 2009 seem to have resulted in a detailed enquiry into his activities by the IT department.

Read on.

In preparing the report, investigators seem to have accessed his email account, confidential conversations on a UK-registered cell phone number and regulatory filings from across the globe, from Mauritius to Ireland to the US. Some other Indian cell phone numbers have also been unearthed which the I-T sleuths claim Mr Modi “keeps changing”. The report alleges that Mr Modi is “apparently deeply embroiled in both generation of black money, money laundering, betting in cricket (match fixing of certain IPL matches)”.

An email sent to Lalit Modi remained unanswered on Sunday evening. His lawyer was also sent the same email. A number of his associates named in the report might come under the scanner as the investigation, which started with visits to Mr Modi’s offices on Thursday evening, progresses through the coming weeks. Even though the report detailed the premises the tax department wanted to raid and sought permission to go ahead, political clearance was not granted until junior minister for external affairs Shashi Tharoor stepped into IPL’s murky quicksand and with him dragged the government and the Congress party into one of the biggest scandals in recent times.

We know why the government is acting now, but ask yourself this: why did the government sit on this for six months and more? Which minister or ministers played a role in keeping Modi off the investigative radar for all that while?

Enough ‘serious’ stuff. Late last week, I was jolted out of a gentle doze by L Sivaramakrishnan’s trademark squeak. The commentator was apparently all excited about the fact that this time, the tournament was incorporating an award for best commentator.

Even before I could turn on my laptop and go check, the squeaks faded. The reason why was soon apparent: Siva’s name was not on that panel. In fact, only five names were featured: Ravi Shastri, Pommie Mbwangwa, Mike Haysman, Danny Morrison and one other who I don’t recall right now.

Strange, I thought. Who drew up that shortlist?

And then the story grew stranger. While clicking at random on links I had saved late Sunday evening, I landed back on the IPL site and its voting page — and noticed that all commentators on the panel had now been added to the list for consideration.

Nice try, dudes: first, create a panel weighted to ensure the success of a particular candidate [would anyone reading this vote for Danny, say?]. And then, after allowing the candidate to build a sufficient lead, bring in the rest of the names.

While on that, did you notice the names in the Best Stadium Experience category? Who picked those three grounds, and decided to exclude the rest? Kolkata, for instance, has drawn raves throughout the tournament for the sheer electricity the crowds bring to the game. How come the Eden Gardens doesn’t feature? Or more generally, why is the jury being asked to vote only on names already selected by some unseen hand?

All these questions are actually leading up to a single question: Is there anything — anything at all — about the IPL that is not manipulated/fixed?

PostScript: At a personal level, been rushed all morning, preparing for a trip to Delhi starting Tuesday evening through Friday morning. Blogging will be sporadic during that period, and since I’ll be in meetings during the days, the regular live show will feature other hosts: Amit Varma today as usual; my colleagues Ganesh and Thejaswi , with guest panelists, through the middle of the week, and Aakash Chopra in his usual slot on Friday.

Update: In one of my first posts on the Tharoor-Modi spat, I had suggested that Modi, for once, over-reached, and that the affair will end with the high flier getting his wings dramatically clipped [Dammit, this “I had said” stuff is making me sound like the Times, now]. I under-estimated — word now is that Modi will be axed, by the end of the month.

Makes sense. If it was a straight Modi-Tharoor fight, the BCCI could have used it to cut LKM to size. Now it has assumed a far greater dimension, with IT, Enforcement Directorate and other investigative arms of the government getting into the act. The Board needs to build a firewall, to ensure the flames don’t singe the likes of Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel et al. And the only way to do that is to throw Modi to the wolves.