Prem Panicker

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Prem has been writing about cricket since 1996 -- and sometimes wishes he hadn't.

The IPL Fiasco: Battle Royale in the Offing

Since the inception of the Indian Premier League a little over three years ago, Lalit Modi has run it like his personal fiefdom, carving out large chunks of the pie for family, friends and well-wishers. For the better part of two years, everyone -- the Board of Control for Cricket in India honchos, large sections of the media, even the public -- knew what was going on, but in the euphoria over the building of "the world's biggest sporting brand", they chose to turn a blind eye to behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

And then Modi [acting, ironically, on the advice of the then BCCI president] chose to out the Shashi Tharoor involvement in the Kochi franchise, and all hell predictably broke loose. I've chronicled that event, and all that happened since, so exhaustively that there is little point in an extended iteration. Net net, the single biggest outcome was the universal demonization of Lalit Modi, who was depicted as the source for all ills in the IPL, and by extension Indian cricket. The climate of the times demanded a scapegoat; in Modi, the establishment found a plausible one -- plausible, because he had been engaged in so much that was murky, that mud would adhere naturally to his name.

Put that thought in your parking lot for a space.

When the BCCI yesterday announced the axing of Rajasthan Royals and Kings' XI Punjab from the list of IPL franchises, the general feeling as gleaned from social media was one of schadenfreude. Serves Modi right, seemed to be the consensus -- he used those franchises to favor his relatives, and fully deserves all that is now coming to him.

Here, I suspect, lies the danger -- the BCCI has managed to set up Modi as a straw man and, while we happily aim our arrows at him, plays its own games in the background. Consider the following:

1. Then BCCI president Sharad Pawar had, through relatives of varying closeness, acquired hidden stakes in various franchises both existing and planned. In other words, he was as guilty of conflict of interest as anyone else. That has been swept under a convenient carpet.

2. Shashank Manohar, Pawar's successor, was actively involved in ensuring that Kochi won the bid when two additional franchises were announced. He did this by first canceling the planned auction, on the morning of the event, on the grounds that the terms and conditions were restrictive -- an action that makes you question how he failed to examine the clauses till the 11th hour, and what triggered the late wake up call. He then used his authority to ensure that the bid from Kochi, which came in a few hours after the deadline he was party to fixing, was accepted, with the paperwork backdated. At the very least, his activism on behalf of Kochi raises questions that he has shown no inclination to answer.

3. And then there is N Srinivasan, currently serving as secretary of the BCCI and slated, one year from now, to become the next president, having narrowly [by a two-vote margin] won the election in late September. Besides his official role as secretary of the BCCI, Srinivasan is a member of the IPL governing council. He is also vice chairman and MD of India Cements, the company that owns IPL franchise Chennai Super Kings. And the fact of his wearing those three hats clearly spells conflict of interest.

Interestingly, the BCCI amended its constitution retroactively to avoid the appearance of this conflict, by taking the IPL out of the purview of the board's constitutional provisions. Thus, at one and the same time, the Board is claiming that the IPL is nested within it, and simultaneously saying that constitutional provisions relating to holding two posts at one time do not apply in the case of the IPL.

What is more interesting is that Srinivasan, as Board secretary and IPL governing council member -- and president-elect -- is in the happy position of sitting in judgement over questions relating to his financial involvement in the IPL -- a case of being the defendant, judge, and jury all in one. On September 16, responding to a petition filed by former Board president A C Muthaiah, the Supreme Court underlined this anomaly and 'advised' Srinivasan to give up either his interest in the IPL, or his position with the Board, arguing that he could not wear both hats and function impartially. [A final judgement on this issue is expected later this month]. Srinivasan has thus far chosen to ignore the apex court's suggestion.

So revert, now, to the question of the two franchises that have been axed from the IPL. The stated reason for doing this is to "clean up" the league, to sort out issues relating to unclear ownership and other murky dealings. Laudable objective -- but its implementation will remain flawed as long as the conflicts involving the likes of Pawar, Manohar and Srinivasan continue to exist.

There is a larger, legal, problem with the recent action taken against KXIP and RR. While it is true that Modi, during his tenure as commissioner, did pretty much what he wanted, when he wanted to, the fact also remains that thrice every year, the IPL governing council [of which the likes of Manohar and Srinivasan are members] met to go over the paperwork, and to ratify the various decisions that had been taken since they last met.

Therefore, when the BCCI now makes these charges against the franchises, it conveniently ignores the fact that through its governing council meetings, Manohar, Srinivasan and other board officials were equally privy to all of this, and that the board president and secretary had actually signed off on all these changes. For them now to question actions they had themselves ratified, and to axe franchises that have invested considerable sums of money in the league without even benefit of notice, is untenable in a court of law.

There is a related problem with the recent actions of the board. It has claimed that the contracts were signed by Lalit Modi, and that it is not necessary for the board to honor those contracts. Modi, however, was an officially elected vice president with the board; it was the board that appointed him commissioner. The appointment means, in legal terms, that the board was empowering him to take decisions on its behalf -- therefore, to now say it will not honor decisions it had authorized Modi to make, decisions subsequently ratified by the league's governing council, puts the board on tenuous legal ground.

None of this is to suggest that Modi is pure as the driven snow -- the reverse is true. The real problem, however, is that the board is increasingly leveraging public anger against Modi to obfuscate the murky dealings of its own officials.

It is early days yet, and there is no telling at this point just how the current situation will play out. All that is known at present is that KXIP and RR have already taken preliminary steps towards exploring legal remedies; it is also known that a few other franchises, increasingly annoyed by the board's high handedness, are engaged in behind the scenes talks with a view to putting up a united front. The coming days should be rich in drama; the possibility that currently tantalizes the imagination is of a protracted court battle that could potentially impact on the successful conduct of the IPL's fourth season.

Related post: BCCI to franchise: Shut up or else!

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