As cricket grew in India, corruption followed
Founded three seasons ago, the Indian Premier League managed to make the sport of cricket sexy.
India’s corporate titans bought teams, Bollywood stars infused matches with celebrity glamour and fans from Mumbai to Dubai to New Jersey followed the league on television as its value rose to more than $4 billion.
For many Indians, the league, known as the IPL, became a symbol of a newly dynamic and confident India that was expanding its influence in the world. Yet after weeks of allegations of graft and financial malfeasance, the resignation of a minister and the suspension of the league’s charismatic commissioner, the league has become emblematic of something else: how much the old and often corrupt political and business elite still dominates the country.
Cricket may befuddle much of the world, but the sport is an obsession in India, which is one reason the cricket scandal — dubbed IPL Gate by the Indian media — has assumed such import. Government tax examiners have confiscated accounting records, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India is expected to hold a pivotal hearing in coming days for the league’s suspended commissioner, Lalit Modi.
Insiders on the cricket board depict Modi as a visionary who operated the league by fiat and enriched himself and his family members through hidden shares in teams or fees from television and internet contracts. But the board is also in a compromised position. It is a non governmental organisation dominated by some of the country’s most powerful politicians, including Arun Jaitley, a top leader of the opposition BJP, and Sharad Pawar, the agriculture minister.
Many commentators are skeptical that the board could have been completely ignorant of Modi’s actions. Modi says he did nothing wrong. Even before the scandal, the board was criticised as lacking transparency and was accused of conflicts of interest. One board member is also the owner of an IPL team.
For decades, politicians have had their fingers in the game. Cricket has been organised around state teams competing in regional and national tournaments, with elite players selected for India’s national team. Every state has a cricket association, often led by the state’s chief minister or some other influential politician or bureaucrat. Today, political figures lead cricket associations in at least six states.
G Rajaraman, a longtime cricket journalist, said these relationships initially benefited the sport because the politician could help a team get resources. But that equation changed since money began entering the sport, first with television in the 1990s and then with the advent of the IPL Soon, more politicians were vying for control. Pawar took over the national cricket board in 2005, with Modi as his protégé.
Having lived in the US, Modi saw how commercial leagues like the NBA promoted stars and hometown teams to excite fans and generate revenues. European soccer, especially the English Premier League, was already televised across Asia just as an emerging Indian middle class was starting to discover sports as a leisure spectator activity.
“Modi saw this and he said, ‘We need to create our own icons’,” Rajaraman said.
Modi formatted the IPL as a made-for-television product. He outraged purists by adopting a condensed version of the sport that reduced the length of a match from a day, or several days, to three television-friendly hours. He also brought in cheerleaders and movie stars.
Bollywood’s biggest star, Shah Rukh Khan, bought part of a team, and some fans paid hundreds of dollars to mingle with players, fashion models and celebrities at postgame parties that continued into the early morning hours. Celebrity websites began carrying photos of the parties or gossip about which Bollywood stars were seen in the stands.
Now, Modi is gathering documents for his hearing, while government officials have come under scrutiny. A junior minister of foreign affairs, Shashi Tharoor, was forced to resign because of his involvement with a consortium that won a bid for a team in his home state.
Others who seem closely linked to the league have so far stayed in power as the scandal has assumed political overtones. Pawar heads a regional political party that is part of the coalition government led by the Congress. As yet, investigators have not accused him of any wrongdoing.
And the country’s civil aviation minister, Praful Patel, has faced questions on whether he was involved in the bidding process for a new franchise and whether his ministry had showed favouritism to his daughter, a former model who helps coordinate the IPL’s travel. In late April, the state-owned airline, Air India, cancelled a scheduled flight, delaying passengers, so that Patel’s daughter and several IPL players could use it as a paid charter.
Dhiraj Nayyar, a senior editor, said the cricket scandal was best understood in the context of India’s economic evolution. When India’s stock exchange took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s, scandals erupted over market manipulation until regulatory structures were strengthened. Today, the same absence of transparency and regulation exists in cricket.