May 30, 2020
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Shock Detector Test

Cricket’s newest fall noted, the IPL row will limp off sated TV screens

Shock Detector Test
Illustration by Sprit
Shock Detector Test

I find all this fuss about the IPL scandal simply astounding. Why are we behaving as if we’ve never heard of corruption in Indian economics or politics? Can anyone recall a single politician or business house that doesn’t have a major scandal behind it? Or is it just that we didn’t expect this in a gentleman’s game like cricket? But it’s been over a decade now since cricket scandals began to surface, so why the fuss? I suspect this may have more to do with the opposition’s thankless search for a platform to mobilise people against the current regime, coupled with a competitive media’s increasingly desperate search for stories and scams than with any genuine public outrage. As a scam, it doesn’t look like much in a country where Chaudhari Devi Lal once told a journalist who quizzed him about appointing his own son as a minister: “Do you expect me to appoint Bansi Lal’s son?”

The hostility to Shashi Tharoor came from a different source. Neither the Congress nor the opposition was ever comfortable with him, and they made no secret of it. Tharoor is one of those people who doesn’t conform to the two cardinal principles of Indian political life, and thereby is doomed to be a perfect target. The first rule he broke is a psychological one: people in political life have to pretend to be less smart than they actually are. That’s the only way to disarm your rivals, both within your own party and outside. And that’s why some of the finest and most brilliant minds in politics—P.V. Narasimha Rao and Jagjivan Ram, for example—deliberately projected a fake mediocrity. It allowed them sometimes to get away with murder. The second rule Tharoor flouted is a political one: always involve prospective critics in your venture. That is the Indian definition of true entrepreneurship. It was foolhardy to have underrated the possibilities of trouble from the BJP and NCP, particularly when their interest in cricket is well known.

By flouting these two rules, Tharoor set himself up. Whether there’s any truth in the charges against him is hardly relevant: anyone in his place would have done the same, and if he didn’t and yet got caught, he has to be a bit of a fool, not fit for the upper echelons of Indian politics. After all, do we know of a single enterprise that refuses to create a space for an important leader’s girlfriend/daughter/son/son-in-law? That’s the Indian definition of business interest.

Often the politician doesn’t even know about it—until the businessman encashes the obligation years later. I once accidentally caught sight of a gift cheque being sent for the wedding of a cabinet minister’s daughter. Let me just say the amount was mind-boggling. But I’m sure the minister did not solicit the gift. So if everyone does it, why can’t Tharoor? I suspect because of the lethal cocktail in this instance of a hostile political class and a hungry media being offered an irresistible story that combined sex, cricket and politics.

Lalit Modi has come in the line of fire for an entirely different reason. He is the counter-target. Once you manage to bring down Tharoor, and score political brownie points against the ruling Congress, the party can have no option but to turn the heat on Modi and involve the BJP and NCP in it. You then get both a manageable rival as well as an ally.

Modi’s only failing, if you can call it that, is that he’s a very good entrepreneur. And the history of all good entrepreneurs in India is the same: they invariably start off as robber barons. Modi has changed cricket forever: turned it into a globalised, corporatised sport from the old-style cricket which was celebrated as a glorified, charming village game. Which is why the rhetoric against Modi rings a bit hollow. He is doing what everyone wants to do but only a few can. I’m sure the irony is lost on no one when Laloo Prasad Yadav calls for the nationalisation of IPL in Parliament—he, of all people, considering the corruption charges against him relate to a nationalised venture! The parliamentarians present could have interrupted him. But they knew public opinion was hostile to both Tharoor and Modi.

So where does this leave us? I give the story at most another two-three weeks. By then, the public will find out that politicians and businessmen will make their compromises and get on with life. The media too will discover how transient public interest can be. If public sentiment hadn’t been whipped up by TV channels competing for eyeballs, the story might have gone the way of the stories we’ve been hearing for the last decade about cricket floating on big money. Perhaps it was naive of us to believe that cricket will somehow remain untouched by human greed.

Will that mean a certain loss of innocence? Yes and no. As a friend said, “Maybe these stories are true, but I don’t want to hear them. Let us leave cricket alone.” On the other hand, it may not be such a bad thing if, after the whole story unravels, we develop a slightly more robust scepticism, especially about the idea of television as a trustworthy media.

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