Close to midnight on October 13, as over 50 cricket officials, gathered from the state association across the country, waited anxiously in the Sunset Hall of Trident hotel in Mumbai, former cricket supremo N. Srinivasan announced the “unanimously” chosen candidates for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) elections. A compromise had just come about after many days of intense lobbying, in which India’s who’s who, including home minister Amit Shah, was closely involved.
But a huge irony in the melodrama was that Srinivasan, a former president of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and BCCI, and whom the Supreme Court barred from being part of Indian cricket a few years ago, made the important much-anticipated announcement. The court had passed that order after Srinivasan’s son-in-law Gurunath Meiyappan was banned for life from being part of Indian cricket following the 2013 IPL betting scandal. But not one to take a backseat, the 74-year-old business magnate from Chennai lobbied and bargained hard for his men, particularly for presidency, ahead of the October 23 BCCI elections, held after four years.
Eventually, former India captain Sourav Ganguly, 47, became the 32nd man to be elected as BCCI president -- though only for 278 days as he will go into a mandatory three-year cooling-off period from July 26, 2020 -- and former India batsman Brijesh Patel was elected chairman of the IPL Governing Council. But it is also possible that Ganguly and others, who have to head into the cooling-off period, may carry on if the central government brings the Sports Bill soon. It is being speculated that the bill would bring relief and longer tenures for sports administrators, including those of the BCCI, than what the Lodha Committee had recommended in the new BCCI constitution. Lodha Committee has recommended a maximum of nine-year tenure each at BCCI as well as the states, with a mandatory cooling-off period after six years.
The BCCI is such a complex jigsaw that some of the sharpest politicians have failed to solve it in one or more attempts over the decades. Ask Sharad Pawar, for example, about the 2004 election that he lost by one vote. So, eyebrows should not be raised if Amit Shah couldn’t fix the issues in several meetings he held with the interested parties in Delhi. The settlement was eventually reached in Mumbai, with just a few hours left for the expiry of filing of nominations.
There was high drama in the days leading to the three-day nomination-filing window – from October 11 to 14; Sunday was discounted -- as intense lobbying was still going on between the four factions. Junior finance minister Anurag Thakur led the biggest group that comprised cricket representatives of almost all of 17 BJP-ruled states. Srinivasan controlled mainly southern states. One group was headed by Ganguly, who derived the strength mainly from the eight loyal north-east states -- Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura and Assam. The weakest, but no less crucial in terms of playing the mediator’s role, was headed by Rajeev Shukla, perhaps the only individual acceptable to and friendly with all factions.
On October 14, Ganguly, a former Bengal president and joint secretary, and others finally filed their nomination papers at the lease-rented BCCI headquarters inside the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai – the world’s richest cricket body still doesn’t own its headquarters -- a stone throw away from Trident hotel, where all the drama had taken place just a few hours ago. But even while filing nominations there was some more drama -- hilarious as well as sad. At least one nervous state cricket official completely forgot which candidate he was proposing/seconding.
BCCI Electoral Officer N. Gopalaswami, a former Chief Election Commissioner of India, confirmed this. “He didn’t remember what the names were. Maybe, it was the first ever time in his life he was interviewed by somebody, so he fumbled. Thereafter, people came with slips when we called them. Some recalled the names [of their candidates] quickly; some referred to the paper to recall them,” Gopalaswami told Outlook in an Exclusive Interview (read the interview elsewhere). He had earlier declared ineligible representatives of eight state associations for the BCCI general body meeting for not being compliant.
On the other hand, Chhattisgarh cricket president Prabhtej Singh Bhatia at 28 was the youngest to be elected to the BCCI Apex Council. But he too had to wait for long for confirmation as parleys went into late night on October 13. “There were some ongoing discussions, but nothing was final till the night before the nominations. I had some idea that there were some talks about it [about my induction into the BCCI] and all of that. There were a lot of random talks that were happening where not everything materialises. There were too many things that everybody had to consider,” Bhatia, who succeeded his father Baldev Singh Bhatia as Chhattisgarh president, told Outlook.
There probably can’t be a bigger myth in Indian cricket than officials making us believe that all BCCI decisions are always taken “unanimously”. In reality, things were far from being honky dory, and the events that transpired ahead of this year’s nominations prove this. But when cricket administrators – well, many of them -- get what they seek, in terms of posts, perks, and funds for their associations, they all come together to show as closely knit as the BCCI. A senior official admitted that it took so long to arrive at consensus candidates because the pie had to be distributed equally among the five cricketing zones. “There are only five posts of BCCI office-bearers and there are 38 state associations in five zones. So, naturally it took time to decide about their representation in the BCCI,” said someone who was part of the discussions. Eventually, out of the eight Apex Council seats, east zone got two posts (president and IPL GC member), central got two (vice-president and councillor), south got two (IPL GC president and joint secretary), west got one (secretary), and north one (treasurer).
So, what really happened behind the scenes? While casual talks between the parties were on for some time, the real ‘game of thrones’ started on October 10, when Thakur visited Guwahati. He, along with Himanta Biswa Sarma, a senior minister in Assam holding multiple portfolios, met representatives of seven of the eight north-east states. Sources said that Manipur went unrepresented as the wife of its president, had taken ill, and no one replaced him at the meeting. “Sarma coordinated the meeting. Since the BJP has governments, as a major partner, in Arunachal, Assam, Manipur and Tripura, he has direct control over them, and where there are coalition governments [Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland] he has to do that directly through their chief ministers,” a source explained to told Outlook. When contacted, Sarma said it wouldn’t be proper for him to comment on BCCI elections.
Nothing was, however, finalised at the Guwahati meeting in terms of candidates’ names, except that Anurag and Sarma agreed with the demand that someone from the N-E states should be represented in the BCCI Apex Council. The north-east states were then told that “the matter would be reported to Delhi”. “The two politicians basically tried to say that there should be no election, if possible, and that there must be a unanimous candidature. The bottom line was: let us all unite. We were nudged gently to fall-in-line type: to follow the order. It was a polite message because in north-east mainland, politics sometimes boomerangs. With issues like NRC, instant revolts have taken place. Tribals of north-east are fiercely independent, and these states are mostly tribal dominated. So, they were quite careful,” said the source.
The scene then shifted to Delhi, where the North East Cricket Development Committee (NECDC), an independent body comprising Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Sikkim and formed after they became full-fledged BCCI members following a Supreme Court order, met under Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, who doubled up as NECDC convenor, on October 12. At this meeting, the NECDC “unanimously decided” that Sikkim Cricket Association president Lobzang G. Tenzing would file his candidature for the post of BCCI joint secretary. But, as Tenzing would later say in an October 18 statement posted on the association’s website, “due to the pressure of certain influential groups” he was offered the post of IPL Governing Council member, instead of the joint secretary’s. Tenzing “gracefully declined” the offer, and Mizoram secretary Mohammed Khairul Jamal Majumdar was chosen for the IPL position.
Around the same time and next day, October 13, several meetings were held with Amit Shah in Delhi. “Srinivasan, Ganguly, and Thakur all met Amit Shah separately. And then there was a joint meeting at which, Himanta, former Saurashtra secretary Niranjan Shah, and Shukla were also present, besides Srinivasan, Ganguly, and Thakur. The whole idea was to avoid a contest and bring about unanimity,” said a source. But, as things turned out that night in Mumbai, issues were far from being settled. The only consensus among the warring factions was around 31-year-old Jay Shah, son of Amit Shah, as the next BCCI secretary.
The last and decisive round of hectic parleys began at around 3 pm on October 14 at Trident Hotel. Those present at the parleys, among others, were Thakur, Himanta, Srinivasan, Niranjan, Shukla, Jay Shah, Ganguly, and former Meghalaya cricket secretary Naba Bhattarcharya, who represented north-east states.
Interestingly, Vidarbha and Delhi were not invited for these confabulations. Vidarbha is identified with ICC president Shahshank Manohar and is anti-Srinivasan while Delhi seemingly lost out after the demise of its mentor, Arun Jaitley. Not long ago, Delhi president Rajat Sharma was being talked about as a possible BCCI presidential candidate. Vidarbha, the first BCCI affiliate to accept and implement the Lodha Committee-recommended reforms, said it wasn’t interested. “We were neither interested in any BCCI post, nor in any individual. In any case, Vidarbha wouldn’t have been part of any gathering in which Srinivasan expected to be present. What authority does he have? He’s nowhere now,” said a Vidarbha official.
But it was indeed Srinivasan who, despite health issues, called the shots, before he was forced to compromise. An observer said that despite the Thakur-Ganguly-Shukla combine were slightly shaky as Srinivasan could have moved the court if things hadn’t gone his way. “Once Ganguly refused to accept the IPL GC chairman’s post, they became a little jittery because if he stood for election it would not have been unanimous, and then there would have been groups. In that scenario, the established groups would have been exposed, as to who was stronger and who wasn’t. Srinivasan’s group would’ve been exposed the most, and Brijesh Patel may not have won the president’s post,” he said.
Multiple sources claimed that the Tamil Nadu strongman Srinivasan’s moves also proved that his meeting with Amit Shah hadn’t really settled all the raging issues. “Srinivasan had no chance if election would have taken place. He was threatening to go to court and get the election postponed. So, that was a big threat. A man with resources makes a challenging enemy, and that includes elections as well,” said an official.
Finally, it was Srinivasan who officially make the important announcement close to midnight on October 13. “The honour was given to Srinivasan to announce the two important positions in front of 50-plus people drawn from all state associations at the Sunset Hall on Trident. He said there are two important positions and two important candidates that we have; they are Brijesh for chairmanship of the IPL GC and for the BCCI president’s post it is Ganguly,” a witness told Outlook.
Srinivasan was particularly insistent on the president’s candidature of Patel, who has been loyal to him for years. But Anurag, who had hardly had a cordial relationship with Srinivasan over the years, proposed Ganguly’s name, instead. Thus, he played a masterstroke, effectively killing three birds with one stone. Ganguly’s was a big and, more importantly, acceptable to most factions. Since Thakur had apparently got a free hand from the BJP to oversee the BCCI elections, no one had the courage to challenge such a formidable group that had the maximum votes, barring Srinivasan.
Shukla, who is close to Thakur, readily agreed to back Ganguly, and thus secured the vice-president’s post for Uttarakhand secretary Mahim Verma. Third, Ganguly’s candidature also made the eight north-east states happy. Thus, three of the four groups had come together on the choice of Ganguly, leaving Srinivasan to accept the compromise formula. The former Tamil Nadu president, nevertheless, got his man Jayesh George, president of Kerala cricket, the joint secretary’s post.
All parties were keen on consensus candidates as they all wanted to get rid of the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA), which had ruled for about 33 months. The other thing speculated was that Thakur-Ganguly and Srinivasan had agreed that Srinivasan would represent the BCCI in the ICC Board. If that happens, and with ICC president Manohar and Srinivasan still poles apart, it remains to be seen if Srinivasan would managed to actually attend ICC meetings. “Even if the BCCI nominates Srinivasan, Manohar has the power to disallow him to attend. He recently allowed acting secretary Amitabh Choudhary to sit in an ICC meeting, despite the CoA writing to the world body to not do so,” pointed out an official.
The last word about the BCCI and its politics is yet to be said. For the time being, though, all are putting up a united face. We will know how united they are in about 10 months, when the elections for BCCI president’s post would be held, once Ganguly goes into cooling-off period – provided the new Sports Bill doesn’t provide any relief to him.
In his short tenure, Ganguly faces many challenges, especially as a proper BCCI set-up has been elected after the three-year CoA reign. Listing his priorities, he has indicated that he would make life comfortable for first-class cricketers by introducing a contract system for them and enhancing match fees in domestic tournaments. He has also said that the BCCI would try and get its due money from the ICC, estimated to be $372 million, at least. To get to know the background, Ganguly and his team will have to first study a lot of documents, including financial, of the last four years. “They will probably have to study more than they did in their school day,” quipped an official.
(An abridged version of this story has appeared in the Outlook magazine)