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League of scandals

Frontline (India)
8 May 2010

An abbreviated version of this article has been published on the Guardian’s Comment is free website.

In the flush of its success, the IPL was held up as the face of the new, thrusting, ambitious India and its swelling status. “It is a global representation of India,” Lalit Modi argued, “and what the modern-day India stands for and its successes.” Promoting the IPL was promoting India and what passes for the Indian “miracle”. The virtues of the IPL were presented as the virtues of neo-liberal India: it was an embodiment of the free market and the creative capacities of an unleashed private sector.

Those who pointed out the flaws in the picture were brushed aside as “nay-sayers” and “doom-mongers”. If they came from outside India, they were derided as “anti-Indian”, “neo-colonialist”, westerners resentful of India’s bold economic advance.

Now, in its disgrace, the IPL faithfully mirrors the dark side of the neo-liberal dream and the true cost of unleashing the private sector.

Of all the IPL’s innovations – cheerleaders, city-based teams studded with international stars, the player auction – the most significant, and until recently the least commented on, was the introduction of private ownership of teams. Not since the mid-19th century (with the exception of the Packer interlude) have representative cricket entities been private assets. It was a giant step, but it was hardly examined by a media infatuated with the narrative Modi and the BCCI were peddling. It was seen as a kind of natural development, in keeping with the laws of the market, and neutral in its impact on the game and the spectacle. Modernisation was equated with the privileging of the private sector, with the maximising of the profit that could be extracted from the game.

In this lay the seeds of the scandal that has transformed the way people look at the tournament. It’s the private franchising, and more broadly the commercial deregulation of the game, that created the morass that’s now under investigation and of which, for sure, we have seen only the iceberg’s tip. Among the allegations are bribery, kickbacks, insider trading, tax evasion, money-laundering, offshore tax scams and violations of foreign exchange regulations. Behind all these manoeuvres lies a tangle of conflicts of interest, with IPL and BCCI officials and their relatives financially involved in the private franchises and the broadcasting rights-holders. It’s a web that involves government ministers, the CEOs of some of India biggest corporations, media powers and Bollywood stars.

The assumption that an unfettered market is efficient, that the exercise of private greed somehow coagulates into the public interest, was always dubious and in the wake of financial crisis and global recession seems particularly anachronistic. But as usual cricket is a step behind the times. It was a latecomer to the neo-liberal faith, but became an uncritical devotee. And despite the recent revelations, there’s no evidence that this will change. All those vying for power in Indian cricket share the same assumptions and the same methods and not a few of the same cronies. Modi’s successor Chirayu Amin – chairman of pharmaceutical giant Alembic and former president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry – promises a more disciplined and cautious approach but his model for cricket’s future is the same.

Lack of transparency and accountability was built into the project from the beginning. The recriminations between Modi and his erstwhile partners in the BCCI hierarchy confirm exactly that.
Shashank Manohar, the BCCI president, argued that he and his colleagues had behaved no differently from directors in big corporations. “There are huge companies that are run by people and those people, once a decision is approved, don’t go and look at the document whether it is properly executed or not. It is the job of the professionals and the executives who are appointed by the institution to do that job. … most of the contracts have been entered into without the consent of the governing council and they’ve been brought to the governing council after the contract was signed.” In other words, they gave Modi the power, they approved his every move without scrutiny, but no blame attaches to them because that’s how the corporate world works.

Even before the IPL meltdown, the Indian tax authorities had announced their decision to strip the BCCI of its charitable status, confirming what had long been obvious: that the BCCI operates as a business, not a public service. “Cricket is only incidental to its scheme of things,” the authorities declared; its “activities are totally commercial.” They also revealed that the BCCI allocates only 8% of its engorged revenues to the actual development of cricket.

In selling the franchises, the BCCI was licensing exclusive groups of investors to exploit the common cricket market for private profit. That raised and continues to raise a variety of awkward problems.

Under private ownership management is less hedged in by non-commercial concerns, like ensuring wider access to facilities; they have neither a mandate for nor an interest in promoting the welfare of the game as a whole. Inevitably, franchise holdings become part of larger investment portfolios and treated accordingly. In English Premier League football, the putative model for the IPL, owners have proved extraordinarily reckless in exploiting their assets. The American owners of Manchester United and Liverpool have both used their clubs as financial leverage for other sections of their corporate empires. The fans have not been pleased and pressure is growing for tighter regulation of club ownership.

The guarantee of television and sponsorship income leads to a spiralling proliferation of matches and competitions. The resulting congestion – to which the IPL is now a major contributor – is unsustainable. Something will have to give way and if commerce (the power of the private sector) is the decisive factor it will be Test cricket, even though it remains by common consent the game’s richest and most deeply engrossing form. The ecologically conscious American economist Kenneth Boulding commented in the 1950s that “to believe in unlimited growth in a finite world one has to be either a fool or an economist” – or, one might add, a cricket administrator.

The IPL was never, in fact, some pure effusion of free market competition. For a start, each franchise was given an exclusive right to exploit a designated market, which does not happen in the English Premier League. With its team salary cap, local quotas and annual player auction, the IPL provides a heavily protected environment for the franchises, in some ways more like Major League Baseball than Premier League football. As the banning of Ravindra Jadeja for seeking to negotiate an alternative contract with another team suggests, its neo-liberal principles have been selectively applied. Players are not permitted to sell their labour on the open market. The owners do not live by the creed they preach.

The IPL is a cartel – a group of supposedly independent private interests colluding to control and carve up a market. In the US, the cartel is the norm for big-time sports governance and for many years major league baseball was formally exempt from anti-trust legislation. In response to the cartels, player trade unionism emerged, insisted on collective bargaining and secured major concessions through law suits and all-out strikes. For various reasons, it’s hard to see that happening in global cricket. But some power must emerge to check the private sector and that is what the government’s inquiry into Indian cricket has to establish..

Just as the financial speculators were exposed in the end as dependent on the public purse, so the IPL franchises are dependent on cricket’s vast non-profit sector – for grounds and facilities, players and umpires. For their foreign stars, they’re dependent on international cricket. Since it’s a seven week event, there’s little incentive for owners to invest in any wider development. And it can only ever be a brief event, not a cricket season in full. Twenty 20 is a do or die form of the game, with results often determined by moments of brilliance, ineptitude or luck. Extend the competition beyond its current stretch and those moments will lose impact and significance. The public will get bored. Unlike the EPL, the IPL is not the premier showcase for its particular art. It’s not the most demanding form of the game for players or the most rewarding for spectators.

On behalf of the IPL, it’s argued that the presence of foreign stars helps internationalise cricket loyalties. “Thanks to the mixture of nationalities in each of the IPL teams,” declared no less than Shashi Tharoor, “partisanship has suddenly lost its chauvinist flavour. In the IPL, the past poses no impediment to the future.” The statement had the hubristic ring of free market utopianism. A utopianism hopelessly undermined, in this case, by the exclusion of Pakistani players from the tournament.

We’re told that the franchises came to this decision independently, for “commercial” and “security” reasons. The assumption is that Indian fans will be hostile towards Pakistanis and that groups like Shiv Sena will engage in disruptive activities, as they have in the past. Allowing the likes of the Sena even to imagine they enjoy such veto power is a serious error. Worse than that, the IPL’s behaviour implies that if discrimination is profitable, discrimination is legitimate. If bigotry pays, then bigotry prevails. The whole affair undermined the IPL’s globalising claims and compromised India’s status as the epicentre and champion of the modern game. You might be able to watch IPL matches in real time in Japan but you couldn’t watch Shahid Afridi or Umar Gul. The BCCI was able to distance itself from this embarrassment by pointing to the autonomous powers of the franchise owners.

Australian cricket historian Gideon Haigh, a persistent and acute critic of the IPL, observed that part of its appeal was that it was a tournament which the home nation was guaranteed to win. Whatever the final score, India triumphed. Apparently, the IPL franchise owners concluded that the presence of Pakistani players would pollute that triumph.

There’s nothing new in the power of money shaping cricket’s destiny. It’s 230 years since Thomas Lord put a fence around his ground and began charging admission. Gamblers and publicans sponsored much of the game’s early development. But the ideology of cricket, as it developed in the 19th and for much of the 20th century, disdained the cash nexus. Sordid monetary affairs were disguised behind the cult of amateurism and its ugly shadow, “shamateurism”.

The difference now is that money is in the forefront of the game, its power shameless and explicit. The IPL’s introduction of private ownership of major teams entrenches that trend. Whatever the virtues of the cricket played in the IPL, the culture of the IPL – the packaging of the cricket – was soulless and contrived.

The TV commentary was persistently gushing and at times ludicrously hyperbolic. It promoted the tournament more than the players and the teams. It had the arrogance to try to reinvent cricket’s venerable nomenclature and to think it could do so by gluing on a sponsor’s name. I’m sorry, it’s not a “DLF maximum”: it’s a six or a chhekka. The franchises’ manufactured local identities with their staggeringly unimaginative names were never a substitute for the “brand names” developed by English football clubs through generations of lived and shared experience. The player auction was hailed as a brilliant publicity coup, but what messages did it carry? Here was an extreme form of commodification of human talent, wrenched from all context; the players could have been prize thoroughbreds. The extraordinary sums bid for less than two months work represented a work-reward ratio inconceivable to the vast majority of Indians, yet somehow held up as something they should celebrate and take pride in.

Even last year’s forced relocation to South Africa scarcely inhibited the triumphalism. The IPL was bidding to be India’s premier domestic sporting event, and you would have thought that transporting it to a foreign land might undermine that status. But no: at some level the IPL was already a disembodied spectacle and the show went on regardless. In so many respects, the IPL merely echoed the dominant culture. Instead of trying to replicate the speedy, superficial, market-targeted attractions already widely available, perhaps it’s now time for cricket to think of offering something different, something against the grain of the neo-liberal age.

Many in the English media resent and distrust Indian cricket power and they tended to see the IPL as just another shoulder-charge into their hereditary arena. Now, of course, its embarrassment is further excuse to deride what the ineptitude and corruption of India cricket. But these are the same people whose record over last year’s Stanford affair reveals a myopia of their own. The American billionaire was hailed as a saviour by the ECB, who did not question where his money came from or what they might be used for. The media complained about Stanford’s vulgarity and arrogance, but they treated his billions as if they grew on trees. He was a successful entrepreneur in a climate that adulated successful entrepreneurs. Now Stanford is in prison. When the allegations about his involvement with money-laundering, fraud, bribery and other misbehaviour emerged, the media accused the ECB of not performing “due diligence” in regard to Stanford – the due diligence which they themselves had failed to perform. Something of the same dynamic can be seen now in relation to the IPL. Modi is the fallen icon, and those who put him in power and shielded him from scrutiny are now running for cover.