A cosy club of politicians and businessmen, the BCCI is totally unaccountable and rotten to the core. Should the crusading Prime Minister intervene?

It may seem a trifle trivial to ask the Prime Minister to take interest in the business of cricket, when he has several onerous tasks at hand. However, if he is indeed serious about ridding India of the scourge of crony capitalism, he could make a powerful statement by cleaning up the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) — that cosy club where India’s most powerful politicians and most influential business do more than just co-habit; they make unscrupulous billions off unsuspecting consumers without a rule book and without even a fig leaf of accountability. The exiled Lalit Modi is just one minor, though very talkative and newsworthy, symptom of a deeper malaise.

No accountability

The complete lack of accountability is what is so unique about the BCCI and its subsidiaries including the Indian Premier League (IPL). Politicians are accountable to the people, if not on a daily basis then at least once in five years. Most big businessmen are accountable to shareholders and investors; all listed companies have to declare excruciating details of their business to the public every three months, and the stock markets can punish them for wrongdoing. But once politicians and businessmen enter the hallowed halls of the BCCI, there is not an ounce of accountability. No wonder they are so entrenched.

Of course, it can be no one’s case that Indian cricket doesn’t deserve a strong dose of capitalism. By all accounts, India’s favourite sport has benefited from the massive sums of money that it has attracted in the last decade and a half. It has led to better infrastructure facilities and better pay for cricketers. In turn, that has attracted more talent to the game and from places that were not traditionally in the cricket map of India until the early 2000s. But cricket would have been much better off without the cronyism and the opaque functioning of its administrators. These people are responsible for the pernicious side of Indian cricket, which ranges from intrigue and politics in team selection, to corruption in management, and rampant match-fixing (duping the cricket fan) in the IPL.

The problem is that no principles or rules are sacrosanct in the governance of Indian cricket, except the one about ‘honour among thieves’. Mr. Modi’s cardinal sin was that he reneged on the only rule that mattered to those in the BCCI. He washed dirty linen in public when he implicated Shashi Tharoor in the murky dealings related to IPL’s Kochi franchise. That is what set the authorities, then under the thumb of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, after Mr. Modi. Conveniently, he disappeared to London, never to return to India.

Now, does anyone believe that Mr. Modi was the only alleged crook in the BCCI or IPL? Sure, the IPL was his brainchild and, like it or not, as an enterprise it has transformed the face of Indian cricket and the lives of not just Indian cricketers but their peers from other nations. But while Mr. Modi may have created the IPL on his own, there is little doubt that the spoils would have been shared by many in the BCCI. These very people continue to run the IPL in a manner that is as non-transparent as it was when it started in 2008. If Mr. Modi was the only one involved, the IPL would have died with his departure.

A clear strategy

That is perhaps why Mr. Modi has been hounded but not charged with any offence. What if he decides to testify in a court of law against his fellow travellers? How many politicians and big businessmen/celebrities (invested in the IPL in particular) will stand implicated of breaching the trust of a billion fans? The strategy of the insiders is clear: destroy Mr. Modi’s reputation (with some politicians as collateral damage), isolate him as the “wrongdoer”, and then run the BCCI and IPL as before. Mr. Modi is no saint, but why is he the only one being hung out to dry?

Consider how soft the entire establishment has been on ex-BCCI head N. Srinivasan despite his many conflicts of interest that spilt out into the public domain. Sure, Mr. Srinivasan is a strongman but when there were/are powerful politicians like Sharad Pawar, Arun Jaitley and even Amit Shah in positions of influence in the body, how is it not possible to nail Mr. Srinivasan for his unsavoury practices? The answer is obvious: even if they dislike Mr. Srinivasan and his practices, no one really wants to break the code of silence and be ostracised like Mr. Modi. At best, minor changes can be made, which usually signal business as usual, such as the return of Jagmohan Dalmiya as BCCI head.

Crony capitalism thrives as long as the bond between politicians and businessmen remains intact. In the real economy and realpolitik, the bonds can be, and are, ruptured by scandal and the public anger that follows — 2G and Coalgate forced a pause in rampant cronyism in telecom and coal. But in cricket, despite scandal, despite public anger, nothing has changed. There is no alternative — there is no Narendra Modi to take on the Congress — because everyone who matters is on the same side.

Since the BCCI and IPL cannot self-correct, an external intervention is necessary. Who better than Mr. Modi who considers himself a cut above the regular politician? It probably isn’t a great idea for the government to run the BCCI — many of the problems will simply carry over. However, the government could push legislation to first take it over and then reconstitute it as a corporate entity managed by professionals. Indian cricket should not be run by politicians or big businessmen. It should not even be run by cricketers who have no expertise in administration. It should be run by managers who know what it is to be accountable.

(Dhiraj Nayyar is an economist and columnist.)