Today, the news television channel Times Now carried another reveal in the Lalit Modi case, in which Rajasthan chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, allegedly backed Modi’s immigration application to the UK in 2011 on the condition of anonymity. The documents that suggest Raje’s complicity were provided to the channel by Modi’s lawyer. That incident was not the first time Raje offered support to Modi. In this excerpt from Samanth Subramanian’s profile of the former Indian Premier League boss, which featured in our March 2011 issue, Modi makes a play for the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) by first serving as president of the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA). Raje’s support and influence in political and business circles was assured.
Lalit Modi’s tenure as president of the RCA, which lasted from 2005 to 2009, was like a rough draft of his tenure as IPL commissioner: the details are different but the broad pattern is recognisably the same. There is, for instance, the same delirious mix of vaulting ambition, the pathological desire to monetise everything, the sleepless vigour, and the piercing business acumen. Ahead of the very first one-day international match to be played at Jaipur after Modi assumed power, CricInfo reported that the RCA had spent Rs7.5 million to install new seats, bring the pavilion forward, roof the stands, and make myriad additional changes to a stadium that had been poorly tended for more than three decades. (Another, costlier round of renovation would follow the next year.) His stadium thus ready, Modi then set about selling the cricket, marketing inches of the game that had never been previously visible to anyone, in a manner that would become intensely familiar to IPL audiences three years later. He excised the agency that acted as middleman in selling advertising space at the ground, preferring to do that himself; he sold boundary-rope advertising for Rs1.5 million per spot, more than double the previous rate; he refused to give away tickets for free, thus breaking with a mystifying practice that continues at many cricket grounds in India; he sold corporate box seats at the astonishing price of Rs125,000 per seat. Even before the Indian and Sri Lankan captains, Rahul Dravid and Marvan Atapattu, had walked out for the toss, the RCA had gleefully projected revenues of Rs24 million from the match. It remains the single most profitable cricket game ever played in India.
To that match also belongs another of the big-fish stories about Modi’s seemingly inexhaustible stamina. “The match went well, but there were some problems on the management side,” said Shamsher Singh, at the time a liaison officer for the Sri Lankan team. A couple of barricades had been erected incorrectly, and crowd control threatened to become a problem. “There’d already been a welcome party the night before, the match day was exhausting for all of us, and there was a party after the game as well.” Singh had been asked by Modi to accompany the teams to the airport at 5:30 the next morning—and to get a few cricket bats autographed by MS Dhoni, who had struck a magnificent 183 in India’s win.
By the time Singh reached home, he remembers, it was 3 am, and he fell promptly asleep. At 4:30 am, his phone rang.
“Make sure you get those bats signed,” a voice said.
“Who is this?” Singh asked, still drowsy.
“Lalit, yaar,” Modi replied, before hanging up.
The next day, when Singh told his wife about Modi’s call, “she said: ‘Woh kabhi sotha nahi kya?’ (Doesn’t he ever sleep?)”
As with the IPL, Modi seemed to be in a perpetual hurry in Rajasthan. Chatterjee told me that Modi decided, as soon as he was elected president of the RCA, that he wanted Jaipur to host some games in the 2006 Champions Trophy, and that he wanted the academy to be ready by then. “The foundation was laid in March 2006,” Taposh Chatterjee, the curator at the RCA, said. “Construction work happened night and day, because Lalit was shooting for that Champions Trophy deadline.” Modi would turn up unannounced on the site and proceed to scrutinise—and criticise—everything: whether the wastepaper bins were where they should be, whether the walls appeared sufficiently clean, and always whether the work was going fast enough. One former RCA member hints that when funds started to run dry, Modi used his clout as vice president in the BCCI to get more money. By September, a month before the Champions Trophy was scheduled to begin, the academy was largely completed, the speed and efficiency of its construction as shining a matter of pride for Modi as the fact that there was an academy at all.
But Modi’s tenure as president of the RCA was also stained by the uncanny knack for making enemies, the willingness to bend rules to suit himself, and the addiction to power that would later bedevil the IPL. In one way, he was simply using the RCA. To be elected into posts within the BCCI, an aspiring cricket administrator must first be an office-bearer in a state cricket association. The RCA was Modi’s most convenient passageway into the BCCI, because he was assured of the support of Vasundhara Raje Scindia, the chief minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government at the time. Scindia was a friend of Modi’s mother as well as his wife Minal, and she could supply Modi with influence in both political and business circles. “Let’s say that Lalit isn’t the kind of person to waste his time on something without a larger play in it,” Cherian said, with a diplomatic smile. “So yes, it could all have been strategic.”
Everybody in the RCA is as prepared to talk about politics as about cricket, but I learned the most in one intensive crash course, lasting a long evening, and delivered with extraordinary vim by Bimal R Soni. Soni is a businessman in Jaipur, and we talked in his office on the sixth floor of one of the two hospitals he owns in that city; in the floors below us, lights gradually winked off in the wards and night-shift nurses started to file in for work.
A baby-faced man of prosperous proportions, Soni doesn’t immediately advertise the agility of the wicketkeeper-batsman he once used to be, but perhaps that agility has only been transferred into other spheres. He has been associated with the administration of Rajasthan’s cricket for close to 30 years, and by insisting that he has only cricket’s best interests at heart, he has been able to work in nearly every RCA regime. Like a wicketkeeper who bounds to the right for an outswinger, only to leap back to the left when the ball reverse-swings, Soni has managed the athletic feat of being vice president under Modi and yet smoothly becoming deputy president after the dispensations changed in 2009.
Soni returned to India from Africa in the early 1980s, where he had been working for a few years. He was only 28 at the time, and he came back prepared to play Ranji Trophy cricket; instead, he was promptly recruited into the administration and made secretary of the RCA. He has lived and breathed cricket politics ever since, and so he narrates the complex story of these politics in an epic style, featuring enough revolutions and counter-revolutions and coups and alliances and backbiting to fill the history textbooks of a small Latin American country.
Soni began at the beginning, with the Rungtas, the family that controlled the RCA—and drove it into the ground—over many, many years. The 1980s and 1990s were full of attempts, by various disgruntled opponents of the Rungtas, to eject the family from the RCA. “I met Lalit for the first time in 1998 or 1999,” Soni said. “My first impression was that he was too arrogant—that he was a spoilt brat.” In December 2003, Scindia was elected chief minister of Rajasthan, and a faction started to form, under Modi, to defeat the Rungtas once and for all. First, Modi registered himself with the RCA as a member of the cricket association of Nagore district, under the name “Lalit Kumar”—not exactly a false name, but not his real name either. “I didn’t give my full name because in those days my name would crop up and all of a sudden—pssch!—people would want to cut off my entry,” Modi explained to Tehelka in a 2006 interview.
Then Modi hacked away at the Rungtas’ base of power, via an ordinance engineered to whisk voting rights away from 66 individual members of the RCA, leaving only the 32 districts. The ordinance was, naturally, challenged in court by the Rungtas, but Modi had done enough—schmoozed enough, bullied enough, sweet-talked enough—to ensure that nobody supported them. Soni recalls being summoned, as president of the Jaipur District Cricket Association, to Modi’s hotel for this very purpose. “He tried to convince me not to oppose the ordinance,” Soni said. “I said: ‘I’m only afraid you’ll compromise with them further down the line.’ Lalit replied: ‘I will never compromise with those bastards.’”
As Modi became a power centre unto himself—a “super chief minister”, to use the phrase most commonly applied to him then—he swiftly accumulated political enemies who resented his closeness to Scindia, his authoritarian style, or simply the suddenness of his rise. He shouted often, especially at those he considered underlings—which, for the super chief minister, could mean a lot of people. He was personally generous, Soni remembers, once giving a minor RCA member “a lakh or two” for a relative’s operation—“but it was really only to buy his loyalty”. He continued to live in Mumbai, where his social circle had expanded to leading industrialists and Bollywood stars; he only visited Jaipur as needed, holding court in one of the Rambagh Palace’s most expensive suites. “All these other ministers would queue up outside his room, whenever he was staying here, to ask for favours,” Gulab Chand Kataria, who was Scindia’s home minister, told me. Then, with a measure of sarcasm that nearly singes the air, he added: “He was a very high-placed man, you know. It wasn’t my good fortune to meet him. I only ever spoke to him on the phone.” –
An excerpt from ‘The Confidence Man,’ published in The Caravan’s March 2011 issue. read the story in full here.
Samanth Subramanian is a contributing editor at The Caravan and the India correspondent for The National. He has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Mint, and The Guardian. His first book Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast won the 2010 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize. He is working on a book about the Sri Lankan civil war.