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The real story behind the Tharoor-Modi spat

Last updated on: April 21, 2010 02:32 IST

Modi desperately needs Pawar's support



Sheela Bhatt deconstructs the murky goings-on in the Indian Premier League.

Sharad Pawar will assume charge as International Cricket Council's president in June. As head of the international body that runs cricket, he cannot afford any allegations against him in the media or by Indian investigating agencies. To contain any such campaign he will have to work with the government to clean up the Indian Premier League and Board of Control for Cricket in India.

This is one of the crucial factors that weakens the case of Indian Premier League commissioner Lalit Modi, who needs Pawar's support desperately at a time when his opponents in the Board of Control for Cricket in India and Indian investigation agencies are hounding him. 

Tuesday's meeting between Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Union Home Minister P Chidambaram with Pawar, who is also in the Union Cabinet since he is agriculture minister, is significant.

Pawar, who was BCCI chief for three years, will not like government departments to hound the cricket board. He is also facing huge political pressure because of reports that he backed Videocon's bid for the Pune team. The reports alleged that his daughter Supriya Sule's husband Sadanad Sule might have got sweat equity or some kind of free equity if Videocon won. The charge has been strongly denied by both Supriya and Pawar.

Reliable sources in the government told that there are series of SMS' with investigation agencies regarding the aborted and successful IPL bids for the two new teams in the IPL.

They have given vital information about what transpired between Shashi Tharoor, Lalit Modi, some leaders of the cricket world and Gujarati investors after the IPL Kochi bid was won by Rendezvous Sports World. The investigators reportedly have details about how Modi tried to sabotage the process.

Modi is being targeted by a section of the BCCI because of fear of the proof that government's agencies may have. Income tax department sleuths had Monday said that the original bids by Videocon for Pune and Adani group for Ahmedabad are missing. The IPL has not yet commented on it.

The assessment within the Congress and the government is that Modi conspired to make sure that the Adani group, Gujarat-based industrial house of Gautam Adani, and Venugopal Dhoot of Videocon could win their bids. Adani's bid was even backed by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is desperate to connect with the younger generation to counter the Rahul Gandhi effect.

Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel and Pawar's close aide is also is under pressure because his daughter is employed by the IPL. However, these are just 'findings' and not evidence.

Praful Patel told, "Neither me or Pawar have any financial interest in the IPL. Why should we go for free equity or any other freebies? I am a businessman and the richest cabinet minister. I have not hidden my assets. If I want I will invest openly and in a legal way."

He also said he is ready for any inquiry, "Nothing would implicate us. We have no interest in the IPL," he said.

Image: Lalit Modi and Sharad Pawar
Photographs: IPL/Getty Images

Rendezvous Sports World played masterstroke

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But it's an open secret that Lalit Modi had an interest in ensuring that Adani and Dhoot won the bid. To ensure that, the IPL ruled that in the first round of bidding the participating business houses must give a bank guarantee of $100 million (about Rs 450 crore) and have a net worth of $1 billion (about Rs 4,500 crore). Adani is worth more that $5 billion, and Dhoot more than $4 billion. But BCCI president Shashank Manohar objected to it and asked for a fresh round of bidding.

The second round of IPL bidding on March 21 did not have these two strict regulations and marred Dhoot's and Adani's chances. Rendezvous Sports World organised finances from Gujarati investors and played a masterstroke by bidding nearly $330 million. The Sahara Adventure Sports got the ownership of the Pune team by bidding a huge amount of $370 million. Nobody expected Adani and Dhoot, both backed by the all-powerful Modi, to lose. IPL-Kochi had pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

So, the moment Kochi won the bid, all its investors came under pressure. The day after winning the bid for Kerala, there was a realisation amongst the equity holders that they will not be able to earn fast bucks from Kerala.

"Harshad Mehta of Rosyblue and Mehul Shah of Anchor Earths felt that it will take five to six years to build a modern cricket stadium in Kochi (though it is an international cricket venue). The availability of land in Kochi was also an issue. So they started looking at other options and that's how tussle started between Tharoor and Lalit Modi," said one of the mediators between Modi and Tharoor.

Giving credit to Tharoor, he said, "Tharoor was interested in having a cricket team for Kerala and he got in touch with people who were interested in investing in it. Till the issue was settled he fought to see that Kerala got an IPL team."

He says, "If Sunanda Pushkar (a close friend of Tharoor) had not got sweat equity then Tharoor was surely the hero of IPL Kochi."

The details that have emerged about IPL Kochi could not be verified because Harshad Mehta refused to take calls or answer emails from His office in Mumbai said he is in Dubai and he received our e-mail.

Why and how the Gujarati investors gave huge chunk of 25 percent equity for free to Rendezvous Sports World Limited is not yet known, because none of them have spoken yet.

Harshad Mehta has 12 percent stake, Atul Shah of Anchor Earth has the highest, at 27 percent, Vipul Shah of Parinee developers has 26 percent in IPL Kochi. RSW had given 5 percent sweat equity to Pushkar, a consultant in Dubai, due to which Tharoor had to resign as minister of state for external affairs. There are other eight sweat equity holders too, but since they are not linked to any high-profile minister or such entity they have largely remained off the radar of public scrutiny.

Image: Rendezvous Sports World at the bidding
Photographs: IPL/Getty Images
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Tharoor was adamant that IPL Kochi should not go elsewhere

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Tharoor, an MP from Thiruvananthapuram, was very keen to have a team for Kerala to hook young voters. Last year, he and Shailendra Gaikwad tried hard to work out the details. Gaikwad is best-known in cricket circles as a friend of cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar.

Gavaskar introduced Harshad Mehta to Gaikwad, says an NCP leader. Shailendra's distant cousin Satyajit Gaikwad, who became a spokesman of RWS, is a failed politician who lost heavily against BJP's Balkrishna Shukla in Baroda. During the general election, Jyotiraditya Scindia, now a Union minister of state for commerce, had campaigned for Satyajit and pleaded with Congressmen and the media to support him. In Baroda, Satyajit is known for his close relations with Scindia, whose family has big influence in the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association.

The confusion about IPL Kochi's profitability led Harshad Mehta and other financers to Pawar and Narendra Modi. Pawar has gone on record to say that in his meeting with Harshad Mehta and other partners he said, "If you want my advice you should stay in Kochi."

IPL's rules are such that they will have to stick with Kochi.

The Gujarati investors had promised to put on the table Rs 1,530 crore in the coming years, and so it's believable when Pawar says that they came to him to discuss if the Kochi team can be taken to a bigger and richer state like Gujarat.

One is not sure if they did so under some other pressure or not. There was no political issue in these negotiations. It was all business that was under scrutiny of profit-seeking eyes. Bangalore, Chennai or Mumbai stadiums were not available since they have their own teams. Tharoor was adamant that IPL Kochi should not go to other places. Indore and Ahmedabad were next best options considered.

When this tussle was on Praful Patel organised a meeting between Tharoor and Pawar on April 8, which helped Tharoor to sort out his problems with Lalit Modi regarding the IPL Kochi bid. Tharoor was upset that Sahara, which won the Pune bid, was issued a letter from Modi's office to start business but not IPL Kochi. On the same day, Tharoor had sent an sms profusely thanking 'gentleman' Patel.

Image: Sashi Tharoor with Amit Mathur of GMR Sports
Photographs: IPL/Getty Images
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Personal ego clash over non-cricket matters?

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On April 9, Modi gave them the registration letter so that IPL Kochi could go ahead and start formation of the team. The issue of IPL Kochi was settled, so it's a big surprise that Modi again opened a front against Tharoor on April 11 by naming the share-holders of IPL-Kochi including Pushkar.

Congress sources believe that it must have to do with some personal ego clash over non-cricket matters. Tharoor and Modi were friends and seen together, but the nature of friendship changed after IPL Kochi won the bid.

Another question is why did the Congress act so swiftly to show Tharoor the door?

There is no evidence of exchange of money to implicate Tharoor. But, according to Congress sources, three things went against him.

There are many SMS' (not yet out) exchanged with Lalit Modi and many others that can create the 'perception' that Tharoor's interest was deeper than he claims. There was also the worry that if Tharoor is not asked to resign, the issue will dominate proceedings in Parliament. The fact that Parliament was in session created pressure. The dossier prepared by sleuths of the Research and Analysis Wing and the Intelligence Bureau on Sunanda and others was also an influencing factor. The liberal terms offered by RSW to Pushkar proved to be a political embarrassment. Some Congressman believe that if Tharoor had not identified at all with IPL-Kochi he would have still been a minister. 

After IPL Kochi won the bid, Tharoor told the media repeatedly that, "On the question of my interests in the franchise, I am proud to have helped the consortium come to Kerala. I have neither invested nor received a rupee for my mentorship of the team. Whatever my personal relationships with any of the consortium members, I do not intend to benefit in any way financially from my association with the team now or at a later stage."

Tharoor identified himself so well with the team that in a crisis he or the party could not disassociate from it. Also, his statement was tricky, because if read with real life context, if and when he marries Sunanda, he will also profit from her RWS equity.

On April 12, The Times of India reported that Tharoor is set to marry Sunanda, a Kashmiri. Taken with Modi's tweet on April 11 about Pushkar's sweat equity, Tharoor became an unwanted man. There were also detractors among many old Congressmen of Kerala who worked against him.

Image: Sashi Tharoor and Lalit Modi
Photographs: IPL/Getty Images
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Tharoor's attempt to brand himself with Kochi was disastrous

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The powerful mediator, who helped Tharoor, told, "Much before the bidding we knew that Tharoor, Gavaskar and Shailendra Gaikwad are interested in bidding for an IPL team."

It was Tharoor's attempt to brand himself with IPL-Kochi that was disastrous.

A beautiful lady with a mysterious past, a handsome minister with a tremendous future, their proposed marriage, her sweat equity 'undilutable in perpetuity' -- all these made such a splash that the Congress party termed him a liability.

Importantly, the Congress culture is such that you need friends or lobbyists to plead your case before the party high command. Tharoor seemed to have none and everyone knows that the party does not protect its own in crisis unless they belong to the Gandhi family.

The Congress culture believes in ruthless surgical operation in such cases. Congressmen, if found guilty in public perception, stand no chance. Former external affairs minister Natwar Singh was more powerful and much well-connected than Tharoor is in New Delhi. If he was dumped in no time then Tharoor stood no chance, obviously.

It seems that he has been asked to lie low and concentrate on Kerala. Eventually, Tharoor will bounce back, because all these investigations and talks of cleaning the IPL sleaze will not bring any desired results. Things will be back to normal after tax authorities slip into their usual bureaucracy. Till that happens cricket's muck will dominate the headlines.

Image: Shashi Tharoor
Photographs: Reuters
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