EVERY SPRING, for the past three years—for the first three seasons of the Indian Premier League—Lalit Kumar Modi’s life would swing into a pattern of perpetual motion, his days filled with the kind of incessant activity that he promised to deliver to his audiences on the cricket field each evening. In the morning, if he hadn’t already flown out the previous night, Modi would eat breakfast— spartan, like all his meals—on his personal plane, en route to the first of that day’s IPL venues. (“That plane had golden toilet fittings,” recalls a passenger who rode along once, at Modi’s invitation, from Jaipur to New Delhi. “It was like a bloody throne.”) Once at the ground, Modi would begin to intensively micromanage events, striding in his characteristic quick, purposeful gait around the stadium. On his BlackBerry, which seemed to be welded into the palm of his hand, he would deliver clipped instructions. “He’s very fast with SMS,” said Dilip Cherian, a prominent public relations consultant who has worked with Modi and with his family’s businesses in the past. “He has to think as fast as he types.”
Over the course of a game day, Modi would eat little. He would smoke ceaselessly, but he would begin a cigarette, drag on it a couple of times, and then toss it away, as if each cigarette was just another one of the tasks he needed to strike off his To-Do list for the day. As the cricket commenced, Modi would sit, either in his own box or in the box of the home team, and mug for the Modicam, the camera deputed to follow him around in each game. He would chant team slogans and sing team songs, the metal rims of his spectacles glinting in the spotlights, his forehead often speckled with drops of perspiration, the knot of his tie always loosened and askew just so. (“This indicates,” one image consulting website self-seriously concluded in an analysis of Modi’s look, “that he is ‘casual’ with a ‘care-a-damn’ attitude and that he doesn’t bother about what people talk about him.”) But through all these lusty exhibitions of fandom, Modi would be acutely alert to the demands of his positions as IPL commissioner and as vice-president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), his eyes always cocked for something going wrong – for an unwanted guest in an exclusive box, or for a brand not getting quite as much play as it had paid for.
Even during the famed after-parties that followed every match of the 2010 edition of the IPL—and indeed, during any party he threw—Modi visibly waltzed to the strains of his personal agenda. He would drink a glass of wine, two at the most, and he would circulate with rare enthusiasm. “If you’re at one of his parties,” a friend of Modi’s told me, “you don’t have to worry about going up to him to say ‘Hello.’ If he wants to speak to you, he’ll come to you. Otherwise you should just have a good time and go home.”
The party would end well after 3 am, and Modi would stay for its entire duration; then he would either fly out right away or get a few hours’ sleep before leaving early the next morning. Only once in two or three days would he go home—and that briefly, to either Mumbai or New Delhi—to replenish his shirts and Armani suits. (One media wag last year wondered whether Modi, always in fresh suits despite his relentless travel schedule, had an armoire of Armani trailing him around the IPL circuit.) “He had more energy than any of us players,” said a former Chennai Super King. “On game days, many of us had to go to the party till 4 a.m., and then leave on an 8 am flight to our next venue, and that was hectic enough. He did that daily.”
Modi’s energy, in fact, has become a byword; anecdotes are regularly swapped about its mythic proportions. One of the biggest of these big-fish stories was narrated to me by Shamsher Singh, Modi’s friend and a former Rajasthan Royals manager. In 2009, the IPL had to be moved out of India within a matter of weeks because the home ministry, already tasked with security preparations for the upcoming general elections, refused to commit to similar protection for IPL venues and teams. To supervise the process of moving the elaborate, gigantic edifice of the IPL from one continent to another—a fait accompli now, a madman’s project then—Modi flew to South Africa. “For the first four days there,” Singh told me, “he didn’t sleep a single second. I know this for a fact. Not one second.”
This year, by comparison, Modi is almost in hibernation, and the 2011 IPL suddenly resembles a circus robbed of its ringmaster. Already it will follow a glut of cricket on the subcontinent—the World Cup—and some of last year’s extraordinary frills, such as the after-parties, have been axed. “I’m sure the cricket will be fine,” a former Chennai Super King told me, “but I’m not sure if the glamour will be there. The glamour helps, and it was there because of Lalit Modi.” It’s unusual for cricketers to be so wistful about their former bosses. It’s more unusual still for sports fans and the media to speculate about how much a tournament will miss an administrator.
But the IPL, it’s useful to remember, is an unusual tournament—built from nothing, grown to a valuation of $4.13 billion within three years, stunningly profitable, and already a permanent part of the Indian psyche. Its audacity depended entirely upon Modi and his pin-sharp assumptions about the power of money: that star cricketers would play in the IPL if the price was high enough, and that team owners would pay a high enough price for star cricketers; that big corporations and Bollywood stars would buy teams to massage their egos, and that sponsors would monetise anything if big corporations and Bollywood stars were involved; that the BCCI would leave him alone to run the IPL if the profits were substantial enough, and that he could generate substantial enough profits if the BCCI left him alone; and finally, that this tide of money could be disguised as a tide of cricket, guaranteed to wash over an Indian audience that is forever willing to diagnose itself as cricket-mad.
If the IPL’s story is unusual, the story of its mad architect is positively bizarre. With a string of business failures, a personality with all the tenderness of a battering ram, and a host of foes, Modi shouldn’t have been able to build anything nearly as successful as the IPL. Somehow, and very rapidly, he did—and then, just as rapidly, just when he was perched atop the world, he lost it all.
Last April, Modi was suspended by the BCCI as chairman and commissioner of the IPL, accused of corruption, nepotism and bypassing various due processes. The charges hinted at an entirely different sort of audacity, by which Modi handed out contracts to friends, negotiated terms on his own steam, accepted kickbacks on a broadcast deal, sold franchises to members of his family, and knew all about Mauritius-based shell companies holding stakes in teams—all under the very nose of the BCCI and of a media cavalcade that covered little else when the IPL was on. The first show-cause notice from the BCCI to Modi, from N Srinivasan’s office, accuses him in almost hurt tones of executing several contracts without the governing council’s knowledge. A couple of further show-cause notices down the line, Modi replies, in writing, with barely disguised impatience: “If every decision…were to require prior approval of the Governing Council, this would place an intolerable burden on both the Governing Council and persons in executive management.” Of one particular such contract, involving IPL screenings in movie theatres, Modi calculates that any delay in making a decision would have cost the BCCI `100 million; to have earned that money is, for Modi, justification enough for acting solo.
A few weeks after his suspension, before the Enforcement Directorate could cancel his passport, Modi moved to London, where his wife Minal has family, and where he hired lawyers from Carter-Ruck (dubbed “the Mother of all libel firms” by The Guardian) to fight the BCCI’s various charges with defamation notices of his own. He refuses to talk to any journalists—he didn’t respond to repeated interview requests for this article—so it’s difficult to be certain what now occupies his time. Lalit’s father, KK Modi, told me via email that the family firm is “utilising this opportunity to strengthen and expand our businesses in the European countries. We are already doing business in agro chemicals and tobacco over there, and we see lot of potential for further growth.” Modi remains active on Twitter, where he trades japes with Kevin Pietersen and Shane Warne but more often takes pot shots at N Srinivasan—secretary and president-elect of the BCCI, owner of the Chennai Super Kings, and the man Modi suspects is behind a campaign to hound him out of Indian cricket. These cracks are phrased in the form of sarcastic remarks intended to sound clever, but they come off as blends of anger and caution; samples include, “The schedule is also skewed towards stronger teams. They want to change the formula to suit whom? Take a guess,” and, “Me raising these issues will off course get Old guard rallied up and I am sure more Warrants will be issued by there cronies in chennai.” (Modi frequently mixes up “their” and “there.”) He travelled extensively in 2010, including a trip to South Africa for the football World Cup, but he stays away from India, fearful, he insists, of threats to his life. “I met him in London a couple of months ago, in November,” said Cherian, who has helped Modi with his image “once in a while” but who was unable to reveal, at the moment, if Modi is a client. “He’s very relaxed, and still very sure of himself. I’d be surprised if he’s not working on something big right now.”
It is this certainty that Modi will rebound from his self-imposed exile and from his legal entanglements—in short, that he is down but definitely not out—that prompted so many people to ask for anonymity when they spoke about him. Even those who had nothing but complimentary things to say—and there were more than a few of those— asked not to be quoted by name.
After the third or fourth time I heard this, I began to ask, out of exasperation: “Why, though? He isn’t even involved in the IPL anymore. What do you have to worry about?”
To this, I would get polite but vague responses. “Oh, I’m just a player, I shouldn’t be talking about him,” one cricketer said. “I didn’t know him all that well,” replied another person, before plying me with detailed anecdotes from Modi’s life. “You know how this kind of talk can make me unpopular,” said a third, hoping I would be satisfied with the genial grin that accompanied his explanation.
I started to assume that this was all misplaced prudence, a legacy of the days when Modi was still around, and controlled, with the tightest of reins, the traffic of every speck of information about him. It wasn’t until I caught an offhand remark by a former member of the BCCI’s media committee that I understood what the real reason might be. “You have to remember that nobody gave Lalit Modi the power he had. He just assumed it,” said this former BCCI official. “So if he gets back into the cricket administration, he’ll find a way to kick out all these people who he thinks are against him. It doesn’t matter who it is—even N Srinivasan. He’ll find a way to kick them all out.” It’s a curious kind of faith in a man—not in the integrity of his character, but in his ability to work the odds into his favour even after a fall from grace as steep, and arguably as deserved, as this one. Nobody who knows Lalit Modi—least of all Modi himself—seems to truly believe that his divorce from Indian cricket is final.
THE SINGLE BIGGEST TRUTH that the story of Lalit Modi presents to observers is the teetering balance between self-belief and overweening arrogance—the marvels that the first can achieve, and the destruction that the second can cause. Modi possessed both these qualities in surplus amounts, and even among those who know him well, many profess themselves mystified by how he acquired them.
Born in 1963, Modi went to school first in Shimla and then in Nainital; he switched schools because his family, the wealthy Modi clan, perceived a kidnapping threat. One of his roommates in Shimla, Harish Janartha, remembered being told of shopping trips on a helicopter, and he recalled Modi’s full, expensive cricket gear. Even as a child, Modi was, according to his father, “a doer. Any obstacle coming his way, he deals with it and finds a way out on his own. He doesn’t spend much time in creating a structure [before starting to act].” KK Modi also recalled that when, after an undistinguished school life, Lalit decided that he wanted to enrol in universities in the United States, his parents suggested instead that he first complete an undergraduate degree in India. Modi got his way in a swift coup of teenage rebellion: He studied for and wrote the Scholastic Aptitude Test on his own, and he simply skipped the Indian entrance exams he was supposed to write. “He always tried to achieve whatever he wanted,” KK Modi told me, “sometimes with the prior consent of elders and sometimes without.”
Modi attended Pace University in New York for two years, and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, for a year. It’s unclear what courses he enrolled in, because while it seems to be accepted knowledge that he studied sports management, he graduated from neither institution. In 1985, while at Duke, Modi was one of four students who met one Saturday in a motel room to buy half a kilogram of cocaine for $10,000. The seller, in fact, had no cocaine; he did have a shotgun, which he used to coax the students out of their $10,000. The next day, the quartet fell upon a fellow student whom they accused of setting them up for the robbery. In the ensuing indictment, Modi was charged with conspiracy to traffic cocaine, kidnapping and assault, and placed on a five-year probation; the following year, when he pleaded ill health, the Durham County Court accepted that “a return to his home…would facilitate his recovery” and ordered him to perform 200 hours of community service in India.
Modi returned home during precarious times. In 1989, the giant Modi group of industries, founded by Lalit’s grandfather Gujarmal Modi, broke up amidst fractious family quarrels, with the shards distributed among as many as eight people. KK Modi, Lalit’s father and Gujarmal Modi’s eldest son, inherited the tobacco giant Godfrey Phillips, the only splinter company that continued to do well—in stark contrast to, for example, the once-proud Modi Rubber, which slid into terminal decline. In 1991, Lalit Modi sparked another season of tumult by marrying, to his family’s dismay, his mother’s friend Minal Sagrani, nine years older and a freshly divorced mother of one. He subsequently moved to Mumbai, although he continued to draw an allowance from his father. The rift was hardly permanent, Cherian said, “but it made sense for him to maintain a certain distance from the homestead”.
In 1993, Modi established Modi Entertainment Networks (MEN), using what his father calls a “family trust…wherein we have given freedom to each and every member of the family, at the early stages of their lives, to pursue their passion. The trust supports them to achieve their dreams.” MEN entered into a joint-venture agreement to broadcast Disney content in India; the next year, MEN agreed to distribute ESPN across the country as part of a 10-year contract worth $975 million. These were the early days of cable television in India, and ESPN, like other foreign channels, needed local partners to collect revenues from the cable operators scattered across the country. “Even back then, he was seen as something of a go-getter, but also somebody who was unscrupulous, who wouldn’t hesitate to fudge numbers,” said an ESPN executive who interacted with Modi during his MEN days as well as during the IPL. “At the time, we had no knowledge base about the cable industry in India. So when I say he had no scruples, I mean that he would under-report massively. The entire business was very shaky. There was absolutely no trust. He was so secretive about how they worked.”
Unsurprisingly, ESPN did not renew its contract with Modi. MEN also lost a contract with Fashion TV, after Modi fell out with its founder Michel Adam Lisowski; that particular relationship, though, was repaired later. Other early ventures folded as well, although not for want of ambition. “Years before anyone thought of setting up direct-to-home television here, he’d tried to set one up,” the ESPN executive remembered. “He went out and got all kinds of channels like Hallmark and Ten Sports, but it didn’t work out.”
Perhaps Modi’s most interesting failure, in light of later events, was his idea for a franchise-based one-day cricket league, which was born and quickly died in the mid-1990s. The shopworn creation myth of the IPL invariably includes a reference to Modi’s fascination with the US National Basketball Association and with the business model of telecasting sports. “We found that sports was the only genre that people were actually ready to pay for,” Modi told Shekhar Gupta, the editor of TheIndian Express, in a 2008 interview. “Sports…are live and you’re addicted to them.” Even then, his plans included converting cricket into “a festival, entertainment beyond just cricket—that was his learning from the NBA,” said Piyush Pandey, the executive chairman and creative director of Ogilvy & Mather, India and South Asia, who was one of a four-member team Modi assembled to execute his idea. “Lalit had done a lot of homework on the NBA and the English Premier League,” Pandey added, “and he was already working with Disney, so he thought he was in a good position to do it then, with a lot of fanfare.” The tournament didn’t happen, remembered the cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle, who first met Modi during this time, because “the BCCI insisted on picking the teams itself and retaining control.” Modi had wanted to run with the idea himself, although Pandey said, with hindsight, that “independently it wouldn’t have been easy at all, the way the IPL was with the BCCI.”
It is difficult now to imagine Modi running any sort of venture over which he did not have absolute control; in fact, a Columbia Business School case study of the IPL, based on interviews with Modi, points out that when the IPL was finally born, Modi made the stipulation, right away, “that the BCCI would not interfere with the operations of the IPL for the first five years.” During the IPL, Modi’s micromanaging became legendary. “In the corporate world, a micromanager is usually a bad manager, but Modi has to be the exception,” the ESPN executive said. “I’ve seen him handle something like ticketing. In theory, he wasn’t supposed to be involved in something like that. But at the minutest level, he was looking at who was being given a free ticket, what type of ticket was being given.” An official within the team management of the Deccan Chargers gave me another example: “Get your hands on the lanyards—the cords on which ID cards hang—and you’ll see a 100 percent improvement from the first year to the second year to the third year. He’d go to Wimbledon, see a better lanyard, bring it back, and say: ‘We should have this.’”
Modi’s belief that he knew best was backed by a seemingly innate feel for business and marketing. “With business processes, he absolutely knows the nitty-gritty, and it’s not something you learn at MBA school. I’d put it down to things he’s learned at his father’s and grandfather’s knees,” said the ESPN executive. “If he’s talking TV rights, he’s bothered enough to find out how much the channel is selling it for, what they’re making as a per-spot rate, affiliate sales. That level of detailed work I don’t see in anybody who sells rights, let alone cricket administrators.” Recalling the $1.026 billion sale of the IPL’s television rights to a Sony-World Sport Group consortium—a deal crafted almost singlehandedly by Modi—Alam Srinivas, a business journalist who once reported upon the byzantine structures of the united Reliance empire, admitted that he had to read the contract three times before he really understood it. Modi wasn’t the first person to monetise Indian cricket; he was, however, the first to reckon its worth in billions of dollars rather than mere millions.
As his ambitions surged, Modi’s impatience got keener; Cherian remembers him as more laid-back in the mid-1990s, without the “sense of constant urgency there is today”. Modi had always wanted decisions made his way, but he also grew less prepared to explain why his way would work best. At a meeting of team owners in Bangkok in October 2008, Modi took the stage to announce that the IPL would be shot in hi-def video the following season. Immediately, recalled the Deccan Chargers official, ripples of discontent spread across the room; teams grumbled at the extra cost, and at how there were really so few hi-def televisions in India. “Modi got back on stage and said: ‘Listen folks, I didn’t ask you whether we should shoot in hi-def, I’m telling you we’re shooting in hi-def.’ With that, he concluded the meeting.”
Charu Sharma, the CEO of the Royal Challengers Bangalore team during the first IPL, referred to Modi’s “Hollywood” style of making decisions: “It would be: ‘Let’s walk while we talk. Somebody wants to do a set of parties around the IPL. You want to do it? This many million? Okay, do it.’ It looks great in the movies, but not so much in real life.” In emergencies—when a tournament had to be moved to another continent, for instance—Sharma admitted that Modi’s rapid decisions helped. “But what’s one of the allegations against him? That he decided everything without consulting the BCCI. That was the problem.”
On occasion, when the situation demanded it and when he was among peers, Modi could be a charming negotiator. At a February 2009 conclave in Goa, the IPL’s team owners came within a hair’s breadth of forming a union—a body that potentially had the backbone to stand up to Modi. In response, Modi invited the management of all the teams to his villa for discussions. “Then he sat and sweet-talked every single person out of the concept of this union,” said the Deccan Chargers official. “He realised that every team had a different point that upset them, so he addressed them one by one and justified why he did what he did. We listened to his sweet-talking and went back to our rooms.” The discussions may have let the team officials feel that they were part of a collaborative endeavour, but that was merely a temporary illusion. “Modi’s attitude to the teams,” Sharma said, “was always: ‘I’ve given you a good deal. You’re making money. Now shut up and let me run this.’”
To his subordinates, Modi could be chilling in his pursuit and his abuse of power. “If you saw how he spoke to his bodyguards…you don’t treat anybody like that,” said the ESPN executive. Like at least two other people with whom I spoke, the former BCCI media committee member’s earliest memory of Lalit Modi involved Modi berating a hapless target. In 2006, when India and England played a one-day international in Goa, Modi was a BCCI vice president, but his executive powers still extended only to the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA), of which he was president. Before the game, Modi arrived at the Taj Exotica only to discover that he didn’t have a room; when he insisted on moving into the room of the BCCI secretary Niranjan Shah, the hotel staff politely refused. “He started shouting at the top of his voice at the secretary of the Goa Cricket Association, claiming: ‘I’ll talk to (BCCI president) Sharad Pawar and have you sacked,’” the media committee member said. “That’s the audacity of the man. How could a Rajasthan cricket official have a Goa cricket official sacked?”
The word “megalomaniac” is used frequently in conversations about Modi—the ESPN executive added the phrase “personal aggrandisement”. He had visited Modi’s office on the day, in 2009, when the BCCI decided to shift the IPL out of India altogether, instead of postponing it until after the elections. “I was there an hour after Modi had been empowered to look at South Africa or England as options,” he said. “I was in his waiting room, and Modi comes out of his office, actually gloating, saying: ‘That was P Chidambaram on the phone, begging me to keep the IPL in India. I told him nothing doing.’” Modi then proceeded to announce, to an office full of guests and employees: “This will cost the Congress 75 seats.” A note of incredulity creeps into the executive’s voice: “He actually, honestly thought that by creating these issues for the IPL, the Congress would suffer. There was no doubt in his mind. He really believed that what he’d just done would change the government in the world’s biggest democracy.”
Among people who know Modi, the opinion that he is motivated by money for its own sake or power for its own sake is rare. More frequently, I heard armchair psychological views of Modi’s outsize ambitions, all of which can be condensed into the phrase “I’ll show ’em”. In these narratives, Modi aims for particularly spectacular success because he’s always trying to prove something—trying to banish the memories of his early failures as a businessman, trying to show that he doesn’t need his family’s network of support, trying to create a property superior to anything the Modi group ever built. The steepness of his ambitions came with its own degree of risk, but that was further compounded by his abrasive personality. “Lalit will either be a hero or a zero,” a family friend said KK Modi once told him. “He can never be anything in between.”
THE QUESTION of how a fledgling, frequently unsuccessful entrepreneur became the IPL’s titanic commissioner is best answered in Jaipur, home to the RCA and to some of the rawest cricket politics in recent memory. This is where Modi hopped the fence, so to speak, and transformed himself from a media executive—somebody who could only sell the cricket that was handed to him—into an administrator—who could manufacture the sort of cricket he wanted.
The RCA’s home is the Sawai Man Singh stadium, known in Jaipur simply as “SMS”. It’s a large complex of various sporting facilities—dusty kabaddi pitches, woeful tennis courts, running tracks—which orbit the mighty cricket arena, much as their sports orbit cricket in the Indian imagination. The stadium is a rich mine for other symbolism as well: The corner of the complex where the plush Rajasthan Cricket Academy was built in 2006 used to be a hockey field. “Lalit Modi was able to get this land for the academy,” said Taposh Chatterjee, the curator at the RCA, “because he had so much influence in the state.”
The academy is, in Chatterjee’s commentary, an accumulation of superlatives. It has 24 practice pitches, more than any other stadium in India; it has 20 ground staff personnel, similarly a record for Indian stadiums; as many as 10 practice sessions can proceed simultaneously. But even without Chatterjee’s patter, I would have been impressed. The grass on the field was impeccably manicured. A cavernous building, resembling an airport hangar, held five indoor wickets, all bathed in an emerald light that bounced off the artificial turf and the green nets separating one pitch from the next; cameras, suspended from the hangar’s rafters, watched each pitch silently, producing footage that could later be used for video analysis. In the basement of the main academy building, the gym is jammed with Cybex exercise equipment. The 28 single and double rooms are described by Chatterjee as “five-star”, in the way that phrase is loosely bandied about in India. In reality, they—and the lounge on the ground floor—have the characterless comfort of any middle-to-high-end business hotel, but by the standards to which domestic sportsmen are accustomed, that’s still sort of stellar.
I visited the academy two days after Rajasthan won the 2010-11 Ranji Trophy finals, beating Baroda on the basis of a slim first-innings lead after having played remarkable cricket throughout the tournament. In the lounge, a huge banner congratulating the team hung slightly awry on one wall, the only remaining evidence of a party the previous night. The academy and its facilities, Chatterjee said, played a huge role in Rajasthan’s victory, and he wasn’t the only person to think so. “I went to Jaipur to play a game in 2002-03, and the stadium was a mess at the time,” remembered Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan, a young batsman who plays for Tamil Nadu. “Then I played some IPL games in Jaipur, and I was blown away by the facilities. Right now, Jaipur has better facilities than anywhere else in the country. If as a player you’re given the best, then you want to give your best. You want to play well.”
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 `7.5 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 `1.5 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 `125,000 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 `24 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,” Chatterjee 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.”
This adamancy of Modi’s, frequently his forte, proved also to be his undoing in the RCA elections of 2009, conducted after Scindia and the BJP lost power. Soni said that he and Scindia tried to persuade Modi of how dismal his cause was without political support, “but he thought everything could be bought. In his last two years as president, he energetically tried to buy himself votes. He didn’t bargain on, or even understand, party loyalties or personal loyalties.” Modi lost the elections by a margin of 13-18 to Sanjay Dixit, a bureaucrat who was backed by the new Congress-led government that had been voted into power in December 2008. “Lalit is a good student of sports management,” Shamsher Singh told me. Then he hesitated before he added a caveat, because he is still, very evidently, a devoted friend of Modi’s, and reluctant to point to any sort of flaw at all. “But I think he lacked a depth of knowledge of how the cricketing system really works in this country.” Suddenly it sounded as if Singh was talking about Modi’s time in the IPL, instead of at the RCA.
There is, in the parable that is Modi’s life, the temptation to glean some wisdom, heartening or otherwise, about the way India works today. The IPL was often held up as the exemplar of the modern Indian economy—of its immense consumer power, its wealthy corporations, its marketing savvy, and its meteoric success. In that 2006 Tehelka interview, when asked if he was a libertarian, Modi appeared to be unfamiliar with the word, but after it was explained to him, he responded emphatically. “I believe in free markets deciding everything,” he said. “Let people decide. In certain cases you might lose, in certain you might win.”
But the events of last year have proved that Modi wasn’t quite the free-market acolyte he purported to be—just as the modern Indian economy isn’t the level playing field it’s advertising itself to be. The IPL was controlled obsessively by one man. That man, the BCCI alleges, manipulated due process, handed out favours, and ran the IPL for the benefit of a coterie of family and friends—and even those allegations emerged only after Modi had rubbed a critical mass of critical people the wrong way. In all these facts, there are reminders of the ugly face of crony capitalism that the leaked Niira Radia tapes revealed late last year—an ugliness of which we were vaguely aware, but whose sudden, almost indecent exposure shocked us nonetheless.
Given that the IPL is, in the final analysis, a good product and a thriving tournament, Modi also embodies a tragic dilemma that the Indian public faces far too often in its polity. Should the average citizen begin to value the flawed, corrupt public servant who creates something of worth over the flawed, corrupt public servant who creates nothing, simply because the ideal alternative—unflawed, incorruptible, creative—seems to be altogether extinct?
IF THE IPL has not entirely shrugged off the shadow of Lalit Modi, it appears that Lalit Modi has not been able to move on either. Notwithstanding KK Modi’s contention that his son is helping to grow the family business to fresh heights in Europe, Modi—or, to be absolutely precise, his official Twitter stream, his consistent source of public statements—talks about little other than the IPL. When the player auction unfolded over two days earlier this year, and was televised in mind-numbing detail, Modi offered real-time commentary. He noted that all 10 teams looked good, he wished the new Pune franchise luck, he commiserated with Sourav Ganguly fans that Dada—“one of the Best Cricketers and Sportsman”—was not bought, and he analysed how the IPL’s playoff structure would skew the league. When the Chennai Super Kings play the Kolkata Knight Riders on 8 April to inaugurate the fourth season of the IPL, there seems to be little doubt that Modi will be watching avidly. He is the spurned husband of a diva, a man who can’t quite bring himself to look away, who needs her for his own identity and wants ferociously to be reunited.
Since he sequestered himself in London, Modi has only given one interview of any substance, and the story of how that interview came about is a classic illustration of the way he works. Late last year, at least two Indian business journalists—including Alam Srinivas—were close to procuring an exclusive interview with Modi, but the rug was entirely whisked out from under their feet when Modi decided to find his interviewer himself and post the video on YouTube. Modi had once said, Harsha Bhogle remembers, that “YouTube would become the biggest TV channel in the days to come”, which may account for some part of this change of mind. It’s difficult to say how successful his tactic turned out to be. The footage received some play, on various Indian channels, on the day of its release, but very little thereafter; the full interview and its bite-sized iterations on YouTube have only been viewed around 30,000 times, fewer than the average sneezing cat video.
It is more likely, as Srinivas told me, that Modi chose YouTube because he simply wanted to control every aspect of the interview: who asked the questions, what those questions were, how he answered them, how the video was edited, and where the video finally played. Dilip Cherian, Modi’s sometime-image guru, said that he was not involved in the final “nitty-gritty” of the interview and so does not know whether Modi cleared the list of questions in advance—or indeed, whether Modi planted every question that was asked during those 40-odd minutes. In discussing the early planning stages of the interview, though, Cherian said “we” often enough to suggest that he helped at least to formulate a line of strategy, to begin digging the channel of communication that Modi desired.
The interview takes place in the library of an establishment that fairly screams “exclusive London club”, with its bookshelves of dark wood, its muted blue carpet, its soft lighting, and its plush armchairs, their leather dulled by countless encounters with Savile Row suits. (“It was designed to happen in a clubby sort of place,” Cherian said. “We’d discussed that, so that it looks very much like it’s happening in London.”) When Modi made up his mind to choose his own interviewer, he got a raft of suggestions from Cherian’s team. “But to be convincing, Lalit knew he wanted somebody with credibility as well as with a deep knowledge of cricket,” Cherian said. “He had a structure in his head about what he wanted to say. The interviewer only had to fill in the blanks about what questions would be asked.” Modi’s final choice was Mihir Bose, a former sports editor at the BBC and a prolific writer of books on cricket.
The video opens with the sort of portentous statements, printed in white text on black backgrounds, that are familiar from the trailers of Michael Bay movies: “Three years ago the world witnessed a cricket revolution… It was the brainchild of one man… But in April 2010 everything changed.” Bose begins with the obvious question: “Lalit, isn’t it strange you’re in London? You face some very serious charges in India, allegations about your conduct as IPL commissioner... What are you doing here?” Modi, his usual fidgety self but otherwise looking relaxed and fresh, the knot of his salmon-pink tie for once hauled into place, responds: “My security agencies have advised me that it’s not an appropriate time currently to go back until the security situation smoothens out. The Indian police have...told me the threat perception continues to be there.”
It’s the perfect opportunity to ask what exactly these threats are, and why Modi is safer from them in London than ensconced within his posse of bodyguards in India—but Bose shoulders arms and lets the half-volley pass. This sets the tone for the remainder of the interview. However much Bose acts like a tetchy schoolmaster, interrogating Modi while waggling a finger at him, Bose’s queries are harmless, and they allow Modi to make precisely the points he wants: that he was a pioneer but that he has been sorely misunderstood, that the BCCI was always informed of his decisions, and that he is, in a way, the victim of his own success. Modi emphasises his achievements: “I made the BCCI billions of dollars… I changed the way we did business,” he says, and then later, “I did things when nobody had done those kinds of things.” On numerous occasions, he states that he was driven by the ambition to “[show] to the world that it could be done.” Once, in the explication of some answer, he appears to forget his suspension from the BCCI, and he says: “That is why, today, we are the world’s hottest league.”
Towards the end of the video, Bose asks Modi: “And how do you see this ending?”
Modi, whose narrow-eyed gaze has been flicking all over the room thus far, allows himself a couple of sidelong glances as he begins slowly to respond: “It’s going to end by me getting a clean slate.” For once, he doesn’t ramble on with his answer. Instead, in the closest shot of him in the interview, we see his unblinking eyes and faint smirk trained on Mihir Bose in silence, daring him to offer a contradiction, a dismissal, any sort of jolt at all to the massive confidence that Lalit Modi has in the future of Lalit Modi.