Can Lalit Modi's Confidence in Himself Undo His Latest Scandal?

Lalit Modi during the Indian Premier League final in Mumbai, on 25 April 2010. He would be suspended from his position as the league’s commissioner within a matter of days. RITAM BANERJEE-IPL 2010 / IPL VIA GETTY IMAGES
15 June, 2015

Yesterday, the UK-based newspaper, The Sunday Times, reported that Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, facilitated the arrangement of travel documents for the former India Premier League chairman and commissioner, Lalit Modi, through UK minister of parliament, Keith Vaz. Modi’s passport was impounded in 2010 after the Enforcement Directorate found him guilty of appropriating funds during IPL tournaments. In our March 2011 issue, Samanth Subramanian profiled the former IPL chairman and the cricket empire that he built and then lost. In this excerpt from that article, Subramanian finds that Modi, sequestered in London after his ousting, remains supremely confident of clearing his name in the scandal.

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.

An excerpt from "The Confidence Man," published in The Caravan's March 2011 issue. read the story in full here.

Samanth Subramaniam is a contributing editor at The Caravan and the India correspondent for The National. He is the author of This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, and Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast.