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

15 June 2015
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.

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.

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.