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POLITICS: Not Quite Cricket – India’s Most Popular Sport on Trial

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Apr 25 2010 (IPS) - Allegations that India’s junior foreign minister Shashi Tharoor had swung outsize ‘sweat equity’ for a female friend in a newly floated professional cricket league franchise may have cost him his job, but it may also expose the multi- million dollar India Premium League (IPL) as a massive money-laundering enterprise.

Tharoor, a former United Nations under-secretary general, denied in a speech delivered in Parliament on Tuesday that he had done anything “improper or unethical,” adding he was resigning so as not to “embarrass” the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

But the heat generated over the issue resulted in parliamentarians from both the treasury and opposition benches demanding that the government thoroughly investigate the IPL and its ability to attract hundreds of millions of dollars from shell companies at auctions of franchises and in advertising and telecast rights.

During the debates in Parliament around Tharoor’s resignation, Laloo Prasad Yadav, leader of the regional Rashtriya Janata Dal party, alleged that the IPL thrived on “the laundering of black money stashed away in Swiss banks.”

Gurudas Dasgupta, a long-standing member of the Communist Party of India, said the IPL exploited a passion for cricket among Indians but had turned the game into organised gambling. He referred to reports of large amounts of money flowing into the IPL from tax havens such as Mauritius and Dubai.

Top members of the ruling Congress party seemed to agree. “The IPL is nothing but glorified gambling with black money,’’ said Vayalar Ravi, a member of Singh’s cabinet and Minister for Overseas Indians.


Such was the clamour for investigations into the workings of the IPL that Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was compelled to make a solemn promise in Parliament that a thorough probe would be launched by the income tax department and that “no one would be spared.”

On Wednesday, income tax officials carried out simultaneous raids on IPL’s offices in several cities across India and those of its franchisees such as the Kolkata Knight Riders owned by the film star Shah Rukh Khan.

Tax officials have been questioning IPL commissioner Lalit Modi, described as the ‘wunderkind’ who brought together high-profile politicians, film stars, world cricketing legends and big money to create what may be the world’s most lucrative professional cricket league.

With such a powerful lineup, will the government carry its investigations into the workings of the IPL to its logical conclusion? “No chance of that happening,” said Vineet Narain, a veteran crusader against the phenomenon of ‘black money’ (cash transactions hidden from the government) that greases the workings of political parties in India.

“As we have seen with other scams of this magnitude, politicians and businessmen can be expected to close ranks and ensure that the income tax investigations reach nowhere,” Narain told IPS. “The IPL, in fact, is the latest and slickest way to launder black money stashed away by politicians and big wigs in tax havens abroad.”

Black money has long been considered the lifeblood of politics in India, where the system requires political parties to keep large numbers of workers on their payrolls but cannot be legally funded to pay their salaries.

Jayprakash Narain – founder of the Hyderabad-based non-government organisation devoted to eradicating corruption in public life – said nothing short of “systemic reform” can break the close links between black money and India’s political parties.

“Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, politicians in India work by mobilising large numbers of people for mammoth rallies that are expensive and that can be paid for only by raising money through dubious means on being elected to power – and this process is perpetuated in a vicious cycle,” Narain told IPS over telephone from Hyderabad.

On Wednesday the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) mounted a massive rally in the national capital to protest against rising prices, which BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani blamed on “rising corruption within the central government leadership.”

According to Narain what is particularly unfortunate about the IPL scam is that it has shown up top politicians chasing after a brand of cricket associated with glamorous Indian film stars, the world’s top cricket heroes and all-night parties while the country grapples with mass poverty.

One name that keeps popping up in the context of both rising food prices and big-time cricket is that of Sharad Pawar, union agricultural minister and the man slated to replace Britain’s David Morgan as the president of International Cricket Council in June this year.

The IPL was created as a unit of the Board of Cricket Control in India while Pawar was chairman from 2005 to 2008.

As leader of the National Congress Party, a key constituent of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, Pawar wields enormous clout in the Manmohan Singh government.

“The arithmetic in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) is such that government cannot afford to antagonise Sharad Pawar and also hope to see through a slew of important legislation in the current budget session of parliament,” Vineet Narain said.

 
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