Maverick Commissioner: The IPL-Lalit Modi SagaBoria Majumdar
Simon & Schuster
240 pages|₹ 699
Lalit Modi at the Newlands Cricket Stadium in Cape Town During IPL 2009 (Photo: AFP)
I AM LEAVING INDIA FOR THE UK AND I FEEL I should let you know before I board. I have answered every allegation listed against me in the show cause notice issued on26 April and have put the blame on you for everything. We both know you can never come clean with what really happened and this is the best option under the circumstances.”
My deep throat says this is a very close paraphrasing of a conversation that took place between Lalit Modi and then BCCI President Shashank Manohar at approximately 5:30 p.m. in the afternoon on 15 May 2010, the day that Lalit left India for London. He hasn’t come back since.
Is it true or is it not? Did Lalit really call the President that evening and did the conversation proceed along the lines mentioned above? Deep throat also says the conversation lasted for an hour or so, quite a feat for someone like Manohar who never preferred long phone conversations.
I did call Shashank Manohar to verify the claim. It was only natural that I would. Not once but many times to ask if he would give me details of the purported conversation. The first thing I wanted to clarify with Manohar was if the conversation did in fact happen. And if it did what was the subject of discussion.
Manohar, each time, agreed that the conversation happened but every time refused to divulge more. “Tum mere se kitna bar bhi puch lo, main aur kuch nahi bataunga,” was his standard line. “Yes, he did call around evening India time and yes we did speak for a long time,” he confirmed.
Was the conversation in any way related to the secrets that deep throat has repeatedly referred to in the course of our many discussions? What was Modi alluding to when he said to Manohar, “I will put the blame on you because you can never come clean on what really happened”? Also, why wasn’t Manohar speaking out when he was unfairly blamed by Modi? What was he hiding and in whose interest? Who was he protecting? Except Modi and Manohar, who else was privy to this mysterious conversation being referred to? Finally, will details of this chat ever come out or will Modi and Manohar continue to remain silent now that they haven’t divulged anything in 11 years since the conversation took place?
The other thing I am curious about is why did Modi decide to call Manohar if he was in fact putting the blame on the BCCI President? If he was at the airport and was waiting to leave the country why is it that he felt the need to inform the Board President of what he was doing when Shashank Manohar was one of the prime movers behind his suspension? Was it a sense of guilt that prompted him to do so? Was it a call of conscience that he needed to come clean to himself before he left Indian shores? Was he calling to say goodbye to someone who had been a confidant and friend in the past? Or was it that he wanted to confess that he had no other option left and hence had to pin the blame on Manohar? Cornered and punched and forced to leave India under pressure, Modi may have made the call to assuage guilt and salvage what was remaining of their years together in the BCCI.
Interestingly, this may well have been the last time the two of them, Manohar and Modi, have spoken on the phone.
That everyone wanted an interview pleased him no end. That he could say no to most and yet be the newsmaker was even more satisfying. He may have lost weight but he did not seem the least bit scared or uneasy
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I have interviewed Modi multiple times and have asked him some of these questions in the course of the conversations. To his credit, he did tell me his side of the story and tried to substantiate each claim with corresponding proof in one of these interviews conducted in London in 2015, at a time when the country just couldn’t have enough of him. This interview was different. It was in May 2015, the height of “Lalitgate” and Lalit Modi—fallen sports czar exiled in London, fugitive to many and persona non-grata for the IPL, which he once lorded over—was driving the Indian media industry 24×7 and enjoying the action. Every tweet of his was lapped up by the Indian news media and every statement monitored, reported and distorted. Here was a banished baron soaking in and sucking up every bit of the media energy from London. Like most other Indian journalists, I, too, had asked Modi for an interview. We were on WhatsApp planning this conversation for months and my only condition to him was it had to be a tell-all. He was clear it had to be on cricket and cricket only and I was perfectly agreeable to this precondition.
A disclosure of what really happened when he was handed out a suspension by the BCCI on 25 April 2010? How could world cricket’s most powerful man get pushed out of his own kingdom, treated with disdain and disrespect? How could he be forced to leave the country and labelled a “fugitive”? Had the IPL, masterminded by him, consumed him in the end? Or is it the end after all? Did the IPL close in on him and force him to make mistakes? When did the noose tighten and did Lalit not realise what was happening around him? Most importantly, could he ever make a comeback to run the world’s most-watched cricket league? Did he even want to? He had promised me a tell-all, show me papers and not hide anything. That’s as Lalit Modi as he could ever be.
As I started out from my brother-in-law’s apartment in West Hampstead on the day of the interview to the Bulgari Hotel next to Harrods, Modi’s base for the evening, I was busy rehearsing the questions in my mind. I was in no hurry and wanted answers to most of them. The puzzle had to be solved and the story pieced together. When I was about halfway, Modi called. “When are you coming?” he asked. It seemed he was in a good mood and I was in luck—or so I thought. The next statement was characteristic of Modi. “Come, and let’s have some great Lebanese food together. I will show you everything, but no interview.” With Lalit, it was safe to assume that anything was possible. He could change his mind in minutes, rather seconds, and it was useless to try and persuade him on the phone. And here he was telling me no interview after months of persuasion and finally agreeing to it all. So what if I had mentioned to my station back home that I would get him on camera? Why should it matter to him if I was left embarrassed? Or maybe it did. With him you never really know. The best course of action was to just go and not turn back midway. Meet him at least. Get to see the papers. Speak to him and understand his side of the story. And then try one final time to convince him to speak on camera. As I said, with Lalit everything was possible.
Modi could change his mind in minutes, rather seconds. And here he was telling me no interview after months of persuasion and finally agreeing to it all. Why should it matter to him if I was left embarrassed? Or maybe it did
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When I reached the hotel in thirty minutes’ time, each minute agonising and painfully slow in passing by, I was surprised to see Modi sitting at one end of the lobby with multiple lawyers sitting around him, Swadesh Hora being one of them. I had known Hora from his responses on behalf of Lalit in the course of the BCCI disciplinary committee proceedings and it was good that he was around. He was certainly one who knew the inside lane and could help clarify my doubts. Papers were neatly arranged on the table and there were people busy taking notes on multiple laptops. Modi had set up a mini office in the hotel lobby itself. Wearing his trademark suit with a fluorescent scarf sticking out from the pocket, he looked to have lost weight since I had last seen him. When I entered, he did not even bother to look at me—very Modi-like thing to do again. I knew it could be awkward with him. Mostly was. Finally, when I made a rumbling noise, did he look up. “Boriaaaaa,” he said. It was good that I was able to rouse some interest. He seemed pleased to see me. Or so I thought to placate myself. Having asked me to sit, he had once again gone back to his Blackberry. That was the gadget most in currency at the time and Lalit was busy typing tweets, 140-character messages that on a daily basis, rather hourly, were running India’s media industry. These were his words, not mine. He seemed to love the fact that he was controlling the media narrative from London.
THAT EVERYONE WANTED AN interview pleased him no end. That he could say no to most and yet be the newsmaker was even more satisfying. He may have lost weight but he did not seem the least bit scared or uneasy. Certainly not edgy as some, who had met him earlier, had mentioned. He was every bit the Lalit Modi you’d expect him to be—confident and indifferent at the same time with an attention span of no more than a few seconds. “No interview, Boria,” he repeated again. “My lawyers have asked me not to speak on camera,” he said with a chuckle. It was as if he was mocking me. Enjoying my unease. He knew it would cause me much embarrassment and that I was powerless and couldn’t really push him to speak on camera. Deep down I was angry. Why agree in the first place and push me to make preparations? Why call and promise me a tell-all conversation? Did he not value other peoples’ time and wasn’t this utterly disrespectful? Should I say this to him and would it help? The answer was NO and it was best to digest the humiliation and try and get things moving if that was in any way possible. Maybe his lawyers did stop him from speaking but the way he said it was clear he did not take the warning seriously. It was his call (like it always was!). For some reason unknown to the rest, he wasn’t in the mood to do an interview. Or maybe he was and was just enjoying my discomfort. I had just reached the hotel and it was too early to press the panic button. He immediately ordered a Lebanese platter and went about explaining to me how good the food was. The honest truth, though, was I wasn’t remotely interested in the topic. Lebanese cuisine, my favourite, was sounding unattractive with Lalit forcing me to choose the shish taouk over the interview! What did interest me, however, was what he was doing.
“Yes, I will show you all the papers,” he said and zipped open a notepad. “Do you know how I got the bidders in early 2008? No one was willing to come forward. Why should they? No one, including me, really knew how the IPL would turn out. Whether it will fly or bomb? Was India ready for it? I personally had to convince each and every one of them,” he continued while taking out a small jar full of green chillies. This, I said to myself, must be the famous Lalit Modi bottle of green chillies that some people I had spoken to had mentioned. Lalit, I had been told, always carried with him this bottle of chillies. Even when on a flight he had to take out his green chillies each time he was served food! This was a habit and I was just seeing it play out in front of my eyes. I couldn’t conceal a smile and Lalit seemed to have noticed it from the corner of his eye. In Bengal, we love our chillies and fromchildhood I had seen my grandmother and mother make delicious chilli pickle to go with the food. Muri, telebhaja (fried pakodas) and knachalanka (green chillies) is a Bengali staple and I was about to tell him some of these stories to divert attention from the growing awkwardness. However, even before I could start he was back to his notepad scribbling while explaining to me the numbers game associated with the IPL.
Whatever he had written made no sense to me. Perhaps, they made complete sense to him, but I couldn’t find any meaning in the exercise. Very Modi again. This is how he used to do deals when he was the IPL boss. Within seconds, contracts were done. If he thought the numbers were right, you had a deal. No sounding out the governing council or the BCCI working committee. This was one of the most important allegations against him in the BCCI show cause notice. The BCCI, many alleged, was there to rubber-stamp his actions. He was the boss. To his credit, he did create the league. It was he who got the bidders and convinced them to put in money. It was he who got the movers and shakers of the country to back the concept. It was he who made a success story of it from nothing. It was he who got his relatives to pick up stake as a show of intent. It was make or break for Lalit Modi and make he did. Even Shashank Manohar, the man who suspended Modi in April 2010 for unethical conduct, agrees Lalit had done all the hard work.
To Modi’s credit, he did create the league. It was he who got the bidders and convinced them to put in money. Even Shashank Manohar, the man who suspended Modi for unethical conduct, agrees Lalit had done all the hard work
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“You have to agree Lalit worked day and night to make it work. He had spoken to people and got them on board. Very few people were willing to come forward at the time because no one really knew what was in store,” Manohar said. “We in the BCCI never expected the IPL to become what it has, and credit must be given where it is due,” noted the former ICC chairman. IPL was Modi’s baby through and through. But what happened in the subsequent run of events that he lost it all? What necessitated him to be unceremoniously pushed out of the BCCI overnight? What caused him to be hounded and questioned, be pulled up for corruption and suspended for life? Just as he was about to get back to his Blackberry, did I ask him the question. “Are you scared?” Honestly, it was something I asked rather instinctively. Any person hounded by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the political bigwigs in Delhi ought to be. It was normal, at least for people like us. I hadn’t least bit anticipated the reaction the rather innocuous question could evoke. Lalit, all charged up, looked at me straight in the eye. The smile hadn’t left his lips when he said, “Scared? For what?” Thereafter, he asked me to follow him through the lobby straight out onto High Street Kensington. I did, as asked. As we were on the road, he said to me rather mockingly, “If I put my hand up here, armed security will surround us in no time. Trained for armed combat… my personal security. I am not scared. People in India ought to be. I have done nothing wrong,” he thundered.
“So why don’t you say this on camera and tell me why did the BCCI go after you in the first place,” I said in a manner of making conversation.
“Do you have a camera? Tell them to set up in the park across,” he ordered and just walked back to the hotel lobby leaving me stranded.
Again, very Modi.
My plan was simple. Do the interview and ask him all the questions I had in mind. Allow him to give his side of the story. We needed him on record to make meaning of what he felt and once the interview was done, I wanted to sit him down and understand from the papers he was keen on showing me why he was saying what he was. What made him so confident when the BCCI and the law enforcement agencies back home were all against him? If the interview was the first act, a deep dive into all the papers would help me decode the mind of Lalit Modi.
As he had walked back to the hotel lobby, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself— Had he really changed his mind and was he really going to do the interview? I still wasn’t sure and wanted to check with him one more time before I asked my colleagues to set up.
Why wasn’t Manohar speaking out when he was unfairly blamed by Modi? Except Modi and Manohar, who else was privy to the mysterious conversation? Will details of this chat ever come out?
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As I had made it back to the lobby, one of his lawyers walked up to me and said, “Ask whatever you want on cricket. He will answer. In fact, I would say ask him all the tough questions for it is important for people to know his side of the story,” he said leaving me to get things set up before he changed his mind again. It was time to set up. Once we were ready and I went in to call Modi, he had changed his appearance. He had buttoned-up his shirt and combed his hair.
Just as we stepped out to walk across the park, did a few Indians walk up to him and shake his hand. They congratulated him for what he had done for Indian cricket and asked him to keep fighting and not give up. He loved it. Here he was exiled in London but every bit the celebrity he was in India. Or so he thought. In his world all was right and he was still the czar. Exiled yes but Commissioner nonetheless. “People keep walking up to me,” he said. “They know I am innocent. They know I have given Indian cricket the biggest success story of all time. You can never take that away from me,” he mumbled as we walked to where we had set up.
(This is an edited excerpt from Maverick Commissioner: The IPL-Lalit Modi Saga by Boria Majumdar)