Column: Conflict of interest, anyone?

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Updated: July 27, 2015 5:16:25 PM

High time the PM asked all BJP politicians to give their LPG cylinder—sorry, BCCI job—back

Conflict of interest is now a household phrase. Mainstream media (MSM) and the Congress party are the flag-bearers of this new-found morality in public life. The Congress criticises, and the MSM (particularly, English TV) hyper-ventilates and endorses. The main theme of this Congress monologue is that the BJP is just as corrupt as they were (they certainly don’t deny that they were very corrupt!). As proof, evidence is provided about the conflict-of-interest ‘relationship’ of two BJP leaders—external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhra Raje—with a former BCCI official, Lalit Modi.

As readers of this column know, politicians of both the major parties, the Congress and the BJP, have had a long-term Cosy-Club (the CC in BCCI) relationship with the BCCI. I have always believed that invoking the BCCI in your morality defence is a stupid, self-defeating strategy. It is bound to back-fire. And the Congress is using this conflict of interest as the prime reason to try to hold up Parliament and prevent discussion of crucial “in the interest of the nation” bills.

A pot should not call a kettle black (What is the politically correct phrase in these challenged times?) and people in glass-houses should not throw stones at others. But no point in telling the Congress that. In 2011, UPA sports minister Ajay Maken decided to introduce a draft National Sports Development Bill. The Bill would have brought the BCCI and all other sports bodies under the Right to Information Act. All of us would support such an effort, no? After all, on what grounds can the BCCI possibly not come under the RTI?

The draft bill was vetoed by the UPA cabinet comprising of four UPA cricket-ministers, who (apparently) did not have any conflict of interest: Sharad Pawar (ICC president), Farooq Abdullah (J&K cricket association president), C P Joshi (chief of the Rajasthan Cricket Association), and Vilasrao Deshmukh (head of Mumbai Cricket Association). It gets worse (could it?) —Kapil Sibal deemed it fit to remain in the cabinet discussions and vehemently opposed the bill. And of course, the UPA allowed him to do so.

No conflict-of-interest resignations were demanded or offered. Interestingly, the only person who thought it fit to talk about the impropriety was the then J&K chief minister, Omar Abdullah, son of Farooq Abdullah, who tweeted, “I believe the Union Ministers heading sports bodies should have excused themselves from the Sports Bill discussion”. Given the UPA regime’s spotless record, it is not surprising that Omar was unceremoniously made to eat his words—the tweet has since been deleted.

The UPA non-conflict-of-interest story continues. In 2013, and within three days of the arrests in the cricket spot-fixing scandal, the UPA courageously announced a strong bill to stop unfair practices in sports, especially in cricket—the Prevention of Sporting Fraud Bill. IPL chairman Rajeev Shukla met the law minister, Kapil Sibal, and asked for the strongest possible law; full support of the BCCI was also assured.

When finalised, the Bill kept both the BCCI and IPL outside its jurisdiction. Subsequently, the draft was consigned to cold (Cosy Club) storage. Clearly, one does not need to further detail the cosiness of this club (whether it is the Congress or the BJP).

As seen above, the relationship of the government and the BCCI has been so close that no conflict of interest was ever believed to have existed if a politician was associated with both institutions, even when the politicians became senior ministers in the government. But times began to change when Narendra Modi, head of the Gujarat Cricket Association (GCA), was elected PM last year. For the first time, an individual did not hold joint positions in a cricket administration body and as a member of the council of ministers. Narendra Modi resigned, as did Arun Jaitley, from the Delhi District Cricket Association (DDCA). Amit Shah replaced Modi as the chief of GCA and a cricket administrator, SP Bansal, replaced Jaitley as head of the DDCA. Incidentally, Bansal was charged with misappropriation of funds in January 2014—the case is still being heard.

But what is the cause for all the ministers clinging onto their plush BCCI or cricket association chairs? The history of the BCCI may provide some clues. Recall, that it was only in 2007 that the government of India cancelled the NGO status of the BCCI. Yes, before that, this huge profit-making enterprise did not pay any tax on its profits. The reason NGOs (around the world) are allowed this tax-benefit is because they are involved in producing a “public good”. And as long as profits are ploughed back into the public good, everybody is happy, or at least should be.

How well did the BCCI perform in terms of serving the public good in its no-tax status days? While it is difficult to obtain balance-sheet data for the BCCI prior to 2007, the balance-sheet data of one of its premier constituents, the DDCA, are available for two years, 1997-98 and 1999-00. In Schedule I to R, it is reported that coaching expenses of the DDCA (the public good item) in 1997-98 were zilch (yes, zero) and in 1998-99 such expenses were R20,727. The total DDCA income for the two years was R 88 lakh and R200 lakh, respectively. So, clearly, not a lot was spent on coaching, and maybe that is why the Delhi teams cannot win anything!

But one line-item in the expenses sheet makes for extraordinary reading. The DDCA is a club, and as such, it serves liquor to its members and their guests. The income from “sale of empty bottles” (presumably, liquor) was R22,372 and R24,406 in the two years. In other words, the DDCA received more income from sale of empty liquor bottles than it spent on coaching!

While on the topic of services being provided by the DDCA, let us also talk about the stadiums which the DDCA is supposed to hold in trust for the players, the sport and the fans. What has the DDCA done for its fans (again, the public good constraint)? Anybody who has been to the Ferozeshah Kotla grounds (the home of cricket in the country’s capital) knows that it possibly is the worst cricket stadium in the world. As a proud Delhiwallah, I am embarrassed and ashamed every time I have visited the cricket grounds under DDCA’s control.

In 2010-2011, the DDCA spent R3.8 crore on renovation and beautification of the toilets at the stadium, which were constructed just three years earlier, in 2007-2008. The MSM did not find this newsworthy. Nor has it found it newsworthy to report that Lalit Modi spent R20 crore in the renovation of the Sawai Mansingh stadium in Jaipur during 2005-2008. The world can see the difference—DDCA spending R150 crore to “renovate” Kotla and what just R20 crore can buy in Jaipur. Oh yes, not only has the DDCA spent money inefficiently, it has also been illegally occupying the stadium ground for the last 12 years (the lease for the group expired way back in 2002)—and has been allowed to do so primarily by the UPA and now the BJP.

We come back to where we started this series on the BCCI a month ago. Cricket and politicians must divorce, for the considerably better health of both. Prime minister Modi can help his, and the BJP’s, image (in these trying MSM times) by finishing the journey he embarked on last year when he asked his ministers to resign from the BCCI. Time for him to ask all BJP politicians to give their LPG cylinder, sorry, BCCI job, back.

The author is contributing editor, The Financial Express, and co-author, with Ankur Choudhary, of Criconomics

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