Why cricket brings out the worst of India’s free markets

The great Indian tamasha.
The great Indian tamasha.
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings
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When the Indian Premier League was introduced in 2008, it was seen as a prized symbol of contemporary India.

The league not just brought together the best players from around the world to play a truncated version of cricket that eschewed the sport’s finest virtues, but it was also an unabashed celebration of corporate India’s clout.

“I am extremely proud that whatever we have seen over the last 44 days is a product of India,” said Sharad Pawar, the then president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), after the final of the IPL’s inaugural edition.

The league, said the former commissioner of the IPL, Lalit Modi, with typically inglorious vanity, “is a global representation of India and what the modern-day India stands for and its successes.” Modi, of course, was later shunted and forced into exile. But during the early years of the IPL, he was often hailed for his capitalist nous. One commentator even described him as “one of the most effective sports administrators in history.”

Pawar and Modi were perhaps correct in that the league was a product of a new India. But what kind of India did the IPL eventually come to represent? Did it showcase India in its finest liberalized light?

Or did it represent, as James Astill described India in his book, The Great Tamasha, a form of oligarchy, where democracy was “stage-managed by a corrupt super-elite.”

In the six years since the inauguration of the IPL, the highs of its tamasha have slowly unravelled to reveal an ever-increasing pit of filth and sleaze.

Barring a few notable exceptions, the Indian corporate cream, the most powerful amongst India’s media and the biggest of Bollywood’s stars have all sought to partake in some portion or the other of the pie that makes the league.

Zenith of post-liberalization

To India’s oligarchic class, the BCCI is an easy target. It wields enormous power, the revenues it generates are bottomless and, most importantly, it is a body that has hitherto been completely unaccountable to the public.

As a result, the enormous political patronage that the BCCI enjoys—from members of both ruling and opposition partieshas seen the IPL become a symbol of modern day India’s tryst with graft, to the extent that the conflicts of interest inherent in the league are becoming more ostensible by the day.

To those whom it benefits, the IPL can also be seen as a victory. But, today, as the Supreme Court of India sits on judgment over the numerous indiscretions of the BCCI, and its former president N. Srinivasan, it has become abundantly clear that the IPL exemplifies, as the historian Ramachandra Guha once wrote, the worst side of Indian capitalism.

When it was established, the IPL was celebrated as the zenith of post-liberalization India. It was to embody the supreme qualities of a free market that a license-shorn Raj supposedly promoted. Anyone with the money—in 2010, for instance, it cost the Sahara group $370 million to purchase the now defunct Pune Warriors team—could invest in what are known as franchises; a term that helped showcase the league as an embodiment of big business.

This corporatization was generally viewed as an inherent advantage. As Samir Chopra wrote in his book, “Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket”: “in the Indian context, ‘corporate’ functions as a synonym for ‘professionalism.’”

But quite opposed to embodying professionalism, the IPL’s model has only served to show that privatization is not quite a panacea for corruption.

Mirroring business

The IPL has been organized in every conceivable aspect within the rules of the capitalist book: teams can be purchased by anyone who enjoys the means, players are bought and sold in an auction, and TV stations bid for the right to broadcast the matches, in a seemingly democratic manner.

The more notable recent instances of corruption have, no doubt, all involved cases of governmental intervention (for example, the 2G spectrum and the coal mining scams saw pervasive state involvement), but the failure of the IPL is perhaps proof that a laissez faire attitude to regulation can be equally, if not more, dangerous.

While the on-field skirmishes in the early phases of the IPL only worked to the league’s benefit, in promoting TRPs for instance, the present scenario is riddled with frightening mazes of illegalities.

The league has been embroiled in allegations of match and spot fixing, economic fraud, money laundering, insidious related party transactions, and tax evasion.

These illegalities unfortunately seem to mirror how business is done in India.

After all, owners of the various franchises, who comprise some of the biggest entrepreneurs in India and the league’s various sponsors, appear to be at ease with the nature of the IPL’s functioning.

When you add to all this, the political patronage that the BCCI enjoys, what you get is a microcosm of neo-liberal India: a private club of beneficiaries, which uses public goods to enrich itself.

Cricket in India, as the Supreme Court pointed out in the course of its recent hearings, is akin to a religion, where millions are “passionate about the game without having any financial stake in it.”

What the BCCI has effectively done through the IPL, by virtue of the opacity of its operations, is to usurp goods that belong to the public, and to transfer their control to various private enterprises that enjoy the board’s benefaction. For instance, the board often receives land for constructing stadia at throwaway prices.

As a result of all this—through a lethal conglomeration of politicians, businessmen, entertainers and the elite media—the supposedly free market in which the IPL functions has been completely thwarted.

Reining in

The prospect of any legislative intervention in the BCCI’s affairs continues to remain remote. The National Sports (Development) Bill 2011, which would have brought the board within central transparency and accountability laws, has hit a roadblock. Therefore, the Supreme Court’s role in the on-going case assumes even greater significance.

The court had earlier ruled that the board is not an instrumentality of the state, and had, in the process, accorded the BCCI a carte blanche to privatise cricket to the detriment of the larger public. But the present case affords the court a fresh chance to recognize that the BCCI, which performs an overarching public role, has thus far escaped the clutches of even reasonable obligations of transparency.

The court could use this occasion to clarify why the board’s actions are amenable to judicial review and why the nature of the board’s responsibilities—even if it is not an authority of the state—include a general duty to act with an obligatory sense of fairness and integrity.

Perhaps 2015 will be the year when the BCCI is finally ushered into an era of better governance, where the game—and not its multitudinous actors—will be given paramount importance.