Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Srinivasan Regime: Lots to worry about

I don’t claim to posses any degree of astuteness when it comes to political issues, but I must say that I am very uncomfortable with the idea of having Narendra Modi as our Prime Minister. Not that it’s happening in a hurry, but many analysts feel the rest of India is being deprived of Modi’s magic touch – something that has made Gujarat so very vibrant and much else.

But why am I talking about Modi in a sports column? Oh well, it’s because I feel much the same way about N Srinivasan taking over as the new BCCI President. I know being the boss of India’s favourite sport is a long way off from being the boss of the nation itself, but I think it’s a fair analogy. The point being that however brilliant Srinivasan might be as an administrator, I can’t believe that someone with a proven track record of twisting and changing the BCCI’s rules and regulations for his own benefits can be trusted to run the game in the country. Especially when the motive for his indiscretions in the past remains unchanged – the Chennai Super Kings.

From all accounts, Srinivasan is a good administrator, a more than competent manager. As a boss at India Cements, he has taken the company places. As a cricket administrator in Tamil Nadu he is known as a strong but silent sort, who gets what he wants and gets done what he wants done. That’s pretty much his reputation as BCCI Secretary and CSK owner as well. Except that documents have emerged that clearly prove that Srinivasan might have used a bit more ‘crook’ than ‘hook’ in getting his way at times. To start with, by changing the BCCI Constitution that prevents officials from having financial stakes in affairs of the BCCI. This was changed to allow Srinivasan to own a team in the IPL. And, interestingly, this was changed after the first edition of the IPL. There are documents that also prove that Srinivasan picked and chose umpires for matches concerning his team CSK. And much more.

Also, don’t forget, he admitted to the Parliamentary Standing Committee recently that Lalit Modi had taken him “for a ride” when it comes to financial matters of the BCCI. Uhhh! If he’s lying, he’s a liar and culpable in the IPL mess. If he is being honest, he isn’t really a good administrator, is he?

And then there is, to my mind, the biggest problem. An intangible problem. The fact that, as BCCI President, Srinivasan can not only attend IPL meetings, but also effect changes that help his and his team’s cause. Will he use the unfair advantage? Maybe not. But history suggests there is the possibility.

But let’s move away from Srinivasan to a couple of other major changes to have hit Indian cricket at the end of the BCCI’s Annual General Meeting in Mumbai over the weekend. One of the first big decisions taken by the new dispensation, led by Srinivasan, is to terminate the Kochi team’s contract. Interestingly, I spoke to two of the co-owners of the team, and while one of them threatened to take the BCCI to court, the other blamed the investors in the team for the eventuality. Satyajit Gaekwad, in fact, said that the BCCI had done the right thing, because, like Srinivasan announced grandly, “the breach cannot be remedied”. So nine teams in the fifth edition of the IPL. Not a bad thing, unless it ends up increasing the number of matches again!

Elsewhere, the big positive. Mohinder Amarnath being instroduced as the ‘joker in the pack’. Once upon a time, two decades ago, when he was being picked and dropped in the Indian team like a yo-yo, Jimmy announced that the selectors were a “bunch of jokers”. Not much has actually changed because earlier this year, just before the World Cup, I had asked him during an interaction whether “anything has changed or do you still think that the selectors are a bunch of jokers”? Jimmy said with a thoughtful expression: “Well, they do get a lot of things wrong a lot of the time”. Oh well!

Now though, he is a selector himself. Someone who will be a paid professional, much like the current crop led by Krishnamachari Srikkanth. Jimmy is known as a straight man, who calls a spade a spade and usually walks the talk. Someone you can trust to do the right thing. But will he be able to, or be allowed to, do that? Remember, though he is senior to Srikkanth, Srikkanth remains the Chairman of the BCCI Selection Committee for the time being, and Amarnath will be his understudy. If no major overhaul is in the offing, Amarnath will work under Srikkanth for at least a year and then take over as Chairman of the Panel for the next three years. That doesn’t sound too positive. In fact, it’s a recipe for disaster, because knowing Jimmy, he is quite capable of walking out in a huff if he sees poor decisions being taken.

But there’s the other speculation that might come true sooner than we think. The Independent Selection Panel. Srikkanth might have a whole year left on his contract, but what if the BCCI finally gives the go-ahead to the long-pending Independent Panel, and dissolves the Zonal Selection Panel which is headed by Srikkanth? Yes, it’s a possibility. And if that happens, Amarnath might be the man to head it. Very probable.

A lot of all this, however, depends on the route adopted by Srinivasan. If he plays with a straight bat as some of us expect him to, and puts Indian cricket above Chennai Super Kings and the IPL, things might move in the right direction. Tricky. And remember, stranger things have NOT happened in the BCCI!

Friday, September 02, 2011

‘No accountability please’

[Written for Sahara Time]

What was Ajay Maken thinking? Did he seriously think that his colleagues would jump at the opportunity to be made accountable and help him push through the National Sports Development Bill? Did he seriously think that some of the most powerful politicians in the country would suddenly slip on the veneer of honesty and help Maken become a hero? How naive! How very naive!

Think about it. Vijay Kumar Malhotra, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, Praful Patel, Jagdish Tytler, Satish Sharma...and many others. They care a damn about sports or sportspersons. Much like Uma Bharti or Mani Shankar Aiyar or MS Gill – recent sports ministers who considered their jobs ‘punishment postings’ and made it clear that they didn’t want to do what they had been asked to do. Come on, who are we fooling? It’s one of the oldest known secrets that politicians choose to become part of sports federations for two reasons and two reasons alone: one, because of the funds that come in, and are not really accounted for; and two, because of the free foreign tours that come as one of the fringe benefits of the job. Period. And Maken actually thought that the politicians would chuck up years of ‘hard work’ and become accountable and transparent? Ridiculous!

I don’t hold any brief for Maken, but it’s obvious that his intentions are noble. But much like the Jan Lokpal Bill propagated by Team Anna, Maken’s method is naive. Ill-informed. Do I know what the right way is? No. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see that this way is ineffective. Because it will never work. Any Bill – Jan Lokpal or Sports Lokpal – needs the nod of Parliament to come into effect. When Parliament itself, or the people who make up Parliament, stand to lose so much, why would they give the nod?

So far, among the people I have spoken to, Vijay Kumar Malhotra has cried hoarse about the ‘age and tenure’ clauses of the proposed Bill that affect him both on the count of age (he’s 80, 10 years past the mark) and tenure (he has been President of the Archery Association of India for close to 40 years). His argument was “What’s my age got to do with anything? Our archers are winning medals in international tournaments. What else do we want?”

Well, how about that old argument? Medals are won despite the administration, not because of it, Mr Malhotra. I tried to suggest that, humbly. The old BJP hand said to me, though not in as many words, to “stuff it”! I suspect I would have received similar answers from the rest of the men named earlier.

And I haven’t even started on the BCCI yet. “We don’t take any funds from the government,” grandly announced Congress MP and BCCI Vice President Rajeev Shukla. “If we (my real employers, the BCCI) don’t take help from the government (my part time job as Minister), then why should the BCCI be answerable to the government?”

How about this, Mr Shukla? One, because the BCCI gets lands at subsidised, often nominal, rates from the government, and this is where stadia as well as academies are built. Two, because none of your international matches or the IPL would take place without the security that is arranged by the government. Three, because of the tax exemptions the government extends towards you, and helps your crores multiply. And four, that stupid old thing about our boys not representing the BCCI but India. Does any of it make sense?

Importantly, the sports fraternity has come out in complete support of Maken, and that might make a difference as we go along. Four-time world champion cueist Michael Ferreira says, “It’s vested interests and nothing else that is making the politicians reject the Bill.” Former India captain Kapil Dev lauds the BCCI for what it has achieved, but adds, “Why should it have a problem coming under the ambit of the Bill if it has nothing to hide?” Former India all-rounder Ajay Jadeja asks, “How can there be different rules for different people?” While former sprinter Ashwini Nachappa says, “A clean-up is necessary and there is no doubt on that front. Politicians should come out and set an example.”

Let me pick up Kapil Dev’s statement and expand a bit. “If the politicians have nothing to hide, why are they worried about coming under the RTI?” Can’t argue. We are not talking about sensitive and confidential matters of the Defence Ministry or the PMO here. We are talking about sports. Simply about money coming into the federations and associations, and being disbursed for the development of sports. That’s the brief for the politicians in question. If they have been doing their job, as Malhotra so eloquently told us, then they should use the Bill to blow their own trumpets.

Truth though is that there isn’t much to boast about. Truth is that, as mentioned earlier, the big money that comes into the federations are frittered away, wasted, or worse. No one cares as long as a few stray cynical journalists sit back and say these things over a drink or two. But once it reaches the public domain, things become problematic. And remember, as Kirti Azad says, “the RTI is not about the government, it’s about being accountable to the public”.

Who wants to be accountable to the public? Not us!