There are some uncanny similarities between the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) controversy involving IPL commissioner Lalit Modi and the securities scam associated with stock broker Harshad Mehta in the early 1990s. Common to both are the high-profile personality and flashy lifestyle of the individual at the centre of the storm, the involvement of a huge amount of money and the presence of a Congress party government at the Centre. Of course, the big difference is that Mehta (who died on 31 December 2001) was convicted while Modi so far is only a victim of insinuations.
Coincidentally, the two incidents have another common personality: Manmohan Singh. As finance minister in the 1990s, he had oversight of the regulatory structures governing securities trading and now, as prime minister, he has had his moments of discomfort with one of his ministers, Shashi Tharoor, being sacrificed in the ongoing IPL drama and suggestions emerging that more members of his cabinet may be involved.
Given the nature of the accusations being flung around, especially in Parliament, it is clear that efforts are on to paint the IPL episode as another scam and link it to the government. Already, the Left parties in Kerala have sought to turn this to their advantage with a slogan: Left is for BPL and Congress is for IPL. BPL is short for below the poverty line.
Whether the Congress likes it or not, the IPL episode is beginning to tarnish its pro-aam aadmi image. In politics, where perception is more important than action, association with graft, even indirectly, can be disastrous.
If unchecked, it would most certainly strangle governance at a time when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has not even completed the first year of its second stint in office and has many promises to keep.
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The controversy associated with the purchase of Bofors guns should be a reminder. Although eventually nothing was proved, it continues to come back to haunt the Congress periodically and worse, it has retarded (hopefully not forever) the upgrade/replacement of the country’s ageing defence hardware.
In the first instance, it was the Teflon-like image of Singh that mitigated some of the political damage. So far that image—despite his transition from a technocrat to a politician—has endured and has benefited the Congress, though the Opposition is seeking to dent it; the latest revelations of phone tapping of top political leaders reported by news magazine Outlook on Friday will most definitely strengthen the hands of his critics.
Since Parliament is in session the Opposition has been provided a very visible national platform to politically attack the government. It also doesn’t help that the UPA faces reduced numbers in the House, midway through the Budget session, following its parting of ways with the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal over the Women’s Reservation Bill.
The Opposition is moving a cut motion on Tuesday against the Budget and ahead of the vote on the demands for grants. The IPL controversy and now the phone tap will only embolden the Opposition and more importantly unite it against the government, cutting across ideologies. It is very likely that the cut motion may be turned into a vote of confidence in the government—the first test in Parliament for the UPA after it saw its numbers diminish.
A vulnerable UPA may be forced to agree to a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probe of the IPL. Such a move will help it limit political damage by containing the Opposition and at the same time enable it to distance itself from the scandal.
While this would give it time, the JPC could turn into a bigger problem later because it is very likely that exposes will emerge regularly as the Opposition will be hell bent on embarrassing the government.
The UPA can take heart from recent history. The Mehta scandal was actually the starting point of major reforms in the securities market. That episode had demonstrated how archaic rules, together with graft, were an ideal recipe for disaster. In that sense, it provided a sense of urgency and justification to the government then to push serious reforms.
Arguing similarly, the present level of sophistication of the financial markets owes itself entirely to the structural reforms that took place after the Mehta episode was unearthed.
In the present context, too, the government has been served up with a similar opportunity. Indian cricket in particular, and sport in general, is in crying need of reform. The infamous betting scandals have forever taken away the innocent fun of watching cricket.
The famous “glorious uncertainties” now inevitably attract suspicion whether a game is being thrown or not. This is such a pity because it belittles the efforts of players—most of whom spend as much as 14-15 hours a day preparing for these games and often at the cost of life and career-threatening injuries.
Not surprisingly, the present scandal has peaked just ahead of the final of what has otherwise been a wonderful tournament. It is just not cricket anymore.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com