It seems the nation is afflicted with a ‘conflict of interest’ disease. A disease that apparently plagues everything from Indian cricket to Indian companies to Indian journalism. A commentator managing a cricket player to a chairman of a conglomerate handing out contracts to family entities to media houses indirectly controlled by business interests are all termed instances of conflict of interest. Is there a standard definition of conflict of interest and does it apply equally across all facets of society? There is a definition of conflict of interest in the Oxford dictionary which defines it as “A situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity." It would then be useful to understand if the conflict of interest allegations in each of these different spheres of life qualify as per this definition.
An official cricket commentator is also the head of an agency that manages players of the Indian cricket team. Is this a conflict of interest? It is beneficial and makes commercial sense for a player management firm to contract a player only if he continues to be selected to the Indian national team. A player can be in the national team only if he scores runs or takes wickets consistently for India at the international level. A commentator extolling the greatness of his contracted player on air has no influence on that player’s abilities to score runs or take wickets. Merely commenting about a player does not enhance that player’s cricketing prowess, which alone can ensure the player’s sustained place in the national team. In a brutally competitive and meritocratic profession such as sports and Indian cricket in particular, a player cannot continue to hold his place despite a dismal performance in front of hundreds of millions of discerning fans. If performance alone matters and no outsider can influence that player’s performance on the ground, then does the commentator or his firm really stand to gain personal benefit from this perceived conflict? The same logic can be extended to mentors and coaches of players who are accused of conflicts of interest but it is very hard to impute a direct personal benefit from their official capacities. The sheer meritocracy of Indian cricket, with every game judged acutely by millions of devout fans, acts as a natural antidote to inordinate personal benefits being reaped due to perceived conflicts of interest. But can the same be said about other professions?
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A chairman of a conglomerate handing out commercial contracts to a family entity is a fairly direct conflict with direct and immediate personal benefit. Or take the case of a chairman of a banking authority or regulator, also serving as a director of a private company. The chairman can potentially influence a bank for favourable treatment of the private company which can then be financially beneficial to both the company and its directors. This is a more direct case of a conflict and ascribed personal benefit. This is not to insinuate or even suggest that every person in such offices of responsibility partakes in such conflicts intentionally. Such potential conflicts are par for the course in the corporate world and no one bats an eyelid. These are remedied through strong procedures and processes such as a ‘Chinese Wall’, oversight committees, dispersed decision-making through empowered groups and so on.
Strong institutions are not those that are entirely free of conflicts of interest but those that acknowledge such conflicts and address them transparently. Casting aspersions on people and personalities unilaterally just because they are in positions of potential conflict is an unending endeavour. If one were to accept the ‘six degrees of separation’ doctrine, then almost everything in this world will be riddled with such conflicts of interest. Every adult subconsciously accepts this inevitability of an interest conflict and deals with it in the realm of her own principles and priorities. In this context, when conflicts of interest are ubiquitous in all walks of life and it is almost impossible to draw a direct link between deriving personal benefits arising out of a conflict of interest in Indian cricket, recent criticism of cricketers is perhaps unfair and unwarranted.
But one can also take the view that sports oozes idealism and should be pristine. After all, there is a reason why we have the word ‘sportsmanship’ but not ‘businessship’ or ‘bankership’. Sports will be held to higher standards than other professions. Sporting heroes are role models for entire societies and generations. Sports is as much about ethics as it is about skill. We expect more from our sports heroes because we do not view them as one of us. They are deservedly placed on a higher pedestal than other mere mortals simply because we judge their success as true success achieved with extraordinary skill and talent that others lack. It is, thus, incumbent upon sportspersons even after they have long given up their profession to continue to hold such high standards in public life. They will be held to higher standards than others, however harsh and unfair it may sound.
This can be a perfectly legitimate view but one that is perhaps held more by the fans and not sportspersons themselves. A sportsman is more likely to think of his sporting life as a profession than as some indulgence in idealism. It is then improper to force our romanticized dreams of sporting heroes on sportspersons and judge them harsher than other career professionals.
The recent brouhaha over perceived conflicts of interest in Indian cricket are just that—a perception. Sure, one can always stretch to make a case for a conflict but at best, a cricketer can be drafted into the national team through a subversion of the process. His success or continuation in the team is almost entirely independent of any outside influence and is supervised by millions of passionate fans. Contrast that with routine situations of conflicts of interest in other walks of life where both the conflicts and benefits are real and direct.
US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis in 1913 said: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant". Transparency is the best remedy for conflict of interest and in that aspect, success in Indian cricket is about as transparent and meritocratic as one can get.
Praveen Chakravarty is founding trustee of India Spend, a senior fellow in a think tank and a former CEO of a bank.