Lalit Modi: The cost of a fugitive

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How a disgraced cricket czar in exile, an indiscreet foreign minister and a royally aloof chief minister have created the first big moral embarrassment for the Narendra Modi Government. The inside story

A Mumbai-based self-avowed entrepreneur, mustachioed, rich and flashy, had been strutting around in the national capital since last December, bragging about some explosive documents he claimed to have in his possession. Neeraj Gunde, the man in question, received media attention after BJP’s Anurag Thakur named him a few months ago as a ‘friend’ of International Cricket Council (ICC) chief N Srinivasan, suggesting that the ‘entrepreneur’ was more of a ‘spy’ who snooped around at the behest of Srinivasan, the former chief of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and managing director of India Cements Ltd. Gunde, who denied allegations of being a hired eye, had incurred the wrath of Thakur, a BCCI secretary, for reportedly circulating photographs of the BJP MP from Hamirpur sharing a cake with suspected bookie Karan Gilhotra.

The ‘incriminating’ documents that Gunde was trying to pitch among media hotshots didn’t have immediate buyers. The material this wannabe whistleblower had with him contained an email trail between India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and British Labour Party politician Keith Vaz in which the senior BJP leader preposterously made requests to secure travel documents for a wanted man, London-based Lalit Modi, the former Commissioner of the Indian Premier League (IPL) who faces a raft of charges and court cases in India, including allegations of foreign exchange violations that led to his passport being revoked. In September 2013, the BCCI’s disciplinary committee had found Modi guilty on eight counts, including financial irregularities, misconduct, indiscipline and other charges. The BCCI had also indicted Modi for reportedly rigging bids during IPL’s 2010 auction of new franchises. According to BCCI documents, it had emailed a list of 22 charges in April 2010. Lalit Modi, who had claimed innocence, fled India some months later claiming that he feared for his life— and he never appeared before the BCCI disciplinary committee or the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which had issued a blue-corner notice on him.

Three intelligence officers Open spoke to say they wouldn’t be surprised that “Gunde or for that matter anyone” would have such documents. “Top guns in cricket had been spying against one another. It is not shocking to know that agencies hired for the purpose can hack into email accounts of rivals and their friends,” says one of them. He refused to comment on reports—from other sources watching the murky goings-on in cricket—that Srinivasan had spent close to Rs 14 crore to spy on other BCCI members through a London agency. “Washing others’ dirty linen is the name of the game in cricket. There could be a lot of spin to each statement that keeps coming out,” he says without elaborating.

Whatever that is, Gunde, according to a person close to the matter, maintains good ties with a ‘disgruntled’ BJP functionary who “is a gadfly and therefore behaves in the most unpredictable of ways”. His association with this BJP leader, who has not been offered any position of power so far, is a surefire way of gaining access to a section of the media that feeds on his resources “for news as well as views”, the intelligence officer points out.

True, the Union Government had got wind of the trouble brewing months before the controversy snowballed into a political crisis, battering its unblemished image so far as a scam-free dispensation. Swaraj tried to put up a brave front, arguing that she did what she did on ‘humanitarian grounds’. But the pressure seems to be mounting, with the opposition Congress calling her bluff. The former ruling party slammed the senior Union minister for keeping her officials— including then Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, in the dark—as she tried to facilitate the travel of Lalit Modi, a friend of the Swarajs, from his refuge in the UK to Portugal to be with his wife as she underwent cancer surgery. Congress leader and former Union minister Anand Sharma claimed that Lalit Modi, who secured documents from UK authorities to go to Portugal to sign consent papers for his wife’s surgery, was holidaying three days after his arrival in the west European country. Modi reached Portugal on 5 August 2014, the Congress leader said. “From 8th onwards, Modi along with [his] wife and another first family member were holidaying at a place called Ibiza, a resort town,” Sharma added, arguing that Swaraj’s ‘humanitarian’ position was a “facade”. Former Finance Minister and senior Congress leader P Chidambaram also lashed out at Swaraj for helping Lalit Modi, who is a fugitive wanted by the Indian system of justice. The Congress leader also denied charges of vendetta alleged by Lalit Modi, and fell back on current Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s statement that show-cause notices had been issued in 15 of the 16 cases against the former IPL czar. When asked why Lalit Modi was not barred from leaving India in 2010, Chidambaram said, “At that time, there was no ban on his travel and that was only a stage of inquiry. Why do you assume he will not return?”

As pressure mounts on Swaraj, Lalit Modi, in an interview to a TV news channel, accused Australia-origin media baron Rupert Murdoch and his team of hacking for access to emails exchanged between Swaraj and Vaz to help Lalit Modi. According to a senior government official, the publication of the email communication in the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times—where the news first appeared— confirms that “the matter is not just of national significance, but has a larger ring to it as it involved widespread corruption in the game of cricket”. The Government, officials recommend, should now issue a red-corner notice and get Lalit Modi back to India to stand trial. “Such a measure alone would expose the dark underbelly of cricket in India, which is known for its unholy links with big money and politics. No government so far has done it, thanks to the big nexus in India between cricket and politics that ensures numerous palace intrigues. Prime Minister Modi can break that habit,” says a former intelligence officer who has closely monitored corruption in cricket. “Though nothing has come out of my investigations, the scenario, I can tell you, is much worse than anyone can imagine,” he insists.

In the exclusive interview given to Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today TV, Lalit Modi also acknowledged help from politicians, especially Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, who is now in the eye of a storm over her alleged links with the former IPL chief. Other politicians he named include NCP boss Sharad Pawar, his colleague Praful Patel and the Congress party’s Rajeev Shukla. There were also other recipients of his ‘hospitality’, as he called it. Raje was among those who stayed at Mumbai’s Four Seasons Hotel in 2010, and her expenses at the luxury hotel were billed to the IPL. The BCCI refused to pay such bills, which mounted to as high as Rs 1.56 crore for the ‘Club’ suite (Room No 9132) of the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai where Lalit Modi operated from. In the interview, Lalit Modi claims that his cancer- stricken wife was taken to Portugal by Raje herself. “My relationship with Raje goes back 30 years. That relationship is known to everybody. She is a close friend of the family and my wife for a long time... She openly agreed to be [a witness], but unfortunately by the time the case went to trial, she was already Chief Minister, so she did not come to become a witness. The statements she gave are all on records in the courts,” he said on TV.

News about Raje emerged following the leak of Swaraj’s request to Vaz, putting the BJP on the defensive. Raje had in August 2011 backed Lalit Modi’s UK immigration application on the condition that her support not be disclosed to the Indian authorities. In fact, the former IPL commissioner, who launched and transformed the cricket league into a highly lucrative venture, had invested in Raje’s son Dushyant’s hospitality business. According to Rajasthan officials, Lalit Modi had been a “constant presence” at the Chief Minister’s Office during Raje’s first term and enjoyed enormous clout in the running of the state administration. However, both fell out a few years ago.

Ironically, Swaraj, whose political clout in the Narendra Modi-led dispensation has been diminishing rapidly—the External Affairs Ministry has been reduced to an annexe of the PMO—has got backing from leaders she has for long tried to denigrate. For a leader who was once considered a contender for the Prime Minister’s post, Swaraj is now embroiled in a controversy that has become a huge embarrassment for the Narendra Modi Government, which has prided itself on being transparent. Clearly, the Lalit Modi connection has brought shame and guilt into the corridors of power: Lalit Modi is very close to Sushma Swaraj, and her spouse Swaraj Kaushal is a lawyer of the high-profile fugitive. In the exclusive nterview on TV, Lalit Modi said, “I did ask [Swaraj] help [enable my travel to Portugal].” He also added that he had to ask only once and she obliged him.

The man who sprung to her support immediately after the new broke was BJP President Amit Shah, who justified her action, saying it was done on ‘humanitarian grounds’. The BJP chief also ridiculed any question of asking Swaraj to resign as External Affairs Minister. “The NDA seems to have learnt a lesson or two from the mistakes of the previous regime where scam-tainted ministers were asked to go. The BJP knows only too well that a resignation would amount to admission of guilt, though the pressure is building up,” says a BJP leader.

Swaraj had vehemently opposed the BJP throwing its weight behind Shah when he faced charges of criminal conspiracy over encounter deaths in Gujarat, following which he had to step down as the state’s home minister and leave it. Accused of ‘fake encounters’ involving Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsi Prajapati among others, Shah had to spend three months in Sabarmati Jail before he secured bail in 2010. Swaraj had argued for Shah to be suspended from the party after the CBI arrested him for his alleged complicity in those ‘fake encounters’—a charge which courts later dismissed as a political frame-up. Shah survived because of the solid backing of Modi and others who maintained that the leader’s arrest was part of a Congress political conspiracy. Swaraj was also averse to the idea of naming him as party president last year. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to make crucial interventions to counter her moves on several occasions.

As regards Modi himself, Swaraj had waged a battle of sorts within the party in 2013 to stop him from being named the BJP campaign spearhead for the last General Election in which the party achieved power on its own at the Centre in a resounding poll win after 10 years of being out of power. Swaraj had aligned forces with BJP patriarch LK Advani and had suggested that the latter be projected as the prime ministerial candidate instead of Narendra Modi. She was at the forefront of backroom manoeuvres at the behest of Advani, who refused to endorse the decision to name Modi for Prime Minister until the RSS put its foot down. Finally, Swaraj too had to fall in line. Her stiff opposition to Modi and later to the party’s choice of Amit Shah as party-in charge of polls in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the General Election had not helped her endear herself to the new power triad of Modi, Shah and Arun Jaitley. Swaraj is now forced to grin and bear it whenever she is overruled on policy matters. Modi had thrown out her suggestion that New Delhi should oppose the idea of a BRICS bank headquartered in Shanghai. He maintained that it was enough that an Indian became its first chief. Again, her choice of Chief Minister of Haryana in the run-up to last year’s state elections was shot down in favour of Manohar Lal Khattar.

Despite her animosity towards Shah, the BJP president has strongly backed her in the ongoing controversy, though the BJP has, it is learnt, decided not to defend Raje till the facts are ascertained. Her strained ties with Jaitley are well- known. He too maintains that Swaraj’s action was ‘bonafide’.

Extraneous factors favour Swaraj, not Raje, say analysts and party workers. When she was engaged unsuccessfully in internecine wrangles within her own party for dominance, Swaraj, for her part, had established a camaraderie of sorts with former socialists such as Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad and Samajwadi Party honcho Mulayam Singh Yadav. Similarly, the likes of Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut, who had batted for Swaraj as the NDA’s PM candidate, came out openly in support of the beleaguered External Affairs Minister. “Congress has no right to ask for her resignation as [Lalit Modi] escaped during the UPA’s term… I don’t want to take names of Congress leaders who were actively involved in IPL gamble,” he said after the controversy broke out.

Says a senior BJP leader: “Thanks to her long ‘crusade’ against Modi ahead of the last elections, Swaraj has won friends from other parties too, who are inimical to Prime Minister Modi. And that is now very clear for everyone to see. Who else except the Left and Congress are demanding her resignation? That is not a bad thing to happen to the NDA.”

Lalit Modi loves to live it up. Photographs on his Instagram account are proof of his exciting social life and extravagant tastes. He enjoys the company of supermodels, holidays in expensive locations and pushes the boat out when it comes to parties. The controversy raging in India, where his family is known for business acumen, did not seem to have bothered him one bit: he offered an exclusive TV interview to Sardesai in the Balkan nation of Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea where he was holidaying, apparently unruffled by the storm gathering strength back home.

Sure, long before he had courted trouble with his alleged misuse of power as a cricket official, his father KK Modi, Chairman of Modi Enterprises—which was founded by Lalit Modi’s grandfather GM Modi—had advised him not to do business in India. He told him to stay put in London and that he would either bankroll any project he had in mind or pay for the upkeep of his home there. The father must have sensed that his son would get into a tight spot in India where the family is well networked and has friends in high places—advantages that an aberrant scion could grossly misuse. After all, the young Lalit had run into trouble even as a student in the US, where he was convicted of drug possession, kidnapping and assault.

Brash, cocky and arrogant, Lalit Modi was irascible as IPL’s Commissioner, snapping at co-workers and arm-twisting rivals. He was also contemptuous of politicians and BCCI officials who didn’t favour him, including Srinivasan—the 49-year-old’s interviews and trigger-happy tweets speak volumes of his disdain for the 70-year-old Srinivasan and several senior politicians.

Lalit Modi’s money presents him with an embarrassment of riches whenever he wants to pick a posh holiday destination. But the price he will have to pay for underestimating his enemies could be bigger.