Does International Cricket Council President Sharad Pawar, basking in the reflected glitter of the World Cup, lead a charmed life? All through the summer of 2007, he was chased by a wheat import scandal. As the Union Minister for Agriculture, getting a fix on which role actually matters, he was directly accountable for the country’s decision to import grain at exorbitant prices. Calls for his ouster were getting louder. But by September, relief for him came in the shape of a stirring victory of the Indian cricket team at the inaugural T20 World Cup in South Africa. He was the president of India’s cricket board at the time, having just toppled Jagmohan Dalmiya, and was more than pleased to pat himself on the back.
The parallels today are striking. In the Maharashtra Assembly, the opposition has gone blue in the face lately, not cheering the Indian team, but shouting about Pawar’s links with Shahid Usman Balwa, the realtor chargesheeted by the CBI in the 2G spectrum case. But cricket appears to have come to his aid again.
The links are not mere conjecture. Visit Pawar’s stronghold of Baramati, an agri-zone near Pune, and you see why. The roads around here bustle with milk trucks headed for Bhigwan, where KM Goenka and his sons set up Dynamix Industries 30 years ago, one of India’s largest dairy enterprises today. Pawar was a rookie in politics back then, and Goenka was a little-known businessman. The two met and hit it off well, united by an ambition few suspected anyone of in this dowdy part of Maharashtra.
Their friendship has served them both well. Pawar led the state’s dairy cooperative movement, forming a network of farmers to supply milk, and achieving ever higher stature as a politician as he went along, while Dynamix forged a joint venture with Schreiber Foods Inc and became a supplier of dairy inputs to Nestle India (and later Britannia).
Now, some 30 years later, Pawar cannot disassociate himself from the Dynamix group. KM Goenka’s son, Vinod Goenka, happens to be the partner-promoter of DB Realty, the real estate firm that is currently under the CBI’s scanner following the arrest of its managing director Shahid Usman Balwa in the 2G spectrum scam. DB Realty owns Swan Telecom, a beneficiary of 2008’s spectrum allocation that later sold a 45 per cent stake to UAE-based Etisalat at a huge premium, and the company is found to have routed funds to Kalaignar TV, a family business of the DMK leader Karunanidhi, by way of an alleged bribe.
So clear are the links that Pawar’s regular supporters have been looking the other way instead of rushing to his aid, as they usually do. Vinod Goenka, his close associate’s son, has been questioned by the CBI. And Balwa, one of India’s youngest billionaires, is lodged in Tihar jail. Sensing opportunity, even the somnolent BJP of Maharashtra has sprung an attack on Pawar for his Goenka affiliation. Barely a week ago, Leader of the Opposition Eknath Khadse struck hard in the Assembly by waving documents that allegedly prove Pawar’s closeness to Balwa. On 8 February 2010, Khadse said, Pawar and his wife Pratibha had accompanied Balwa to Dubai along with Inderjit Singh Bindra (president of the Punjab Cricket Association), Shashank Manohar (BCCI president) and his wife Varsha, aboard a plane owned by Eon Aviation, a subsidiary of DB Realty. According to Khadse, ICC Chief Executive Harhoon Lorgat and Balwa’s partner Vinod Goenka were also on the same flight. “I have documents from the Air Traffic Control to prove it. Why is the Government not proving Goenka’s links with the underworld? Footage obtained from the wedding of Dawood Ibrahim’s daughter shows Goenka hugging Dawood. If Bharat Shah [a film financier] could be put behind bars for two years for talking to Dawood, then why not probe Goenka?” asks Khadse.
Under normal circumstances, all this would be scurrilous enough to hog nationwide attention. But the din of the euphoria of India’s success in cricket, with which Pawar is only too glad to associate more closely, has drowned out anything Khadse and others may have said.
Just how real Pawar’s passion for cricket is, nobody quite knows. In 1967, when he joined politics, his only connection to the game was his father-in-law, Sada Shinde, a leg spinner with India’s Test squad that toured England in 1946. But Pawar burst onto the Indian cricket scene only in 2001, when he defeated the better-deserving Ajit Wadekar in an election to the Mumbai Cricket Association. Back then, it seemed like a harmless bit of hobbyism. But events on and off the field since then, and how they have worked in the Maratha strongman’s favour, would overturn that view comprehensively.
No other Indian politician accused of corruption so often has survived well enough to retain his clout at the top of India’s political order. Don’t forget, this is one of the two leaders once seen as challengers to Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership in the early 1990s (the other, Arjun Singh, has passed away). After that, he led the anti-Sonia faction of the Congress on the ‘foreign origin’ issue, and has survived that episode too, though as a leader of the breakaway Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
But lately, Pawar has been mumbling about wanting to be relieved of some of his responsibilities. Last year, he told journalists that he had asked the PM exactly that—a lighter burden of charge in the ruling coalition. And now, as Anna Hazare’s agitation for the long-dangling Lokpal Bill gains force, Pawar has indicated a willingness to give up his place among the Group of Ministers looking into the matter. (Tackling corruption, after all, is the point of the Bill.)
Observers, however, suspect some other game at play in all these renunciatory pleas. Even last year, Pawar was roundly criticised for his attempt to distance himself from India’s food availability crisis, especially since he showed no reluctance in taking over the post of ICC President. Today, as yet another scandal threatens to engulf him, it is easy to understand why he sees cricket of vital importance to his future as a powerful politician.
When Open tried to contact Pawar about the latest set of charges against him, he was unavailable for comment. However, on several occasions, he has dismissed any links with Balwa. He once said that Balwa is 36, while he is 70 years old, so it would be ridiculous to suggest that they are friends. In February this year, after Balwa’s arrest, Pawar categorically denied any association yet again. “I have no links with Shahid Balwa,” Pawar told the media. On being asked further questions about Dynamix’s business links with Baramati Agro Ltd, his own family-run business, he brought ageist logic back into play. “Dynamix was formed 26 years ago when Shahid Balwa was a child,” he said, adding for good measure, “A foreign firm holds 51 per cent of its shares, while the rest are held by farmers.”
If Pawar thinks he stands absolved, it may just be a momentary deafness caused by the cricket celebrations. There is an IPL season about to start, too, but sooner or later, the questions will begin to be heard above the din.