Nusli Wadia’s phone rang. It was the last week of October 2005 and Wadia, who owns Bombay Dyeing and Britannia Industries, was eagerly awaiting the launch of his 31-year-old son Jeh’s new airlines GoAir. It was Lalit Modi on the line, enquiring about the date of the first commercial flight. The airline would take off on November 1, Wadia told Modi.
It was an equally important week for Modi. Then president of the Rajasthan Cricket Association, he was to host his first international cricket match at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur on October 31, one day before the no-frills airlines was to take off. He asked Wadia to charter a flight for about a hundred people — including socialites and movie stars such as Suniel Shetty, Arjun Rampal, Neha Dhupia and Diana Hayden — to Jaipur. It was a win-win situation for the two men. For Wadia, it meant publicity for his venture and for Modi, an opportunity to play the game the way he had always wanted to — cricket as carnival.
The day of the Jaipur match, a game between India and Sri Lanka, a hangar came up next to the stadium. Not far from it popped up a grand Rajasthani-style shamiana — air-conditioned and stocked with beer and catered five-star food and service. Ticket-buyers were lured with a tantalising offer: if you bought four tickets, not only would you get to park your car 100 metres from this celebrity tent, you could take photos and mingle with the stars. Tickets that normally sold for Rs 1,700 went for Rs 10,000 as celebrity hunters and Jaipur’s movers and shakers headed for the shamiana that day.
No other cricket match in India had ever been sold this way. The advertising revenue alone was a staggering Rs 24 crore as Modi utilised every inch of free space in the arena to rake in money. The advertising runners on the boundary ropes were sold for Rs 15 lakh. More importantly, and as a prelude to what was to come, Modi used his networking skills to ensure 60 corporate boxes were picked up for Rs 1.25 lakh per seat.
Eyebrows shot up at the headquarters of the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI). Nearly 10 years after Jagmohan Dalmiya turned down his proposal for a city-based league, Modi had finally arrived. This was a man who had to wait a decade to secure a foothold in cricket and he wasn’t going to let go of this opportunity. That was the start of the Modi era in Indian cricket.
Nearly everything that has now come to be associated with Modi — opulence, chutzpah and gumption — was on display in that Jaipur match. Including his impatience.
Like at most Indian grounds then, maalis (gardeners) were the curators at Sawai Mansingh Stadium. The head maali is said to have told Modi that he had just 10 people and that it would take him at least three months to get the ground ready for an international match. “I will get you 100 workers, you can finish the work in days,” he told the curator. The old man shot back: “Even then the grass will take three months to grow.”
Modi is said to have lost his temper. Nobody remembers if Modi got the grass to grow at his pace, but the stadium hosted its first international match. Tales such as these added to the Modi myth.
“In a meeting, it’s best to keep completely quiet because any suggestion is construed as a personal affront. He would shout if you butted him with your point of view. He would be constantly anxious,” says a close associate. “It is better to send him a mail or tell him quietly when you catch him alone.”
Modi’s ambition also set off a clash of ideologies within the BCCI. Within a few years, unable to fathom his working style, the old guard in the BCCI began to feel uneasy.
However, dazzled by all this razzmatazz, they still let Modi show them the way. In 2005, the BCCI signed up Nike as the official apparel sponsor for the Indian team, a five-year deal worth $45 million, and clinched a fresh sponsorship with Sahara, valued at Rs 313 crore. In 2008, for the first time, the board engaged a PR firm, Adfactors.
The Board had found its Pied Piper. In 2006, for the final ODI in the India-Pakistan series, Modi flew all the BCCI members on a chartered flight to Karachi. He also tapped markets such as Abu Dhabi, Ireland and Scotland for off-shore ODIs involving India.
BCCI members were awestruck by the speed at which he was filling the coffers. When Modi sealed the Nike deal, a senior board member is said to have remarked, “Ek tick maarla shambhar koti aala (One tick [Nike’s logo] and he got 50 lakh).”
The players too were happy. There was money and glamour — those IPL (Indian Premier League) parties are now the stuff of cricketing lore — and also an introduction to a professionally-run cricket league. Munaf Patel talks about how “even non-glamourous bowlers” like him gained. “It’s usually the batsmen who get all the sponsorships. After Modi, we bowlers too got more money too.”
The man now began to aim for bigger stars and politicians. With NCP chief Sharad Pawar by his side, he shoved Dalmiya off the power centre at the BCCI and in photographs with superstar Shah Rukh Khan, he preened.
Dilip Cherian, the image-guru who has worked with Modi, says it were his networking skills and ability to brand himself —and the sport — that made him what he was. “He sweetly bullied his powerful network of friends into buying things. His network in politics, business and among film stars and socialites is quite large. No one would have even bothered to buy an IPL franchise those days if it weren’t for him,” says Cherian.
It was a brand that got brasher by the day.
When the International Cricket Council (ICC) wanted to host the Champions Trophy in just three cities in India in 2006, Modi was adamant that Jaipur should be the fourth venue. Finally, Jaipur hosted five matches, including a semi-final. An unverifiable story from that time said that a couple of ICC officials who had protested against Jaipur as a centre were locked out of the Sawai Mansingh Stadium during a game. Those who know him say he isn’t known to forgive.
Modi soon became the official powerbroker of the BCCI. In 2007, two weeks before the West Indies hosted the World Cup, they, along with Sri Lanka, were arm-twisted into playing an ODI series in India because Modi realised both countries had failed to fulfil their reciprocal count in terms of tours.
On September 13 that year, Modi, then the IPL convenor, officially launched the League along with the Champions League T20. A day later, at Johannesburg, India defeated Pakistan in a bowl-out in a league game of the T20 World Cup. In the final, when India beat Pakistan again for its first T20 World Cup, it also acted as a great promotion for the new format. A delirious Modi ran onto the field, disregarding ICC officials who tried to stop him because he didn’t have the accreditation to enter the arena.
That T20 World Cup in South Africa also brought Modi closer to Shah Rukh Khan. The tournament was used as a platform to promote the Khan-starrer Chak de India!. The movie title became the official promotional cry to rally Indian fans.
The PR machine ran relentlessly. In the 2008 IPL, he milked the Harbhajan-Sreesanth slapgate for more TRPs. He kept the issue alive, converting it into a TV spectacle as he organised a patch-up act between the two. The fans lapped up all the masala.
Modi’s heady days were just around the corner. Piqued that P Chidambaram, the home minister then, had refused to provide security for the 2009 IPL, the second season of the League, because of general elections, Modi took the caravan to South Africa. Modi managed the shift at breakneck speed. A franchise owner remembers a meeting of the IPL in South Africa. There were 50 items on the agenda and the meeting was scheduled to be held over two days. “Every item was put on the table, but instead of two days, the meeting was over in two hours. Modi just said ‘yes’ or ‘no’. There was no need to discuss issues because the stakeholders were ready to let Modi run the IPL.”
Bimal Soni, an established administrator in Rajasthan cricket for 30 years, believes the success of IPL-2 in South Africa was the beginning of Modi’s fall. “He always had money. The success in South Africa, and the fame that followed, got to his head. He now saw himself as an unstoppable force. He came back and made public statements about big ministers. He had begun to alienate lot of people.”
In 2010, he included two clauses, without approval of the board, in the tender draft to favour the Adani and Videocon groups. Sahara and Dainik Jagaran, the groups that lost out in the bids, raised a furore, leading to then BCCI president Shashank Manohar pulling up Modi and scrapping the deal. Besides, he was under pressure for trying to arm-twist the Kochi franchise to pull out of the IPL.
“And what did he do?” asks Soni. “He went and tweeted about the sweat equity of Sunanda Pushkar. That was it. Those two issues got him in the end — trying to push Adani’s case and the Kochi episode.”
The 2010 IPL proved to be his last season. During the semi-final in Mumbai, the cookie crumbled. Naomi Datta, a broadcast journalist who worked with Modi that IPL season, would later write a revealing blog post about that day. She wrote how a crestfallen Modi had held a 15-minute meeting with Vijay Mallya, owner of the Bangalore franchise and one of the few who stood by him those days. As he emerged from that meeting, he made a polite request: he wanted Datta to send out a visual of him looking relaxed in this crisis. That was his ultimate image spin.
Datta said her sound recordist, who just a few weeks ago had been at the receiving end of the Modi temper, alerted the main camera crew and was surprised when Modi thanked him for that gesture. As Modi left, the recordist told Dutta, “Iski hawa to bilkul nikal gayi”.
February 2005: Becomes president of Rajasthan Cricket Association
November 2005: Becomes one of the youngest BCCI vice-presidents.
September 2007: Announces launch of IPL, is its convenor.
March 2009: Loses RCA election after Congress comes to power in state. Takes IPL 2 to South Africa.
April 2010: Modi tweets the ownership structure of the new Kochi franchise. It emerges that Congress leader Shashi Tharoor’s wife Sunanda Pushkar holds a 25% sweat equity in the franchise.
May 2010: BCCI sacks him over alleged financial irregularities. After IPL final, Modi leaves India
October 2010: ED asks MEA to revoke his passport and issue a ‘look-out notice’ against him.
March 2011: Passport is revoked.
September 2013: BCCI panel led by Arun Jaitley holds Modi guilty of charges of bid-rigging.
Inputs by Shivani Naik, Bharat Sundaresan & Nihal Koshie.
The ed blotter
Between 2013 and 2015, the Enforcement Directorate, which began investigating Lalit Modi in 2010, filed 15 show cause notices against Lalit Modi and the BCCI. The 16th ED case against him hasn’t earned him a show-cause notice yet. On the basis of an FIR filed against Modi in Chennai by former BCCI chief N Srinivasan, the ED had registered a case of money laundering against Modi. However, there has been no progress in the case.
Transfer of funds to South Africa for IPL-2:
Rs 1,350 crore; FEMA notice
The ED served 12 show-cause notices on Modi for alleged forex violation to the tune of Rs 1,350 crore during IPL-2 in 2009. ED alleges that despite specific directions from the BCCI working committee to take prior RBI approval, Modi transferred funds to the South African Cricket Association and towards other expenses. Secondly, the BCCI’s share of ticket sales and stadium rights were not remitted back to India within the mandatory one-year period.
World Sports Group contract:
Rs 425 crore; FEMA notice
On March 14, 2009, Modi, then IPL commissioner, cancelled the telecast rights of IPL-2 with Sony’s subsidiary Multi Screen Media (MSM) and, at 3 am the next day, gave the contract for 10 years to World Sports Group (WSG), a little-known Mauritius-based firm. However, WSG failed to give a bank guarantee of Rs 335 crore or find a sub-contractor for telecast within three days, as stipulated by the contract. On March 22, Modi informed the BCCI that both WSG and MSM had arrived at a settlement and MSM would pay a “facilitation fee” of Rs 425 crore to WSG. MSM paid the first tranche of Rs 125 crore to WSG and the BCCI entered into a tripartite agreement with both parties and stood guarantee for the remaining
Rs 325 crore. In its show-cause notice, the ED alleges that in the absence of any formal contract, the BCCI’s pact constituted a forex violation.
Guarantee for IPL players in 2008:
Rs 160 crore; FEMA notice
The ED served a notice to the BCCI and Modi for standing guarantee for foreign players in case of default of their payments by franchises. This too did not have RBI approval, hence a FEMA violation.
Consultancy payment abroad:
Rs 88.5 crore; FEMA notice
A payment of Rs 88.5 crore made for consultants abroad did not have RBI approval. Modi and the BCCI were charged for alleged FEMA violation.