The MP, his friend, the chairman and a little birdy

April 20th, 201010:06 pm @

Shahsi Tharoor at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Not somewhere your average Indian politician would even know about.

Dramatis personæ

Shashi Tharoor – Member of Parliament. Posh.
Sunanda Pushkar – Dubai-based businesswoman. Friend of Tharoor.
Lalit Modi – Chairman of the Indian Premier League. Rich.
Twitter – Microblogging social networking thingy.

It all started with a tweet – a tweet that has cost an Indian minister his post, his friend her stake in a potentially lucrative sports team and possibly the head of the definitely lucrative Indian Premier League.

By any metric, the Indian Premier League is a success. Combining the glitz, cheesiness and drama of Bollywood with a fast-paced very short form of cricket, it has been raking in the cash since its inception three years ago. Even Americans are thinking of taking a look, the first time they’ve thought about cricket since the American Revolution.

All that cash has been attracting bidders who want to set up their own teams and grab a slice of the pie. One of those is UK-based Rendezvous Sports World, who had among their stakeholders Sunanda Pushkar, a close friend – some say girlfriend – of India’s (until recently) junior foreign minister, Shahsi Tharoor.

According to Tharoor, the would-be cricket team owners were scouting around for where to set up their team. They asked Pushkar, who asked Tharoor, who suggested Kochi, in his home state of Kerala, as a fine base for operations. For her troubles Pushkar was paid a decent sum of cash.

The consortium’s successful bid for an IPL franchise based in Kochi was news to the man who set up the competition in the first place, Lalit Modi. Sitting at an IPL match, Modi tweeted the identities of the consortium members, starting a shit-fight that is still ongoing.

The involvement of Pushkar pointed directly to Tharoor, who denies any illicit involvement in the affair. That doesn’t mater in India, where a conflagration of indignant howls from the media and politicians forced his hand and he resigned his ministry this week.

Pushkar, meanwhile, says she’s dropped her involvement in the consortium and will return the cash she was paid.

While Modi – reportedly miffed that the Kochi consortium won the licence and not a group he preferred – probably thought he’d got one over the uppity bidders, it was to be a pyrrhic victory.

The Board for Control of Cricket in India is investigating his revelation of what it says may have been privileged information and is likely to sack him as chairman of the IPL. While Tharoor has his enemies in politics and the media (whom he often lambasts), Modi has his own demons to deal with in the BCCI.

What has India lost in all this? Tharoor, for a start, although hopefully he’ll rise from the ashes of this in the not-too-distant future.

Educated, eloquent and urbane, the 54-year-old is the very antithesis of the average Indian politician, many of whom are more familiar with the insides of a police station or prison cell than a library or university.

Tharoor’s problem wasn’t really his loose tweeting, in which he often criticised or mocked government policies, it was his outsider status. For all intents and purposes he was a Non-Resident Indian, swooping in from abroad to be elected in his home state and then fast-tracked into a ministry. Mind you, being an outsider in Indian politics is not difficult. If you don’t come from a dynastic clan, spend time doing porridge or make some problems disappear for a family member, you’re pretty much on your own.

Tharoor, however, is the very essence of modern India: well-educated, outward looking and seeking ways to improve the country, not just his own lot. He’s a breath of well-educated fresh air in a country used to putting up with leaders, rather than being inspired by them.

The affair also looks like claiming Modi, who – like Tharoor – has his own outsider status after shaking the fusty foundations of the BCCI and helping take India from a footnote in cricket administration to the locus of power in the game, in the process launching a sporting competition that has brought in billions of dollars in just three years.

Indian business has its fair share of Modis, its political scene lacks any other Tharoors, and it’s much the poorer for it.

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