City City Bang Bang, Columns

An alternative moral universe

Looking back on the IPL saga, now that it no longer gets the breathless non-stop coverage it did, and being able to reflect upon what seems to have happened, one is struck by kind of culture it espoused and managed to get away with in full view of the public.

The picture evoked is of a world where anything that one could get away with was to be got away with quickly, hungrily and spectacularly. To belong to the cosy club called IPL, one needed to be rich, glamorous, powerful or at the very least, truly desperate for attention. Once inside, the club followed few rules and fewer conventions. One could apparently rig franchises, take personal cuts, revel in highly visible conflicts of interests, hire each other’s children and give them fancy designations, commandeer aircraft when needed, shower the undeserving with free equity, pick up a few girls at after-match parties, and ask for visas to be denied to inconvenient people. And yet, it all seemed perfectly normal; no one saw anything that was amiss.

This willful blindness calls for some explanation. There was enough evidence of murkiness and certainly more than a few whispers about what really went on both on and off the field. But some inexorable force gave the IPL an immunity very few arenas of our life are able to enjoy. Perhaps the reason why the IPL has become the hotbed for all kinds of infractions is perhaps because it is an island that has extricated itself from all mainlands- physical, economic and moral. The absence of any intervening structures- organizational, governmental and commercial has created a geography unhindered by any discernible maps.

It belongs to the BCCI but is administered independently. It sucks out players from all countries and has created a new power structure that bears little allegiance to existing hierarchies. It continues to hold no fixed slot in the ICC calendar of events, but is very much the centre of the cricketing world given the kind of players it attracts and the amount of money it generates. It is not accountable to the government, the ICC or and certainly not to its parent body, the BCCI which has often seemed more like a juvenile accomplice more than a responsible parent.

Economically too, the IPL manages to evade any meaningful responsibility. To be sure, it has financial accountability to the franchise owners but thanks to the valuations it has generated, it has received a virtual carte blanche from investors. It is noteworthy that whenever valuations have driven commercial interests, be it in this case or in the dot-com era, a new rulebook comes into play. Usual business logic fails, sentiment prevails and causality suffers. There is no longer an explainable link between effort and reward nor do things happen in a time frame that one can comprehend. The absence of causality creates an environment of limitless opportunity and bottomless greed. This is particularly true when the enterprise in question belongs to a new world, one where there are no established benchmarks to follow. Like in the dot com boom of an earlier time, no one really knew what scale and form the IPL could take. Even now it is unclear as to which franchise owner is making how much money. But with valuations skyrocketing, for the moment no one seems to care.

Without question that makes Lalit Modi a real visionary for being able to imagine a future so far removed from the reality that existed then. The flip side of the ability to see a future that nobody else could and one which most other people challenged, is that one begins to have inexhaustible belief in one’s ability to bend it infinitely according to one’s desire. Along with this sense of invincibility comes an impatience with laws, rules and conventions. Given the absence of any regulatory parenting, the normal constraints disappear and what was yesterday’s fantasy becomes today’s easy reality. While there is much to be said about Modi’s vision and drive, his real genius lay in making everyone concerned with the game an accomplice- broadcasters, sponsors, franchise owners, players, commentators, media and the paying public, all surrendered to the seduction of the IPL.

The result was the creation of an amoral island; an intermediate space of indeterminate conventions, where moral boundaries stayed hazy. Greed seemed normal, the usual sense of scale and proportion became rubberized and even time seemed to obey Lalit Modi, as evidenced by his remarkable success in shifting the tournament to South Africa at absurdly short notice. The bright lights burnt out nuance and self-doubt, and being on ceaseless and breathless public display created an illusion of legitimacy.

It is interesting that in the absence of restraint, we saw behavior that was almost primitive in its origins. A hyper-modern format fuelled a pre-modern mindset where one promoted one’s family, fought publicly with one’s team and coach, used influence to deal with girlfriends, boasted of sexual conquests, misused power in fits of despotic whimsy. The fake IPL player who regaled us with accounts of the alleged mayhem that went on behind the scenes gave us a good sense of the nature of this overblown circus of excess.

What is most noteworthy about the Shashi Tharoor saga is that a personal spat like that triggered the unraveling of the IPL empire. The fact that Lalit Modi was unable to foresee the consequences of his almost-petulant chirp on Twitter points to the clouding of reality that accompanied the IPL-induced euphoria. Looking back, it would seem like a colossal over-reaction to what could have been sorted out behind closed doors by making a few accommodations. But like all good morality sagas, in the end there must come a downfall. Only then does it make a really good story.