Too Clever by Half

Starstruck Lalit Modi, seen here with Bollywood actor Preity Zinta, had a knack to be in the news. Photo: AFP
Starstruck Lalit Modi, seen here with Bollywood actor Preity Zinta, had a knack to be in the news. Photo: AFP

Overconfidence & arrogance
Time and again, whether in business matters or on cricketing issues, LaMo’s bloated ego and I-can-do-no-wrong attitude has scorched him. In the 1990s, he signed a distribution deal with ESPN and cajoled it to sign cricket telecast rights with respective nations’ boards. ESPN immediately bought the rights in India, Australia, England, West Indies, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. STAR, which was ESPN’s competitor woke up late and could only manage South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In several interviews, LaMo boasted how he and ESPN beat STAR, owned by media magnate, Rupert Murdoch. Several critics, including the then and current BCCI president, Jagmohan Dalmiya, said that ESPN had overpaid for the rights. However, LaMo and ESPN managed to monetise the rights. STAR then aggressively entered the race, which hiked the values of the rights. To curb competition, LaMo and his father met Murdoch to discuss a potential buyout of ESPN by STAR.

The deal went through, but LaMo lost out because of his bloated ego. He didn’t realise that STAR had a distribution network in India and, therefore, the combined STAR-ESPN didn’t need another distributor. ESPN cancelled the deal with LaMo, who didn’t insist on a protection clause. Similarly, when LaMo entered the online lottery business, he didn’t understand that the various states could insist on sales tax on gross revenues, rather than net income. It made the business model unviable.

LaMo’s biggest business debacle was when, as a distributor for Ten Sports, he battled with the public broadcaster, Doordarshan (DD). In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that “airwaves (broadcast signals) are public property and hence are owned or controlled by the Government.” It added that since cricket matches involved “national interest”, no private company could monopolise the telecast rights. The issue cropped up again when India visited Pakistan for a one-day series.

Ten Sports held the rights to telecast the matches, whose viewership was bound to run into hundreds of millions. LaMo was in a position to rake in huge profits as the India distributor of the paid channel. However, DD used the 1995 judgement to claim that the India-Pakistan series was in “national interest” and, therefore, it should be allowed to telecast the games simultaneously. The Supreme Court agreed; at that time, LaMo estimated his potential loss at 200 crore.

Nothing shows LaMo’s arrogance more than his role in #LalitGate. After the names of Swaraj and Raje were dragged into it, he went crazy. In a bid to save the BJP and his friends, he named several others, including Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, Kapil Sibal, the former telecom minister, Jaitley, who he believed was the backroom mastermind, and P Chidambaram, former finance minister. He leaked documents to prove that he was close to politicians from all political parties.

Sources say that LaMo’s objective was to stall any moves to extradite him from the UK, where he ran away in 2010 after he was sacked by the BCCI and ED began investigations against him. By disclosing sensitive information, he sent a crucial message to the powers-that-be — if you dare to arrest or extradite me, I will expose everyone, possibly including Narendra Modi, Prime Minister, and Amit Shah, BJP president. Unfortunately, the dice rolled against him.

After all the startling revelations and tweets, the government has no option but to aggressively go after LaMo. To prove its seriousness to pursue the 16 cases against him to their logical ends, it has to pressurise the UK regime.

Already, an ED delegation has flown to Singapore to investigate a money laundering case against LaMo, which involves a payment of $80 million as facilitation fees when, as mentioned above, the IPL telecast rights were renegotiated in 2009.

So, is it endgame for LaMo? Yes and no. To shut his mouth, the government is likely to twist his arms, and collect enough evidence to bolster the cases against LaMo.

Simultaneously, the regime is likely to take it easy as it may take several years to get a court indictment, or even an extradition. However, no one knows what LaMo will do. Already, he has changed his strategy.

Instead of defending his friends, Swaraj and Raje, he has targeted UPA politicians and trained his guns on two arch enemies – Jaitley and Srinivasan. Only if LaMo can play test cricket as well as he resorts to T20 slogs!