A fairy tale, but not happily ever after

The secret mantra of The Greatest Circus in the World was quite simple: keep everyone happy and pass the loot to a cosy club. This brilliant formula deserves all the credit possible in an age where profit is the sole morality and mass entertainment the highest art form.

By M J Akbar

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Published: Mon 26 Apr 2010, 10:07 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:41 AM

This was entertainment on a spectacular level, with a ticket-pricing policy designed to serve the most important psychological weakness of acquisitive Indians, the ego. The astonishingly exorbitant ticket to the rather tardy lounge at the top of the crest quickly became the perfect gift to anyone with even a modicum of influence. Those who purchased a more moderate ticket became surrogate members of this cosy club, permitted a few thrills from the fringe while club owners laughed all the way to the bank — or, in many cases, tax havens like Mauritius and the British Virgin Islands where the colour of cash is a permanent black.

If the owners had one fear, it was the thought of an intrusive government that might begin to investigate their financial shenanigans. They bought into government by sharing the loot with politicians in return for protection. And so, even when tax authorities did put together a note on Lalit Modi, action was aborted. Paradoxically, this encouraged Modi’s self-delusion to the point of self-destruction.

There were institutional rewards as well. It seems unbelievable, but this circus was exempt from entertainment tax. Maharashtra alone could have earned Rs 500 crores so far. Such exemptions are given for mass media with some noble message. If anyone has discovered anything noble in a show whose most exciting attraction is a bunch of imported, under-dressed cheerleaders, then it would be good to know.

The script was superb, and the finest actors were contracted for all the roles, but there is nothing, alas, called a perfect movie. You can square a bunch of ministers, but how do you woo a belligerent Opposition? It was silly to believe that the Opposition — or indeed media — could be silenced with a few throwaway tickets in the front row. When a silly altercation between primary stakeholders and nouveau riche gatecrashers opened, as it were, the floodgates, the power of media and Parliament became suddenly apparent. It was too late. Opposition parties have already introduced two slogans that are going to reverberate across the country: the government belongs to IPL, while opposition is concerned with BPL (that is, those below the poverty line). If this sounds a trifle ponderous, the second one is tangy and spicy in Hindi: Dal mein kaala zaroor hai,/Aur kitney Tharoor hain?

Shashi Tharoor is a prawn compared to the big fish in the net. As for the proportions of dirt in the daal, it might be more accurate to reverse the equation. There is just some lentil in the dirt, rather than the other way around.

We do not have a full idea of the level of muck. The private betting done by some franchise owners is still a story waiting to be told. When owners bet, it is axiomatic that matches are fixed. More money can be made, privately, when a good team loses than when it wins. As is well known, bribing players is not impossible. The older players get, the more they thrash around for retirement benefits. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has been exemplary in ordering raids, and there is already talk that data and emails reveal an owner-betting underbelly of significant proportions. So far, government has been resisting the appointment of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate this scam, but for how long? A JPC would be entitled to all the information collected by government in these raids, which would put it in the public domain. IPL honchos still believe they can get away without much damage, because destruction of IPL could fracture the government. The sacrifice of a couple of scapegoats would be a peanuts price compared to the bloodshed that awaits a proper accountability. That jaded crutch known as the “necessary evil” is being trotted out to justify some of the excesses, along with a solemn promise that everything will be cleaned up if the show is permitted to continue. As someone wiser than famous said, once you assuage your conscience, this begins to look more and more necessary and less and less evil.

The damage in cash terms can be calculated, but who will do the accounting of the damage to IPL’s credibility? There is cynical response: why should a circus need any credibility? Who believes a Hindi movie to be the essence of truth, and if it is the essence of truth, who watches it? But Cabinet ministers do not use their power to preside over the Hindi movie industry, or divert Air India aircraft to pick up cast and crew. The story has reached where it has because the credibility of the Union Government is also at stake. Try being cynical about this.

When the scriptwriters of IPL promised to make everyone happy, they forgot an essential requirement. They needed a happy ending for themselves.

M J Akbar is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, and India on Sunday, published from London

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