The man with a conflicted relationship with the press gives Sports Illustrated India a rare and detailed look into his life in exile and the workings of his restless mind
By Siddhanth Aney
It was three o’clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon in London. Sunny to the extent that London in late February would allow. We were at the doorstep of a modern day Paraiyan—a pariah. There are times when words are just that; there are others where the entire context—historical, philosophical and literal—comes together to paint a picture that one word can well describe. Pariah is a word given to the English language by Indian tradition. It refers to a drummer charged with enhancing the vociferousness of a party. A Paraiyan is the soul of a party. But there is a clause in his contract; he is also an outcast. Meant to give life and voice to a gathering he becomes the focal point of without ever being a member of the party itself. It was with these thoughts that we rang Lalit Modi’s doorbell.
Just off Sloane Square—in perhaps the richest few square kilometres in the city—Modi’s seven-floor mansion, and the ornate threshold at which we stood, seemed to hold the answers to a million questions. The edifice was intriguing in itself. It stood as both the symbol of his—relative—freedom and defiance and as an ultra-luxurious prison. We came to talk of the party he had once been the focal point of. One that had rambled on—scarcely missing a beat—when he left. Four years after Modi had left India, banished from Indian cricket, we stood at his door to talk about just that. Ushered into his art-filled study, completed by an iMac, a massive printer (and shredder) and a tastefully camouflaged TV, we were at the nerve centre of Modi’s life since he was unceremoniously expelled from Indian cricket in 2010.
We made the trip to London for several reasons. Not extraneous were the circumstances that cricket found itself in. The Supreme Court-appointed committee to probe specific charges of betting and match-fixing in the IPL, led by a retired Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Justice Mukul Mudgal, had filed its report and it was in no way giving a clean chit to those who held power in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Almost simultaneously, we became aware of the BCCI’s plan to take over the International Cricket Council (ICC), the body entrusted with governing the sport on the global scale with the future in mind. That this global body was set to become, in effect, a subsidiary of the BCCI gave rise to questions of conflict of interest. We all like to fire our guns of someone else’s shoulder. What could be better than pulling the trigger and letting someone else take the brunt of the recoil?
As things stand in the world of cricket today, there are few people willing to speak out against the BCCI. Justice Mudgal is chief among them. In his report (limited by the scope of the investigation), he has, in no uncertain terms, highlighted many of the ills that plague the sport and the way it functions. But Modi has something else. He has the fire of a parent torn away from his child; the impertinence of a player trying to change the game; the brilliance of a man who sees what those trying to stifle him see much later; the arrogance of entitlement; the willingness to sacrifice individuals for the perpetuation of an idea. We were at the doorstep of a modern-day Paraiyan, but one who refuses exclusion from the entity he helped create. And we had come there for ends that were self-serving. The hope that we would leave with a greater understanding of the man who had—to an extent unwittingly—played the role of orchestrator in a symphony that has only just begun to unfold. What remained was to ascertain what made this man, born into wealth and acknowledged as one of the sharper tools in the shed, persona non grata as far as the most powerful force in cricket goes.
We found ourselves in an environment that would often feel disconcerting. These were, in many ways, the power corridors. Yet, in as many ways, they were as far removed from the corridors of power as was possible. We began at intriguing; but for a real, passionate supporter of the idea of cricket as a sport with a global imprint that is an adjective far too limiting. And as much as we would like to avoid the use of clichés, Pandora’s box for example, there will be clichés to follow. It was only a couple of minutes past three o’clock that same afternoon. None of us knew the man who would walk down the stairs in a minute or two—perhaps we never will—and the hours of conversation that would follow. What we did know was that after four years (Modi would later count down the years, days and hours since his removal from the governing council of the IPL), it was a conversation that needed to be had.
One of the first things we noticed in the spacious room that serves as Modi’s office in London, as large a space as many studio apartments in the city centre, were the small cushions with words on them. “I may not be perfect but I am perfect for you”, said one. Most of the others followed the tune of the impassioned lover. But one stood out. “A good lawyer knows the law,” it said. “A great lawyer knows the judge.” It is this idea, and the desire to remain outside the proper prison system, that made Modi employ the greatest lawyers money can buy to fight his cases—cases that he hopes prove his innocence as much as they indict those in power. From this one room in his prison-in-exile a single fact is clear—Modi has an unflinching view of cricket administration, the BCCI and his role in shaping the cricketing world.
It is a life less than ordinary, which Modi lives in London, that we are briefly privy to. The walls of his home are tastefully adorned by art, the parquet flooring luxuriantly carpeted to give as much a sense of warmth as, perhaps, to make sure the sounds born in one room do not travel to the next. His butler, Saïd, brought tea in a fine china pot and coffee, despite the times, in a cup of equally exquisite china but devoid of the old-world charm of pouring it out. “Ask them if they want lime-water,” we hear from above. “Indian-style with black salt.” As much as we want to, we decline. We haven’t even seen Modi yet. A few minutes later he comes bounding down the stairs and shakes our hands. “I had planned to give you guys the whole afternoon,” he says. “But I am one of the few guys who has a good Indian cook. This is an open house. I always have people coming in and out.” When we hear aloo paratha with white butter and achaar is on the menu we stop wondering why. Fortunately for us, the Black Heart Pub in Camden had put out so much good food, just about an hour before the meeting, that even the greediest part of us wasn’t open to the bribe. At least not yet. At least not with home-cooked food.
It is a life of tremendous wealth. Fast cars, Michelin-starred restaurants, shopping at Harrods and Harvey Nichols (both an easy walk from his home) are all par for the course. As much as private jets would be, if only he could leave the country. Rumour has it that Modi has spent upwards of `150 crore on legal fees in his battles with the BCCI. He will neither confirm nor deny the figure. A man of lesser means would not be able to afford to wage this war. Compared to the `3,600 crore turnover of Godfrey Phillips India, the country’s second largest cigarette manufacturing business that is his family’s mainstay, this might be just a drop in the ocean. But it is a drop that creates a significant ripple.
Modi has had a decidedly antagonistic relationship with the press. While he has revelled in the attention that the media has given him, he has also shown an unconcealed disdain for it all. Almost as though the attention were a necessary evil as opposed to a straight up positive. On one of the coffee tables in his study was a neat folder that my ever-observant photographer pointed out. My name and antecedents highlighted in neon. It might be information I had provided but it is information nevertheless. And Modi wanted us to know he knew who we are, where we had come from and what we were doing in his realm. He is willing to share information—and this is perhaps the cause of both his rise and his downfall—as much as a cup of tea. But to him it seems to stem from the desire to be transparent in his dealings and not as a favour to a journalist. We have just met and it is impossible to determine whether he views journalists as information-hungry individuals doing a job or as gossip-hungry parasites waiting to suck his blood. At first, it doesn’t appear he will treat those two ideas as divergent. Modi has, after all, had his fair share of encounters with the Indian press. We tell him what he knows already; that we know nothing about him. Cut off from India, he wants to talk. We want him to talk too and can only hope that his willingness to open up will stem from a belief that we share a vague notion of where we want all this to end up. An end game (this is a point that emerged several times in our conversation and never with any conclusion). That his is not a normal existence is clear. It never has been. He was born a billionaire and he felt that gave him the right to do what he wanted to, when he wanted to. He could have lived a life most of us can never imagine, without lifting a finger. The trouble was Modi had a vision. One that has little to do with the life he lives today.
Soon after we met, we stepped out of his home so we could take some pictures. Parked outside his door is a Ferrari with a number plate that tells a story. A Ferrari in these parts of London is no big deal. Almost everyone seems to have one. But Modi’s Ferrari is a little bit special. For his 50th birthday, his son bought him a number plate that reads “CRI3KET”. It is, after all, why they had to pick themselves up after having been to same school in Mumbai since kindergarten, and move to the UK. It is why Modi says the most difficult part of his life has been the impact it has had on his wife and children; that despite being a millionaire several times over, travel with his wife outside the UK for her cancer treatment is impossible for him because he doesn’t hold a passport. The only instances where Modi’s life becomes normal are where he talks about his family. He does not admit to wanting, to any regrets but his voice tells us otherwise.
Sitting in his first-floor den, surrounded by gigantic (and brilliant) Rajendra Kapse paintings, it is hard to imagine this man is involved in a fight. It is hard to imagine he has any troubles at all, what with Mary cooking his meals and Saïd catering to his every need. Yet, in conversation, he is a man torn. His home in London is frequented by several famous faces—property magnates, politicians, legislators, industrialists—powerful people who could, perhaps, go beyond paying him the lip service of their visits by actually facilitating his return. It is irony at its wicked best. The man who, anyone with any information on the subject knows, was integral in building the brand that is cricket, and the BCCI, has been, from the root, ousted from not just cricket but the entire ecosystem within which it exists. “One of the positives,” says Modi, “is that now I know who my real friends are. And I can see through those who claimed to be my friends. Those who were there only for the good times.”
From the time his involvement in cricket began for real, as the man who brought the global sports broadcasting giant, ESPN, to India in the mid-1990s, Modi has had a part to play in the story of what is today the richest governing body for a sport in the world. He began as a businessman supposedly “passionate about sport.” In his not-so-trouble-free time as a student in the US, he saw his friends watching sport every day of the week. “Football, basketball, baseball; it was all city-based and all-consuming,” he says. Modi’s vision was born while he was at college in the US but the pure capitalist nature of operations that he brought with him seem also to have put an abrupt, and potentially lifelong, end to his involvement in the business that he helped build. It is the lifelong part that he has a problem with.
Our conversation begins at the point where Modi was forced to slow down and take stock of what he had left. “I have gotten to know my family better,” says Modi. “And they have gotten to know me better”. He doesn’t say it, but this soft interlude is perhaps the closest we will get to gauging how he really feels. As soon as it’s over, Modi shifts back to the business track. “I have made enough money and I come from a well-to-do-family,” he says with more than a little humility. His is, after all, a multi-billion dollar family enterprise. “To me getting involved in cricket was never about the money. It was a passion.”
“When I was younger, I always had an attention problem,” Modi admits. “I was bored sitting at a desk or going to a factory and watching cigarettes being churned out. Michael Eisner (then CEO of the Walt Disney Company) gave me the opportunity to set up a joint venture. It was the only one of its kind and it was across every aspect of the business. From movies to television to merchandising, I was involved. It taught me a lot. My father (K.K. Modi) was a great teacher, despite my attention issues. So when I launched the ESPN channel in India, I knew there was a void. The idea of a city-based league was already there. Cricket was the sport and we had all the players signed. I remember we had the Mumbai Stallions playing the Delhi Panthers. The Bangalore Bulls, Chennai Tuskers, Gwalior Cobras and the Gwalior Lions. The deal was done with the BCCI as well and Madhavrao Scindia was the honorary chairman. It was called the Indian Cricket League. Then Mr. Jagmohan Dalmiya came into power at the BCCI and scuttled the idea. That was when my animosity with the BCCI began to grow, and it impacted our business. ESPN was a sports network and our business was sport.” The idea of the city-based cricket league had almost come to fruition. At the time, even Modi himself couldn’t have realised how much bigger the IPL would be when it finally took shape.
It was his involvement in the cigarette business that helped Modi change the landscape of media consumption in India. Perhaps this eventuality would have occurred whether or not he was in the game. But Modi saw the potential of cricket as a product that could be sold. And he decided to go out and sell it. “At that time no one paid for cricket. Everyone went to Prime Sports or Doordarshan and said ‘please put our product on the air’. We decided to pay the BCCI $12 million for the rights to Indian cricket. They had never seen that kind of money and at the time that we signed the cheque, we didn’t know if it would work. But I promised Mr. Murdoch that if we bought the rights to all of cricket, I would get them 10 million subscribers at 23 cents a pop. I didn’t know how exactly but I knew it could be done.”
Modi used his network of cigarette salesmen to gather information on the network of cable operators in the country. “There were 80,000 cable operators but no one knew who they were and how many subscribers they had,” says Modi. “GPI used to sell cigarettes on a daily basis. Our sales people would go out in the morning, deliver the product—most of it used to be by the stick—and in the afternoon they would collect the money. I incentivised them; I said when you see a dish, find the cable guy. At that time, tobacco advertising was allowed and the most popular channel was the cable guy’s own—the one he showed pirated movies on. So we gave them cassettes without ads and told the cable guys we would pay to advertise on those channels. Month after month we went to cable operators and paid them on the basis of how many subscribers they had. When they gave us a number we wouldn’t dispute it. We asked for a bill and paid them by cheque. We were the only people in the country who knew who the cable guys were and how many subscribers they had—irrespective of how inflated or deflated that number might have been.”
What the cable operators didn’t know was that Modi had a plan. “In all probability, they were inflating the numbers to get more money from us. And we paid. Then I transferred this data to Modi Entertainment Network. In June 1995, when India were in England, the games were on ESPN. We had given out the boxes to receive the signal for free. That was when the trouble began. Now we went to the cable guys and said pay.”
Based on the data he had collected through his advertising exercise, Modi demanded payment from the cable operators in accordance with the subscribers they had. The cable guys refused. “On the first day of the first Test we turned off the signal,” Modi says. “My office in Mumbai was stoned and all the big guys ganged up against us. We said we will wait it out and, ultimately, the consumer will win. He was paying anyway and he didn’t care whether it was me or the cable guys. He wanted to watch cricket. The cable operator was charging the consumer but he didn’t want to pay anything to the people providing the content.”
Modi realised cricket, unlike the movies, had a shelf life. It had to be viewed live. That was the market, and as long as he had control of the signal, he could decide when the blackout would end. “It was the business model that Rupert (Murdoch) had built in America with Direct TV and in the UK with Sky, and ESPN had built a robust model around it all over the world. It could have gone horribly wrong but we believed in the product and were convinced it would work.”
In another calculated move, Modi started making deals with smaller players and started turning their signal on. The advertising executives sitting in Mumbai, who were under the impression that the whole country was black, were then told this wasn’t the case. That it was the cable guys who were keeping the ads they had already paid for off the air. It worked. The cable operators agreed to pay Modi for the signal, and pay TV arrived in India.
Modi refers to this exercise as “Cable 101”, borrowing from the number assigned to a beginner-level or introductory course in college in the US. It might not have been Ethics 101, but it worked. Modi’s single-minded determination to get the job done, without paying any heed to those in the way of his objective, had won on the day. But soon he would realise that there were others who hadn’t taken Ethics 101 either. “Once they had the data for which we had done all the hard work, they (Prime Sports and ESPN) joined hands and decided they didn’t need to share the profits with me.” Modi was cut out of the pay TV revolution that he had, to a significant extent, engineered. But he claims the bigger realisation was that cricket could be sold for a great deal more money than it was then valued at.
“What we also figured out was that the BCCI could be much better managed,” Modi says. “India were playing far more cricket away than at home. This was because the middlemen sold the rights and made money of it. So people were getting rich but the Board was poor. England was the cricket superpower because they had figured all this out. So, even though people wanted to watch India play, the Englands and Australias had the money. And we were a cricket team from a nation with poor infrastructure, with poorly paid players and a Board that had no money.”
I.S. Bindra, a powerhouse in the BCCI and the head of the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA), liked what Modi was selling. He brought Modi into the PCA as vice-president and asked him for a plan to transform Indian cricket. “I was a broadcaster, I knew the business, I knew the product could be sold and the Board could make a lot of money,” Modi says. “I came up with a plan saying Indian cricket was worth `2,000 crore and I was laughed out of the room. That’s when I took on the established players and said either you pay us or I will go to someone who will.” In March 2006, Harish Thawani’s Nimbus paid $612 million for a four-year deal on global rights to Indian cricket. It was just the beginning.
We haven’t gotten to the IPL but that is primarily because the story of the biggest cricket league in the world is one many of you will have already heard. But Modi was playing the game well before his dream was finally realised. We hope that some of the stories will give you an insight into Modi’s exhausting personality—his ability and willingness to sacrifice everything, including personal relationships, at the altar of market forces, his notorious lack of the need to sleep and his deep-rooted belief that money was just a number and every target was achievable was at the core of what made the IPL possible. He has made enemies in business, in cricket, in society and even with the Government of India. That he is in exile today is proof enough of him having made one foe too many. But Modi’s personal battles should not be his business alone. The Modi Files are not incidental to anything. They, the man himself, are central to any discussion we have on the present and the future of world cricket. Modi today views the BCCI much in the same way as he viewed it before 2002. As a corrupt and mismanaged organisation that is costing Indian cricket both monetarily and morally. The only difference is that the numbers are much bigger and, according to him, the entire game is being played to fulfill the agenda of one man.
If you have reached this stage of our story, you have read a great deal about Lalit Modi and the business that is Indian cricket. But the truth is that we have barely scratched the surface. In the coming months, we hope to bring you several more chapters in this intricately woven narrative. It is a story that will boggle your mind as much as it will open your eyes. Of that we are sure. We are also hopeful of bringing in more voices, on a regular basis, so that we can expand this discussion to a truly broad scale.
In the meantime we wait, just as every Indian cricket fan does, for envelopes to open, governments to change and transparency to become an ideal that is more rule than exception. It might take more than this magazine. It will certainly take more than this story. But like Modi, we too are certain of one thing—that the Indian sports fan will not allow cricket to self-destruct or to be destroyed. It is, after all, the only thing that holds us together.