Column in Business Standard, June 20, 2015
In the world Lalit Modi and Dushyant Singh inhabit, such transactions – indeed friendships – must seem a natural entitlement, part of their feudal material and political inheritance
What do Lalit Modi, the absconding ex-cricket czar, and Dushyant Singh, Bharatiya Janata Party MP and Rajasthan chief minister’s son, have in common, apart from an old family friendship and one funnelling money into the other’s business, by which a Rs 10 share became magically worth Rs 96,000?
They’re both rich boys, rich, that is, not in the conventional sense of first-generation fortune hunters, but because they were born into great wealth and privilege. Lalit Modi is the third-generation scion of an industrial family; Mr Singh a third-term MP and prince who inherited his mother’s Jhalawar constituency after she first became chief minister in 2003. He is an only child on whose behalf Vasundhara Raje waged a long, bitter battle to claim title to a valuable inheritance from his father, the former maharaja of Dholpur.
In the complex, murky saga currently unfolding in the corridors of power – an intrigue of truly byzantine proportion that the political opposition joyously hails as the first full-blown scandal to hit the Narendra Modi government – the man at the centre of the drama, who is also busily dictating its future chapters from London, says he has done no wrong.
Lalit Modi thinks it was perfectly legit to call the Indian foreign minister to solve his passport hassles with British authorities, or that lobbying with British MP Keith Vaz and persuading Ms Raje to enter into a confidential agreement to secure his safety were all par for the course. After all, he argues, what are good friends for? Similarly, Mr Singh believes his income tax returns are tip top, and what’s wrong with “Uncle Lalit” depositing crores in his company? Couldn’t the infusion be a settlement of pending old accounts from the days when Lalit Modi staged his coup to take over the Rajasthan Cricket Association in 2005, and later ruled the roost from his grand suite at Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace Hotel, buying up havelis in Amer and tearing around in his private jet?
In the world these men inhabit, such transactions – indeed friendships – must seem a natural entitlement, part of their feudal material and political inheritance. To the outsider, Lalit Modi’s life may appear like some speeded-up psychedelic dream, as he lolls about giving TV interviews in picturesque Montenegro or posts party Instagrams with Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell from luxury hotels in Havana. Lalit Modi, however, may view it as the nightmarish ordeal of a fugitive exile, tinged by the sadness of his wife’s illness.
Lalit Modi’s friendships, too, are perceived in stark black and white: topping the friends’ roster is kindhearted Sushma Swaraj and the sweet Kaushal family, who’ve never charged a penny for his labyrinthine litigation, but also Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel, Rajeev Shukla and Salman Khurshid; enemy number one is P Chidambaram among Congress leaders, but also Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)’s N Srinivasan and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Ms Raje, once a close buddy, now being dragged into the penumbra of his shadow, may no longer be one. Might he blow the whistle on her as he once did on Shashi Tharoor? Given Lalit Modi’s nimble fingers, all it takes is a tweet.
Indian public life is littered with examples of rich boys taking bad wrong turns. Fast cars and guns feature prominently in their accounts. The list is led by Bollywood brats such as Sunjay Dutt and Salman Khan. Dutt was arrested in the Mumbai blasts case in 1993 for illegal possession of arms, but despite the Supreme Court upholding his imprisonment in 2013, he thinks that jails, like hotel lobbies, are fitted with revolving doors – he is constantly in and out. Khan’s 2012 hit-and-run case drags, on with his driver, contrary to eyewitness accounts, reportedly taking the rap.
1999 was the year when Delhi’s well-heeled party boys went on a blood-soaked rampage. In January, Sanjeev Nanda, son of arms dealer Suresh Nanda, killed six people while racing his BMW at dawn, and that April, Manu Sharma, son of former Congress MP Venod Sharma, walked late at night into a bar and shot Jessica Lal in cold blood because she refused to serve him a drink. They were both sons of very rich fathers and had the clout to destroy criminal evidence. Were it not for relentless media scrutiny and public outrage that brought the cases to retrial, they would have got away with it.
The rich are different because their charmed lives breed an illusion of being above the rules and laws that govern most people. They peddle influence and find enough purchase for it in the political marketplace. Which is why, if Narendra Modi’s government is to weather the Lalit Modi storm, it should bring him back to India to account for the missing hundreds of crores and face the music.