Conflict of interest has become the single most relevant term that is synonymous with Indian cricket in 2016. The conflict of interest phenomenon has shaped how ethics in cricket is to be determined. A working definition for conflict of interest is: ‘a situation that has the potential to undermine the impartiality of a person because of the possibility of a clash between the person’s self-interest and professional interest or public interest.’ If that isn’t a familiar theme for Indian cricket, then one wonders what possibly is.
In an extremely short span of just a few months, two of India’s iconic cricketers, a current BCCI official, and other former players have already been faced with conflict of interest hearings in front of the ombudsman, Justice A.P. Shah. Sourav Ganguly was involved in a PIL by a gentleman who questioned Ganguly’s conflict of interest with regard to the bidding process for the interim franchises. Ganguly is a minority stakeholder in the ISL club Atlético de Kolkata whose majority partner is Sanjiv Goenka’s New Rising, which successfully bid for the Pune IPL franchise. Ganguly’s place in the IPL governing council and his failure to recuse himself from the process was questioned, but given the nature of how the process unfolded, and also the fact that he had virtually no role to play in the choosing of the successful franchises, the ombudsman didn’t feel there was any conflict. The decision does appear to be the right one, but given that Ganguly’s role in the governing council will include sitting in on matters that involve franchises, including the Pune franchise, this issue may come up soon again. The second conflict of interest matter had a different verdict altogether and related to whether or not there was a conflict for Harbhajan Singh with regard to the clothing brand Bhajji Sports that provides apparel to six Ranji teams, although Singh has stated that his mother owns the company, not he. Justice Shah disagreed and directed Singh to relinquish his role in the company and provide a clear undertaking to the board to eliminate any conflict of interest.
Justice Shah has been categorically addressing potential conflicts, pressing upon those involved with cricket that they must declare their conflicts, and/or take appropriate action to eliminate the conflict. This at the very least is heartening, and a positive move, even if hastened by the Supreme Court’s directives. Nothing has caused more grief to the BCCI–IPL than the conflict of interest controversy. Although conflicts had existed in the system for decades, the controversy was unearthed only recently. It was the most devastating because unlike an integrity lapse or scrutiny oversight such as spot-fixing, conflict of interest hit at the nucleus of the board’s activities and dealings. It brought the board to the courts and allowed the judiciary to regulate cricket administration.
Conflict of interest is broad enough to cover any action or relationship which can potentially compromise decision making, or unjustly enrich an individual or an entity. For the BCCI–IPL, the clause that broke through the shell of inner workings is the iconic Clause 6.2.4 of the BCCI regulations. The clause in its controversial avatar read as follows: No administrator shall have directly or indirectly any commercial interest in any of the events of BCCI, excluding IPL and CLT20.
It was this revised clause which allowed Srinivasan to own a team in the IPL and it is this clause, which if retained its original version would have prevented much of what went wrong with the BCCI–IPL in the context of conflict of interest. At least, since we now have reason to believe that conflict of interest was pervasive in the BCCI, and manifested in the IPL. The original and unaltered version of the clause read as follows: No administrator shall have, directly or indirectly, any commercial interest in the matches and events conducted by the board.
This clause did not solve the basic problem of preventing conflicts of interest for non-administrators, but kept actionable a breach of this basic conflict of interest. Functioning as a private body, the board had very little accountability in the years leading up to the IPL’s launch, and for at least a few seasons of the league. Yes, there were eyebrows raised periodically at the CSK, and the board’s profitability remained a topic revolving around unjust enrichment; But until the spot-fixing scandal erupted, no one really had an inkling of how conflict of interest would trigger the IPL’s overhaul.
It was unearthed when the Justice Mudgal Committee was tasked with determining corruption and spot-fixing in the IPL. Then the Supreme Court intervened through the course of the hearings on the spot-fixing scandal. It has now stretched across the various verticals, and today the board is on the defensive. Let’s be objective—conflict of interest is almost unavoidable within the parameters of a particular ecosystem. And not all conflict of interest is harmful, if it is tackled effectively. Srinivasan could actually make a case for being transparent in that he was working within the legal parameters of having a commercial interest in the IPL, under the revision of the clause that had been allowed when he wasn’t yet president of the board. From his perspective, he and India Cements played by the rules, at least in terms of ownership and transparency. It was however his reaction to the spot-fixing scandal and his position of prominence impacting the BCCI’s response to many of the steps that were deemed necessary, that put him and the board in the difficult position it is in today.
Conflict of interest can be tackled effectively in a few ways, all of which are intuitive. Eliminating two counterproductive roles that benefit the person who is on both sides of the table or benefits from one side of the table, is intuitive. Recusing oneself when one’s commercial interest is being probed, and one’s relative is being interrogated, ought to be an obvious step. Ensuring that individuals with fiduciary responsibilities should not use the information they receive confidentially for personal and illegal gain, is elementary. But it turns bizarre when a national team selector is also an IPL team’s brand ambassador, and when the said IPL team belongs to the board’s president.
In today’s IPL, conflict of interest has marred four key grey areas. The first and most challenging is the conflict between cricket administrators and their commercial interests in cricket—facilitated, before it was struck down, by the revised clause 6.2.4. There are other ways around it still, which will be explained shortly. The second and quite worrying is the conflict between active players owning shares or equity in sports management companies that represent them and other active players. This has the potential to directly or indirectly impact their selection choices of the playing eleven, and overall of the conflicted players’ teammates’ careers. The third is a combination of non-traditional versions of conflict of interest that appear to compromise positions of individuals involved with the BCCI and the IPL—we have examples of owners of franchises sharing information with outsiders for personal gain, manifesting in illegal betting or trading on inside information. It’s no secret that Meiyappan and Kundra head this list. This was the basis of the spot-fixing controversy and the overlap with conflict of interest. There are other forms of conflict of interest in this category: former players employed by the BCCI–IPL who hold positions as television commentators, or who serve dual roles as team mentors or brand ambassadors of franchises while also serving in a capacity as team selectors or coaches for the BCCI. Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri, Anil Kumble, and Sourav Ganguly were mentioned even by the BCCI in its submission to the Court. Since Shashank Manohar’s presidency, many of these conflicts are being addressed and rectified.
The fourth and most likely to be damaging to the reputation of the BCCI-IPL in future is the duality of roles performed by public officials who hold positions in the BCCI. I had earlier mentioned the Justice Lodha Committee’s recommendation to exclude ministers and government officials from the board’s administration. The current IPL chairman, Rajeev Shukla, is a politician. The secretary of the BCCI, Anurag Thakur, is a politician. A member of the present IPL governing council, Jyotiraditya Scindia, is a politician. Former BCCI president and the current nominee for the ICC, if Manohar is unavailable, Sharad Pawar, is a politician. Many of the state associations’ presidents or board members are politicians. Quite a few of them have done good work, most recently Thakur. But the politician–cricket official dual role has caused concern to the judiciary, to the public at large, and to the reputation of cricket and the IPL. It has also been the cause of many of the conflict of interest controversies, adversely impacting the politicians as well as cricket’s overall health.
An excerpt from Not Out: An Incredible Story of the Indian Premier League by Desh Gaurav Sekhri, Published by Penguin