IPL and Capitalism

 The recently concluded Indian Premier League (IPL) has been a non-stop party that lasted for six weeks to which everyone was invited provided you wanted to have fun. It brought magical nights to millions across India, a respite from their drab, desperate lives. It was filled to the brim with desire--for cricket and Bollywood, for chatter and glamour, for tomfoolery and unrequited sensuality, and for high rolling betting. (There was even satta market on the beleaguered Lalit Modi’s fate as the league commissioner, and the returns from every rupee on Mr Modi surviving were Rs 5.50 last Saturday.)

 IPL is indeed a metaphor for a new India—crass, brash and razzmatazz--but it is in big trouble. What began as a trifling spat between Shashi Tharoor and Lalit Modi ended in the resignation of the minister and the suspension of the IPL commissioner. Everyone has had a say by now and some good suggestions have emerged for the reform of the IPL and the cricket board (BCCI). But in the chorus of remonstration there was a definite anti-capitalist refrain. Coming as this does on the heels of the global financial crisis and the recent troubles of Goldman Sachs, the legitimacy of the market is once again in question in a country where capitalism is still trying to find a comfortable home.

 The most strident voices belonged to members of Parliament who demanded a probe by a Joint Parliamentary Committee. Some political parties called for nationalizing the IPL. Lalu Prasad (RJD), Mulayam Singh Yadav (SP) and Sharad Yadav (JD-U) insisted on banning it. The JD(U) member, Shivanand Tiwari, demanded that funds of the IPL and BCCI be confiscated. CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta criticised the 20-20 game format, saying it was a ‘caricature’ of cricket in which players were bought like ‘vegetables’. The deputy leader of the Opposition, Gopinath Munde asked that if bar girls in Mumbai had been barred from performing, why should cheerleading girls be allowed in the IPL? Mulayam Singh called cricket a ‘foreign game’ and wanted it replaced by a desi one.

 How does one begin to judge the IPL?  When it comes to public policy, it is best to follow the advice of Vidura, the royal adviser in the Mahabharata, who looks to the general good. If an act benefits the vast majority then it is right. Cricket’s two main stakeholders are the players and the fans. It has given an opportunity to many talented cricketers to rise and showcase their talents. Going by television ratings and packed stadiums, more Indians have been entertained by the IPL than anything else. By Vidura’s criterion, IPL has performed brilliantly. Lalit Modi is undoubtedly a great entrepreneur who has also driven the IPL’s brand value to a staggering $4.13 billion in less than three years.   

 There are serious problems, however. Conclusive proof must be found for match-fixing, rigged auctions, tampering with roster selections and other allegations. We need full public disclosure of all the bids. Modi must be tried fairly based on evidence, not personal dislike. BCCI must also be overhauled. As the custodian of cricket, it runs like a cabal, exploiting its monopoly privileges. As to gambling, the best answer is to make sports betting legal—then it will open and fair. This will generate huge revenues for the government and cut the nexus with the underworld.

With regard to the competitive status of Indian cricket, our team has become world’s no. 1 in tests; it is clawing to the top in the one day version; and the 20/20 team did win the inaugural world cup. BCCI’s seems to have delivered far better performance than other sports associations, where government plays a bigger role.

A Rajya Sabha member complained that the evil in IPL was foreign and he traced it to the market. The honourable member did not realise that markets are natural to human beings. Banias and bazaars have been with us for thousand of years, ever since Indians first engaged in agriculture and there was a surplus. Our first towns in the Indus valley emerged as centres of exchange. But markets are not the same thing as the market system, which requires that moneymaking be regarded as respectable. Historically, commerce has had a bad odour in all societies. In India, the merchant was third in the cast hierarchy. Even though we have the wondrous spectacle of thousands of young Indians starting business ventures today, the idea that their struggle for personal gain might actually promote the common is too bizarre. This is behind the animus against the big sums in the IPL. Even sophisticated Indians distrust the market – perhaps, because no one is in charge. No wonder Samuel Johnson said, “There is nothing which requires more to be illustrated by philosophy than trade does.”

Besides politicians, journalists and academics have been the most vociferous in criticising IPL’s capitalist ideology. The philosopher, Robert Nozick explains in a classic essay why intellectuals everywhere dislike capitalism.  They feel entitled to greater prestige, money and power, whereas the market rewards those who fulfil perceived demand in the marketplace. The wordsmith’s expectation is created early in school. In the classroom the brightest are rewarded with the highest marks and teachers’ smiles. Hence, they grow up expecting praise. When it does not come in later life, and when society values things other than verbal ability, they grow resentful and sullen, especially when they experience downward mobility.   

Lalit Modi’s entrepreneurship necessarily involved assuming risks and valuing novelty, characteristics that are not common in a stable society. He was a brash new kid around the block, and he will admit that entrepreneurial success does not lead to social acceptance. Old money does not like new money. The economic historian, Jean Baechler, tells us that in sixth century BC firms in Babylon took in money deposits, issued cheques, made loans at interest, and invested in agricultural and industrial enterprises. Yet they were looked down upon. All agrarian civilizations have looked down upon merchant capitalists and commercial activities have been universally held in low esteem.

It was only in the High Middle Ages that this changed, and capitalists were finally given social acceptance and protection from the predation of the state, as Deepak Lal argues in Unintended Consequences. It was due to a legal revolution in the eleventh century when Pope Gregory VII in 1075 put the church above the state. The resulting church-state created the whole legal and administrative infrastructure required by a full fledged market economy. This led to the rise of the West and its divergence from the rest of the world.

India after 1991 has joined in this capitalist adventure, and with vigour. Because India got democracy before capitalism, the critique of capitalism began in the 1950s even before full blown capitalism arrived in 1990s. Hence, players in the capitalist game have a responsibility to behave with restraint until capitalism establishes a comfortable home. IPL’s irregularities have not helped. But having said that, it is impressive that the critique of IPL has been constructive by and large, and shows we have come a long way in our attitudes. The challenge before regulators remains—how to bring transparency in the market without killing the animal spirits of the likes of Lalit Modi.

Gurcharan Das is the author of ‘The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma’

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