Sunday, May 2, 2010

Aspiring for the perfect scam!

So how come you haven't written about the IPL yet???!! A couple of my friends inquired in that half accusatory tone, which implies that you aren't quite living up to your duties nowadays! Leaving me feeling a bit bemused. But err... I don't know anything about cricket, I mumbled weakly. “Huh! Are you trying to say IPL has anything to do with cricket”? Pat came the reply. And I had to admit that it really didn't. Except for providing the backdrop, IPL actually seemed to be all about power, politics, money and sleaze. All very familiar and writable topics indeed. So why not?

While still tarrying in the twilight zone, I asked myself what I would write about? Hasn't everything been beaten to death on television already? What was special here, beyond a falling out among thieves? And in a weird twisted way, a reiteration of the fact that justice is served in India only when the “heavies” fight with each other? Then it struck me. The question of “has brand IPL been affected by the controversy” was well worth examining dispassionately. And thats a topic pretty close to my heart.

Firstly, let me put my hypothesis squarely on the table. I believe this entire controversy is the best possible thing that could have happened to this event. And I say this from a pure business, commercial perspective. Even if the marketing guys had planned it carefully, they couldn't have got it better. For a moment if you agree that IPL is just a grand reality show, and cricket is just the excuse, then what has happened now is fantastic. You start with a heady cocktail of money, power and glamor. Throw in a controversy that plumbs the depths of human weaknesses. Shock your viewers and then give them an illusion that “justice” is finally being served. The middle classes get the gratification of seeing the high and mighty cut to size. And its perfect. All of a sudden, even the small minority (like me) who were not watching the IPL, are captivated by the brand. And in the process, the brand grows stronger!! I for one, am completed convinced that by next year, IPL would emerge as an even bigger brand, worth many thousand crores more than it is today. So yes indeed, brand IPL is affected! Extremely positively, I would say!

The other aspect that really captivates me is our attitude towards crime and flamboyant criminals. Clearly, there is a vast majority of people who view Lalit Modi with a mixture of admiration and aspiration today. And the interesting social aspect is that this seems to be quite a widespread phenomenon in India. In a bizarre twist, some advertisers have even started choosing Modi lookalikes for their car and financial product advertising! Tharoor, on the other hand has become an object of derision, because he was such a bumbling amateur. He could not even pull off a minor scam with skill! Just imagine; even a child in India could have told him that choosing your girlfriend to receive favors is the worst possible way to funnel money. There are a thousand benami names in dozens of safe havens that he could have used. And a woman on the side is guaranteed to make headlines. Yet the man seems to have allowed himself to become the victim of arrogance or stupidity; most probably both! Not our man Modi though. He's earned crores.. hobnobbed with the best, baited the politicians and created this grand empire out of nothing. Even when he did start to go down, he did so with guns blazing. Using bluster, courage, inducement, blackmail and bureaucracy with such skill and grace, that the average Indian still watches enthralled; secretly wanting him to win!

Interestingly, this is the contradiction. We as a nation express moral outrage publicly. But deep down there is a growing conviction in many young hearts, that great riches can be obtained quickly only by such means. By beating the system somehow. There's really no right and wrong, just those who get caught and those who don't. The traditional methods of entrepreneurship, building businesses brick by brick etc take far too much time, and are impractical in this age of instant gratification. Only the next generation enjoys the fruits of such traditional growth. The young openly ask, “of what use is all the struggle to us today”? Like it or not, they have a point. Its difficult to value judge their pragmatism, when one knows that it is coming from the survivor instinct of a race where inequalities are rampant, and fair play is a fairy tale. This does have pretty serious consequences for us as a society though. A society which is drawn towards scamsters as aspirational idols, is in serious danger of descending into chaos in the long run.

Coming back to the grand IPL spectacle, I personally don't have anything against such large format reality shows. Except for the fact that there is no constructive activity involved in such “businesses”. Nothing of real value seems to be created. In the process of captivating a large section of people, all you succeed in doing is to move small sums of money from millions of pockets, to the select pockets of a few businessmen. Its still an elaborate scheme at the end of the day. That is still ok... its entertainment. But when you consider that the government promotes these events through tax breaks, while traditional brick and mortar businesses groan under regulation, red tape and multiple layers of taxation, you really have to question whether our policy makers have their heads screwed on right? Perhaps thats why the organizers borrowed from the classic Hindi movie line, “Thoda khane ka, thoda thoda phenkne ka”. And made sure many pockets were lined in the process of creating the event.

Unfortunately, they grew arrogant, and made a fatal mistake when they tried to snatch a cookie from Tharoor, in a moment of pettiness. Without realizing that mama bear is a very very bad tempered grizzly :) And that, in short, was their undoing! Bear in mind though, that many people have certainly learned valuable lessons in the process. Expect next years IPL to be much more slick, opaque and well orchestrated! After all, BCCI has slipped out of this whole episode like a greased Houdini slipping out of chocolate chains! And they'll be back with a bang!! Intriguingly, no one is really questioning the role that BCCI themselves have played in this entire imbroglio. Public memory cant be so short that they have completely forgotten how this concept was first introduced by Subhash Chandra and Kapil Dev. Remember ICL? And how every trick in the book was used to scuttle that upstart plan? How ICL was gutted before it became so large that the cricketing sartraps could not hope to control and milk it? Then in comes Lalit Modi to resurrect the same concept as IPL! Given the stakes that media houses also have in the pie, its not surprising that nobody asks the pertinent questions. Vicarious bystanders are curious to know what is the identity of this chameleon like body? Is it a private, profit making entity, is it a government body, is it a not-for-profit association .. what on earth is BCCI? The right answer seems to be “whatever it suits them to be, at that point of time”. The fact that almost everyone associated with it has political affiliations, and the fact that they have given themselves unbridled power to control 1000's of crores of money, should make it quite obvious what the reality is. And that everyone involved is enjoying the party. Yet the World mutely watches while they put on a holier than thou mask, and try to make a ceremonial sacrifice of Lalit Modi. What an amazing act! The interesting social phenomenon though, is that somehow their transgressions don't seem to elicit the same grudging admiration as Lalit Modi does. Somehow a bunch of podgy middle aged politicians pushing aside the smiling “lone rebel” who built a grand empire by whatever means, doesn't quite go down very well with our society.

It looks like “Gordon Gecko” lives on! (ref the movie “Wall Street”! Oh what the hell.. if you haven't seen it yet, then you probably shouldn't be reading this article anyway :)