Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mayhem on the Orient Sexpress

Mayhem on the Orient Sexpress
By M J Akbar

Those who are still in a state of puzzled excitement over the denouement of the most exhilarating melange of soap opera and crime thriller to appear in the Indian media, have clearly never read Agatha Christie’s classic 'Murder on the Orient Express'.

Or seen Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot in the film and TV versions. Poirot’s priceless grey cells went into overdrive and overtime seeking the murderer, who had to be one of the dozen passengers on this fabled train. But those grey cells never failed: they hit upon the startling truth. Everyone was guilty.

As is everyone in the IPL mystery. Everyone knew what was going on, from Mauritius-funding to insider-betting to coke-and-company parties. Silence was purchased by the allotment of some direct or indirect slice of the expanding pie. Omerta, the silence of the wolves, is not imposed by the capo di capo’s dictatorship. It is induced by a variation of the Marxist dictum: from each according to ability, to each according to greed.

The fictional Poirot was looking for facts; Delhi is looking for scapegoats. Neither process is easy, but the second is harder. Scapegoats have this unnerving tendency to breed an heir just before sacrifice; you’ve barely got through one, and another is required for the chopping block. Some of them might squeal sharply on the way to the butcher’s block, or, if their voice has been gagged, send an email technically disguised by anonymity. A know-it-all like Lalit Modi is always more likely to use his knowledge to destabilize than to trot off obediently towards oblivion. He will not drown alone. If he takes Cabinet ministers down with him, he threatens the stability of the Union government, although not its existence.

Governments do not commit suicide deliberately, although they may do so accidentally. Nor do you break your second leg in revenge if the first one is hobbling. Politicians, therefore, will make every effort to shift investigation from clarity to obfuscation through a smokescreen of brazen half-truths, thin justifications and, in some case, in-your-face lies. The wobble in the ruling alliance is larger than Sharad Pawar's NCP. There are southern franchise holders with persuasive powers, and no group is more easily persuaded than the DMK.

The most useful weapon in the politician’s armoury is public amnesia about yesterday's news, replaced by fresh reports that emerge from the baking oven of information, accusation and speculation. An early exclusive revealed that an unnamed Cabinet minister had summoned Kochi franchisees and offered them the choiceless choice: fall in line, or else. Where is that once earth-shattering story now? Ask not — or else.

The merit of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee's decision to order financial sleuths into the fray will be tested by the next step. Mukherjee’s handling of the crisis has been mature and exemplary, but how much can he do with the facts in his files? So many roads lead to colour-neutral havens of alchemy, where black money turns into white at the nod of an accountant's pencil. Mukherjee has an opportunity to clean up more than the IPL, and challenge corruption in the private sector. But that cannot be his decision alone.

The political-comprador alliance atop IPL is hoping fervently for the onset of information-fatigue, when the story fades from screen, print and public consciousness. But that may take time, for there hasn't been a story like this in six decades, so utterly rich in sex, sleaze and superstars. There is money, nepotism, ministers, molls, models, alcohol and parties where big boys play at night, as the Pakistan cricket hero Imran Khan once reminded us through a famous T-shirt. You have inside-dealers, high-rollers, back-stabbers, whistle-blowers, gambling rings and international betting rackets. In the camera lights, histrionic celebrities chase one another with snide remarks or hurt feelings; in the shadows, there are whispers about underhand pay-offs to the holiest names in the litany of cricket. There is some genuinely innovative cricket thrown in as well. How could the media resist turning such explosive ingredients into the most volatile Molotov cocktails in memory? On the evening of the first IPL semi-final, the news reports were arguably far more interesting than the match. It is only a matter of time before movies come tumbling out of such masala. Look forward to 'Lagaan’ on hormones and 'Sholay’ in designer suits. Kitney paise thhey, Kaalia?

Cynics have called IPL a circus. When you buy a ticket to the circus you get clowns along with lion-tamers, while trapeze artistes inspire the cheerleaders. But it does become a curious extravaganza when you can't tell the difference between who is who.

This much is certain: Shashi Tharoor was not the end of the story. He was the beginning of a serial.

Appeared in Times of India - April 24, 2010

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