The Indian Express ran a big story recently on a potential conflict of interest that has the Indian Captain Virat Kohli at its epicenter. Apparently, Kohli had invested in the holding company of the Mobile Premier League (MPL), which goes by the name of Galactus Funware Technology Private Limited in February 2019. Galactus, in turn, is a subsidiary of M-League Pte Ltd, a company registered in Singapore since April 2018. MPL on November 17, 2020, became the BCCI’s (Board of Control for Cricket in India) official kit sponsor and merchandise partner. The Indian team in Australia is already wearing the MPL logo on its new jersey. And yes, Virat Kohli is also the brand ambassador of the MPL.
Virat Kohli, as per The Indian Express, was allotted 68 CCDs of face value Rs.10, each issued at a premium of Rs. 48,990 (Rs. 33.32 lakh). These CCDs will be converted into equity shares at the end of 10 years, the conversion ratio being 1:1, i.e. one equity share for one debenture. Post-dilution, Kohli will have a 0.051 per cent stake in the company. But that is only part of the story. Interestingly, concurrent to the issue of the CCDs to Captain Kohli, Galactus also issued 34 CCDs worth Rs 16.66 lakh to Cornerstone Sport LLP. Cornerstone’s CEO Amit Arun Sajdeh is Kohli’s partner in two other limited liability partnership firms – Magpie Venture Partners LLP and Virat Kohli Sports LLP. Sajdeh’s Cornerstone Sport & Entertainment Private Ltd. manages the commercial rights of Virat Kohli and many of India’s international cricketers including KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Umesh Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav and Shubman Gill. And that is what could lead to a contentious conflict of interest. MPL, a BCCI sponsor has Virat as a shareholder, and his agent Sajdeh also as a stakeholder. And Sajdeh manages the commercial interests of Virat Kohli and other major players. These interconnections and beneficiary interests are what constitute potential ‘conflict of interest’.
What does the BCCI have to say about ‘conflict of interest’? The BCCI rulebook says, “Any Administrator or their near relatives should not be associated with any Company/ Organization that has entered into a Commercial Agreement with the BCCI. Association shall not mean any near relative who is working as a regular employee of the Company/Organisation. However, this will not apply to the small holding of shares in a public limited company… An Administrator shall not draw any financial benefits from the BCCI except as per the TA and DA rules for BCCI, ICC, ACC meetings or meetings with Foreign Boards, and any retirement benefit he/she may be entitled for as a former Cricketer/Umpire or any other capacity or such other expenses that may be incurred in carrying out his/her duties. An Administrator or his near relative shall not be associated with a Player Management Company or a Player Agent in any form either Honorary or Paid.” ‘The Player Management Company or a Player Agent’ part is where the Virat-Sajdeh connect becomes an issue. But those on Kohli’s side argue he is not an Administrator. Well, that is debatable … a Captain in India has immense on-field control, and off-field clout. So though not really an ‘administrator’, he wields tremendous power within the system.
Virat Kohli is not the only one who is in focus on ‘conflict of interest’. BCCI President Saurav Ganguly recently signed on to be the brand ambassador for Classplus, a competitor to Byju’s, the Team Sponsor of BCCI. Ganguly made much ado about having declined endorsement deals offered to him by Byju’s itself but did not care to elaborate on how endorsing Byju’s direct competitor was any less an issue. When Saurav Ganguly signed up with Dream 11’s (BCCI’s IPL title sponsor) competitor My11Circle, he had put out the famous tweet, “The #IND vs BAN series is on fire! The excitement continues in the 3rd match with the series levelled. Will #TeamIndia keep up the winning streak or will Bangladesh bounce back? Beat my team on @My11Circle & Win Big. Make Your Team Now!”. There was a severe backlash with questions being asked on:
- Was he, the BCCI President, not ambushing the BCCI’s biggest sponsor?
- What if My11Circle decides someday to replace Byju’s and bids against it? As BCCI president can Saurav Ganguly influence a possible outcome in favour of My11Circle?
- Both the Chairman of the selectors and the Captain share their views on the possible team with the BCCI Board, which Ganguly chairs. So Ganguly is privy to confidential advance information. Can he use it to advantage on his fantasy brand?
- BCCI says, “An administrator of an affiliated unit or his near relative shall not have any commercial interest in any activities/tournaments of the affiliated unit”. Ganguly as the brand ambassador of a fantasy league has a direct interest in every game, every series, every tournament being played.
Saurav Ganguly was earlier associated with JSW, the owners of the Delhi Capital franchise. He stepped out of that mentorship role fairly grudgingly when he took over as BCCI President. Till the very end, he kept hiding behind the cloak of it being a ‘personal’ arrangement. Wonder what ‘personal’ connotes when you are the Board President.
Rahul Dravid has had his own share of ‘conflict of interest’ issues. When Dravid was appointed the director of the National Cricket Academy (NCA) by the BCCI, he was said to be occupying more than one post at the time, which was not permitted as per the Board’s rules. The second post that Dravid was holding was that of Vice President at India Cements, the owners of the Chennai Super Kings franchise in the IPL. The matter was dragged before Justice (retd.) DK Jain, the Ombudsman of the BCCI. Dravid in his submission before Justice Jain said that on the “advice” of BCCI and to “avoid any kind of conflict of interest” he had taken a “leave of absence” without salary from India Cements during his stint at the NCA. Dravid pointed out that he had been an employee of Indian Cements for two decades, but never had “any connection, relationship or obligation” towards the Super Kings. Justice Jain gave Dravid a clean chit.
The same Ombudsman however red-carded Saurav Ganguly and VVS Laxman on an earlier occasion. Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman were found to be in positions of conflict of interest for their roles as commentators concurrently with the positions they held in administration in Indian cricket. Justice Jain asked them to choose between the two positions. He was convinced that conflict was clear and unambiguous.
So, are all these illustrious personas, these august gentlemen, just more sinn’d against than sinning? Are they just being targeted to bring them down from their high perches? Are they just innocent players who just happen to be in business too and if lines of business or influence ever intersect, it is merely coincidental?
The holier-than-thou Diana Eduljee who was a member of the Supreme Court appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA) despite being vociferous on ‘conflict of interest’ related to all others, conveniently framed rules for largesse to benefit her sister who wore the India cap only once but walked away with a whopper of an amount under the new norms. So ‘conflict’ is, and always has been, a stick to beat rivals or those in power, but benefit yourself maximally.
Conflict, to me, actually has two dimensions. There is of course the narrow legal interpretation, which can always be argued on both sides with pretty weighty supports. That we won’t get into for now. But there is, equally importantly, a moral conflict. Whatever Virat Kohli or Saurav Ganguly may say, their competing in what they claim is their ‘personal’ capacity against official sponsors of the BCCI is not good optics. After all the President of the Board and the Captain of the team cannot publicly be seen to be rivals of the very sponsors who fill the coffers of Indian cricket. It somehow does not look right or sound right.
The BCCI’s Ombudsman also seems kind of lackadaisical. Also, not prone to taking suo moto action on issues that crop up. By the time some intervention is finally initiated, a fair amount of the benefit from the conflict has already been pocketed by the concerned parties. Also, the star-system in cricket is even more potent than in Bollywood. Sachin Tendulkar is God in India. When in 2019, he was pulled up by Justice Jain for alleged Conflict of Interest under the “tractable category”, he went ballistic on the then CEO of the BCCI, Rahul Johri.
According to the BCCI’s constitution clause 38 (3) (a): “Tractable conflicts are those that are resolvable or permissible or excusable through recusal of the individual concerned and – or – with full disclosure of the interest involved.” He contested the supposed conflict, aggressively rebutting the allegations, “Without prejudice to the aforesaid, the Noticee submits that it is surprising that the BCCI, being the very authority responsible for the Noticee’s empanelment to the Cricket Advisory Committee (“CAC”), is presently taking a position that the Noticee is exposed to an alleged Conflict of Interest. It is reiterated that the Noticee was declared as the Mumbai Indians ‘ICON’ post his retirement in 2013, which was much prior to his appointment to the CAC in 2015,” meaning thereby that the BCCI should have known that his appointment to the CAC would lead to conflict, hence should not have appointed him at all! So, if anybody was to blame for the conflict, it was the BCCI and not Sachin Tendulkar! Conflict? Bah!
Dr. Sandeep Goyal helms the Indian Institute of Human Brands. He is a big cricket fan, and follows the game closely.