New Delhi: Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor speaks exclusively to NDTV's Group Editor Barkha Dutt. Tharoor completely denies any wrongdoing in the charges leveled by IPL boss Lalit Modi on the issue of the IPL Kochi team.
Barkha Dutt: Well controversy has not been new to Mr Shashi Tharoor since he became a minister in this government, in fact, since he joined politics. But many of the earlier controversies seemed marginal, trivial, even flippant compared to the political challenge he is facing right now where his very integrity has been questioned with the BJP and the Left saying that Shashi Tharoor should step down. Joining us today is the man who has dominated our headlines for the past 48 hours, Minister of State for External Affairs.
Shashi Tharoor: Not willingly.
Barkha Dutt: Not willingly of course, you are still smiling...
Shashi Tharoor: What can you do? Frankly Barkha this is so preposterous that I am sort of reeling in shock from what I have been looking at on television in the last 24 hours in this country and in the press of course. The fact is that I have spent a lifetime in international public life without a slightest taint and someone trying to mar my integrity and to see it being done here, is to me, astonishing. It's one thing that I thought anybody will ever have an excuse to say anything against me.
So, I am pretty angry and I can realise that I am at a point where I can't do anything right at this point about me being seriously attacked and in this particular instance what I did as an elected representative of my state of Kerala is that let me try and get an IPL team for my state, I have mentored a group of business people who have their own consortium, of which I am not not aware of and they have come in, they have participated in a transparent bidding process and have won and it seems, that is too much of an unpardonable act and it seems that is what I am being blamed for.
Barkha Dutt: Okay let's look at few things in that statement, let's look at the central charge, what is the central charge? It is simply that allegedly you are guilty of a quid pro quo where you have used your political influence as a minister in the government to get a team for Kochi in return for which a close associate of yours Sunanda Pushkar is being granted 70 crore worth of free equity, sweat equity call it what you will, the charge is that Shashi Tharoor has misused public office, the charge is one of quid pro quo.
Shashi Tharoor: Well number one, how on earth can any minister use his political influence to get an outcome from a closed envelope process.
Barkha Dutt: Why do you say that? Doesn't politics drive a lot of the IPL?
Shashi Tharoor: Perhaps it does, but I didn't even know the amount this team was going to bid, that wasn't a part of my help for them so whatever they did they took a chance of putting a number higher or lower than the other bidders, there were 5 bidders after all and it so happened that their bid was the second highest bid, it could have been the third highest bid and they could have lost, no minister could have guaranteed that they would have known the numbers of the other bidders and I certainly had no basis of doing that so. I fail to understand how I could have used ministerial office or anybody could have used ministerial office to guarantee the outcome. In fact, if the outcome could have been guaranteed I am fairly sure that more influential and powerful people would have won the bid. The fact is that these people organised in the Kerala consortium actually managed by fluke perhaps to give themselves a number that would get them the bid and the result is that they have aggrieved a lot of people who thought that the team would go to them.
Barkha Dutt: You said in the statement that you issued to the media that whatever your relationship be with any member of the consortium.
Shashi Tharoor: Yes.
Barkha Dutt: The reason I raised it, I want to clarify something, I don't believe that your private life is anybody's business and so therefore, this is not about your personal life, the reason that this comes up is because of its association with the public, it's been visible in public circles, it's been visible in political circles for example your recent trip to Assam, we have seen the images on our television screens, so what the opposition is saying is that look this is a public association, this is an equation within political circles i.e. your equation with Sunanda Pushkar and her getting this amount of equity is no longer about her personal life.
Shashi Tharoor: I take that, that's precisely the charge they are trying to levy, the fact is there is a consortium with people in it, she is among the several people and some I haven't even met or am aware of and some are a part of this Rendezvous group, she is somebody who has been a senior business professional, who has worked in brand management and event management and so on in the past and was asked to help with the consortium. As far as I am concerned, I am not a part of this business arrangement and it's sweat equity over the years of the franchise and if the franchise succeeds and currently you know that there is no money that anybody is making in the new team they are going to have to function, they will incur losses for many years and at some point in the indefinite future, there might be profits to be gained, that might be the arrangement. Now I can't speak for Rendezvous, they have to judge who they want and for what purposes but I had a pretty good idea why they wanted her and what role they wanted her to play. My involvement has nothing whatsoever to do with her as far as I...
Barkha Dutt: In the sense...
Shashi Tharoor: I was approached by one of the guys called brothers who was putting together this consortium, as far as I am concerned, if anybody else had approached me, another business consortium approached me, I would have gone with them. In fact, I think it can be revealed that there was an earlier consortium differently constituted with only some elements of this consortium that made a bid in the first unsuccessful bidding round and Sunanda Pushkar was not a part of that. It was a different group that was involved and as far as I am aware, if a third team had come to me and said would you help us, my only message was this, think of Kerala, my whole argument was Kerala has certain advantages and I would hope that as a business person would be interested in and I as a representative of Kerala would like to see cricket come to life in Kerala, it's a place where the growth potential is enormous, it's a place where there is hunger for this sort of activity, there is a diaspora particularly in the Middle East which would love to follow a Kerala team and these are all the advantages that the Kerala team would have. These are the arguments I have made, some were persuaded some were not persuaded if you see what I am saying, as far as this particular outfit is concerned they were persuaded even though most of the promoters are not even from Kerala and I m very pleased that they were and as far as I am concerned I neither was in a position to guarantee any outcome nor was I in a position therefore to demand anything in return for it, naturally I did not, as a minister, I would not, I even write articles very occasionally because time doesn't permit, I don't take any fee for it, the rule is very clear, drawing a salary as a minister in the government of India, you don't have other sources of income so the question would not even have occurred to me.
Barkha Dutt: Hence the charge that Sunanda Pushkar is the front face of Shashi Tharoor, of course, you can't accept the equity yourself because this is a visible and public relationship of whichever kind...
Shashi Tharoor: That means I am really dumb Barkha because if I really wanted to do something corrupt I would have done it in public in a relaxed way, I mean for gods sake, it's precisely because there is nothing to hide, I have not hidden anything, the entire point is that if I wanted to do something corrupt it would have never occurred to me because I have never been corrupt in my life so I don't think that way but if I was to do it, then I would have asked some other personal friend or whatever to come over with me, it's really insulting that how our media can't accept the notion of an attractive woman being a capable professional in her own right.
Barkha Dutt: You are saying this is about sexism?
Shashi Tharoor: Yes it is, absolutely it is, it's very insulting that she must be there as a proxy for me as if she has no capabilities of her own, to be honest she has had a business career and has built up business assets and all that on her own and in far excess of anything that I can bring to the table, I wouldn't even presume that she would need to act as a proxy for me, it's ridiculous.
Barkha Dutt: That's the point she made in her own statement today that 'look I am not a proxy, I am a business woman in my own right', the counter charge to that by the BJP and the Left is that we didn't even know of a person called Sunanda Pushkar till a few months ago, we only know her because she is a friend of Shashi Tharoor, if she is such a well known businesswoman and belongs to the world of cricket business management how come we didn't know of her earlier?
Shashi Tharoor: Well I don't think she belongs to the world of cricket, I don't think she's particularly interested in cricket for that matter, sports...but she has done a great deal of event management and brand management and I believe that she was approached by another IPL team earlier at a time when it was less convenient for her.
Barkha Dutt: You mean KKR?
Shashi Tharoor: Yes, one particular promoter in KKR had a conversation with her and I believe that he has confirmed in a statement that he has issued this evening. So the fact is that I don't want to speak for Sunanda either and as far as I am concerned, her personal life is her own and that has been publicly confirmed and that's fine, I do think it's a bit insulting that people simply look at the fact that I know her and assume that there is some egregious link cause I said if I wanted to be devious and corrupt I would hardly be doing it with someone I am close to, obviously only recently, but I am close to.
Barkha Dutt: Let me put it to you in a different way, let's take your point and say she has become a part of the consortium as a business woman in her own right but you are close to her as you said, but as a politician do you understand or did you understand that this relationship would automatically be put under a different kind of scrutiny?
Shashi Tharoor: No, I didn't understand that, I assumed that these things were completely unrelated, they were unrelated in my conscious and my conduct so that I did not know that some in our media have chosen to think that they are related. I also suspect that there has been a certain amount of very malicious spinning going on by certain motivated people and there is something underhand...frankly because I am new to this world I don't understand how to do things in a underhand way, I have come from a life in which everything has been open and straightforward and I have conducted myself that way, if today you are telling me you shouldn't have done that, you should involved in some...
Barkha Dutt: No I am just asking you were you aware of the implications of this once you were in politics, everything is in the public gaze and therefore you are held by different standards that would not be if you were private?
Shashi Tharoor: I am discovering new things that I don't know about being in the public gaze and this is something I can assure you has not been pleasant over the last few days.
Barkha Dutt: I can imagine, let's go to one of the questions that Lalit Modi raised and accused you of, he said you made a phone call to him.
Shashi Tharoor: I did.
Barkha Dutt: And he says that in that phone call you said please do not disclose the details of who owns the consortium.
Shashi Tharoor: Yes, that is what's false, you see what happened is a long and boring story I am afraid.
Barkha Dutt: Tell us, we have time.
Shashi Tharoor: What happened was that this consortium, I know it's difficult to believe after all the stuff that's there is the papers, I didn't get involved in all these details, they gave away the bid, to this day I have not seen the tender document but they put together the bid, they submitted it and for a couple of weeks apparently so they say, they are the ones who speak for themselves and they came and created enormous pressure including Mr Modi himself to back off from the bid they won fair and square and in a transparent process and they unexpectedly breached it by winning, they were told all sorts of things, they didn't succumb and after a couple of weeks of process, they came back with the final printed document ready to sign, ready to go, and at the time Mr Modi said that there's something here that does not match the original document but they said we only changed it because you told us to change it so he said, no no you have to go back and change this again so that it matches exactly as to what was there in the beginning , it had something to do with the so called sweat equity and now we realise why he wanted it back in the document so that he could make an issue of this it seems, but anyway they went back and put it back in the document, flew again to Mumbai, flew again to Bangalore to see him where he was attending an IPL match and they had told me that they were concerned about these objections because they had thought they had fulfilled all the legal requirements and since my role was more of a mention and a patron, no more did I, what was till then a friendly call to Lalit during the day saying what's going on? What's the issue? And he said, no no you see the documents have to match, if there are any complications somebody else could file a case in court saying that and so on etc etc....saying that it had to be changed but I will sign it immediately after that. So when I said when? he said well you know if they can come at 5:45 pm will sign it right away otherwise I have to go to an IPL match and then i can sign it after the match, that was written , I have SMSes on that. not everything was a phone call, this 5:45 was an SMS.
Barkha Dutt: So, you had replies as well, you haven't released them as yet?
Shashi Tharoor: Well you see the point is, to be honest , I was playing a marginal role in the process so I have no reason to be suspicious about his behavior and he said that he is going to sign it. He has reassured me so when he comes back, he keeps them waiting for that one meeting and then keeps peppering them with questions about the consortium where upon on of those who was present at the meeting sends a message to one of his principals who is not attending the meeting saying that we have been as we were, this is not a routine process giving us a lot and that gentleman called me to say do you, what's going on, Lalit Modi had assured you that it was going to be a routine process and it is a routine process etc so in some irritation I called Lalit and asked him, why are you asking these questions and delaying the process when you assured me that you would sign the document, that was when a change in his attitude became apparent and since he has alleged that I was questioning his questions, I was questioning his delay, he should not have been delaying a process and indeed at the end of the day he had no choice but to sign the document which was in every respect fully compatible with the deed of requirements. This is more detailed that normally I would like to get into, there you are.
Barkha Dutt: But here's the question, as someone who describes himself as a marginal player, someone who doesn't even know everybody in the consortium but as those who have been saying that as a minister should you have taken this course? Should you have been involved to this degree?
Shashi Tharoor: A call on Saturday in the midnight is also a minister's life and well in a minister's life is something that is the government's but not at the expense of any ministerial duty, there was no file kept waiting while I made that call.
Barkha Dutt: Should you have been this involved?
Shashi Tharoor: Look I see myself in this particular case as seen through a process that I would have to begin, these people would not have bid for Cochin had I not urged them to see the merits of Kerala, is it appropriate for a minister to boost his or her own state or constituency, absolutely because I am simultaneously the MP of my constituency, one of the paradoxes of our Parliamentary system is that you have to be doing two full time jobs at the same time, you are a full time minister and you are a full time MP, by that same logic everyday when I go to my constituency or political meetings or every petition I receive from my constituents that I forward to other ministers should also be quote unquote inappropriate because they have nothing at all to do with my work as minister of state for external affairs. But, in fact, that is what Members of Parliament do in our system, and particularly Lok Sabha MPs do have an obligation to represent their voters. So, obviously, I'd have been happier still if the city in question were, Trivandrum rather than Kochi, but the idea, the promoters told me, was that they would use the team as a Kerala team and that they would play in Trivandrum as well as Kochi, when the stadiums are built. So, I had a legitimate constituency interest to advance this team's prospects.
Barkha Dutt: Rendezvous has basically said that the problem that Lalit Modi had is that he actually didn't want Kochi to get the bid, but another city, who is this reference to? What do you think this is about?
Shashi Tharoor: I think we should leave this to others to say. I don't want to get into allegations of that nature. All I can tell you is that it does seem apparent that some of the pressures that were brought to bear were explicitly directed at having this consortium default so that perhaps one of the unsuccessful bidders could prevail. But this is speculation and there is no point in speculating , others may speculate but what is of concern to me is, it is of a rather sad moment when an opportunity to take something, and I've admired and said publicly to Lalit Modi and to the world, that I admire the IPL in India, an attempt to take that kind of entertainment to a place that is literally quite like a backwater in cricketing development...I have had a passion for cricket since I was a child when I grew up initially in Mumbai, watched my first Test match at seven, I used to go to Kerala on holidays and find no one understood cricket, and no one understood the game, now there is the beginning of this, you can see boys with bats and balls in every maidan and church courtyard and whatever because partly of television and because of the appeal of the sport, this is a great moment for Kerala cricket to take off and for one more state to enter this way something that has become a national passion and for me being a Keralite MP that's what excites me about all of it and that's what I want to see happen.
Barkha Dutt: But
Shashi Tharoor: It's such a pity that such an opportunity which should be embraced by the IPL as a way of expanding the frontiers of the game and of the IPL is to be thwarted by the very people of India.
Barkha Dutt: Here is now the ethical question not just about the Kochi team but at the heart of the IPL and all the teams and many people are saying look what's the secrecy why doesn't the IPL and IPL management disclose the holdings of all the teams and that is something in a sense that goes in your favour because they say that why did Lalit Modi only talk about Kochi but the question to you then Shashi is why did you seemed resistant to that information being revealed?
Shashi Tharoor: Simply because as I understand it, there is confidentiality clause in the basic bidding game, as I said I have not seen the bidding document...I am retelling it second hand which applies to all the team. So what was irritating that why was one teams made an exception? What was the motive...I m afraid that the motive did not seem to me entirely respectable one.
Barkha Dutt: So you are saying that the motive was the mal intent and and that was your problem and not the principle of disclosure itself.
Shashi Tharoor: Exactly no no, in fact, if he discloses the same details for all teams why should one team complain...it's only one team has been disclosed that team has a right to feel grieved...
Barkha Dutt: And in that phone call ...The last call that you made to Lalit Modi, did you say don't disclose the details of holdings especially those of Sunanda Pushkar?
Shashi Tharoor: No off course, not. In fact, Lalit claims as you may have heard that he records the conversation let him play the conversation we can all hear it...I mean this is to my point of view is likely silly charge...the entire purpose was to find out why there was a delay...because I find my own credibility was on the line I had conveyed to these promoters that look every thing is in order, Lalit says one change and they have your signature...they went and made the change and they came back...it wasn't happening so that was it was all about...look I mean that I contest with Lalit Modi.
Barkha Dutt: Would you have considered him a friend before this?
Shashi Tharoor: I am sure we both that way about each other but surely we both will stop using that word now, I certainly have.
Barkha Dutt: It's an understatement.
Shashi Tharoor: I must say, people have large stakes in issues I don't. So the sad thing for me is that I have been deduced and vilified for something that is not even occupying one percent of my weekly pressure, I mean I am busy person, I have a lot of international travel and I have lot of work to do, I have visitors from abroad, this is something that has involved literally minimal amount of my time literally initially what I thought was I good cause for my home stage, suddenly this has dominated national perception that I am what I do what I care about and I find that deeply offensive and hurtful particularly one of the few things that one has in this world is one's integrity, one's own personal reputation and my reputation whatever else it may be, people don't like some of the things that I say or do, or the way I say or do them, the forums in which I say or do them, at least, they have seen me as somebody who is always upfront, straightforward honest. This is the way I have lived my life...I have turned 54, I am not going to start turning into something else now and this is the way I have tried to do everything I have wanted to do and as far as I am concerned to be vilified and accused in this way of having monetary motives, if I had bothered about money. I have given up a rather generous salary to come and work for the government of India. It's extremely silly.
Barkha Dutt: The test that politicians have to pass is the perception test. How do you counter the perception that 's being laid that Shashi Tharoor misused public office. That while Lalit Modi may have a lot answer for he is not a minister in the government.
Shashi Tharoor: There's no misuse of public office, wasn't granting favours to any private entity. I was having friendly conversation with somebody not connected with my ministry and when that private entity asked for some favours they were not granted. It was a very much above board and upfront thing and top of that to be very honest, this particular enterprise was one that was going to benefit my state and my constituency. So those were my reasons for doing it, little did I expect that it will so aggrieve the disappointed bidders on who on behalf Mr Modi seem to be acting that he will set about traducing, vilifying, insulting, humiliating and end of the day libeling, by insinuation...he hasn't accused me of anything personally. But he has asked questions in a way that it implies... I'm speaking to you precisely because that perception hurts me and wounds me... since it's the end of the day sticks and stones can break your bones but words can hurt you in places which last longer and hurt deeper...
Barkha Dutt: You posted on twitter that you've had enough... people thought that Shashi Tharoor is going to resign... your smiling but both BJP and CPM have asked for your resignation.
Shashi Tharoor: Is it that a good reason for a Congress MP to resign?
Barkha Dutt: But the PM has made a statement that he will come back and make a statement, many people believe party has left you in the cold. Are you going to resign?
Shashi Tharoor: To say party has left me in the cold is not accurate, many statements have been made by party leaders in support of me in fact, as recently as today afternoon the leader of opposition in Kerala made a strong and vigorous statement in support of me so I think there are many elements in the party who have come out and others are more anxious to wait for.
Barkha Dutt: That doesn't bother you?
Shashi Tharoor: No it does not bother me.
Barkha Dutt: Or scare you?
Shashi Tharoor: No why should it scare me? if I had done something wrong I should be scared. In fact, if I had done something wrong I would have offered to resign but to resign when you have done nothing wrong, to resign because people deliberately chose to misrepresent you means you are giving more importance to others than to your own perception and your own integrity so I am not going to resign or be an embarrassment to my party , a liability to my party but I am going to say very vigorously that this is nonsense, these charges are false that they are politically motivated by some party and in the other world they are motivated by the business interests or other vested interests I don't think that cricket and the IPL in our country should be a closed shop where only a few favoured elements loyal to only some people are in a position to bid and win teams, I think we should open up the space the entire country should open up, we are a democracy we should have more opportunities to do things we like even if we have not done them before, in away my entry into politics is a way of bringing some other kinds of respectability into the political world and I hope that similarly other people in other walks of life will have the courage to go forward so I think giving up and resigning would, mean that I have given up the good fight for change for openness and for transparency and that's why I am speaking for it.
Barkha Dutt: You said in the beginning, well it's my second last question , that I can't do anything right , that's a kind of cynical, you speaking who runs from one controversy to the other, why are you perennially in the center of a controversy?
Shashi Tharoor: Well I would like to know that too, let me tell you one of your colleagues from a rival channel interviewed me at the time of the Kochi bid and was happy with the kind of things I was saying that cricket is going to be big for Kerala, well then he said how come you don't speak with such enthusiasm about your work to us and I said when have you last asked me about my work, that week when I was speaking to him, I had received 17 African Foreign Ministers in Delhi, 2 PMs and a vice president they were here for important diplomatic discussions with government of India, I hosted lunches and dinners for them, I had several other agreements, did any of you ask a single question about those agreements or report about them, I tweeted about them too but they got no attention so the media is only interested in trivia, in ephemera, in quote un quote controversy, the media chooses what it wants to make controversial but the solid substance of work that I as a Minister of State for External Affairs have to do all the time, it's a very demanding department, I have lots and lots of work...my being the first Indian minister to go to Haiti nothing has been reported...so I asked my friends that why is that you take only one part of these controversies as a punching bag, a much larger part of my life and time that I spend in doing useful work about my country, would you not like to know about it?
Barkha Dutt: So in conclusion because talking about the media is another huge debate...really my last question, in conclusion, will you be communicating your end of the story, your perception of what has happened to the PM, to the Congress president Sonia Gandhi because you have said that you are not quitting and you see no reason to resign.
Shashi Tharoor: Obviously, I will be conveying all of this, the PM is away he is doing busy important work for the country when he comes back I have already asked to see him and I would very much like to talk to him about all that has happened and certainly the Congress president is my party leader and I would very much like to place myself at her disposal, the fact of the matter is that I believe that I have done nothing wrong I stand with my head held high and at the same time I believe that whatever has been alleged, needs refutation.
Barkha Dutt: Are you ready for the storm in Parliament tomorrow?
Shashi Tharoor: We will see, the fact is that Parliament functions in a particular way and we have had various storms on various issues, no doubt that this may well be one more of them, the fact is that I respect Parliament, it is the temple of our democracy and I will go to it with the spirit of a worshiper.
Barkha Dutt: Well one thing can be said, no matter how many controversies engulf you, you seem to fight your way through all of them and let's see what path this controversy takes you through, thanks you so much Shashi Tharoor for talking to us.
Shashi Tharoor: Thanks Barkha.