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The man who knows how to plot a comeback

Former BCCI chief N Srinivasan may be on the back foot, but if his innings at India Cements is anything to go by, it may still be too early to write him off

Aditi Phadnis  |  New Delhi 

Opinions abound about Narayanaswami Srinivasan, 69, the managing director of India Cements and Board for Control of Cricket in India, or BCCI, strongman. The man who has flirted with politics as well as sports while running a highly successful business is caught in an unsavoury controversy over a conflict of interest in sports and business. His son-in-law, Gurunath Meiyappan, faces spot-fixing allegations. The Supreme Court found his conduct "nauseating" and asked Srinivasan to step aside as the BCCI chief till the enquiry is over. For the time being, Srinivasan has stepped down and Shivlal Yadav, the former Hyderabad off-spinner, is looking after the day-to-day activities of the board. But those who know Srinivasan say it's too early to write him off: he doesn't do things by halves and when he wants something, he gets it.

India Cements was begun by SNN Sankaralinga Iyer as part of the Sanmar group in 1946. It had a professional accounts man, TS Narayanaswami, Srinivasan's father, who helped to set up the company. Iyer bequeathed his business to his son, KS Narayanan, and eventually two grandsons, N Sankar and N Kumar, took over the company. The accounting brain, Narayanaswami, died early in life when his sons Srinivasan and Ramachandran were barely in their 20s. This was in the late 1960s.

It was then that trouble started. The second generation - the Sanmar group interest represented by Sankar and Kumar and the influence wielded in the company by Srinivasan and Ramachandran - clashed. Both had equal stakes in the cement major. By the 1970s, the promoters had fallen out bitterly on running India Cements. The legal battle between Srinivasan and the Sankar families led to the intervention of financial institutions, mainly IDBI. Exerting their 52 per cent equity muscle in 1979, the institutions ousted the Sankar family and Srinivasan from the board. In 1983, the institutions made an abortive bid to hand over the company to tobacco giant ITC. For ten years, the company was run either by professional managers or by bureaucrats: PV Rajaraman, an IAS officer became the managing director at one stage.

Start of a new journey

Then came the turning point. Recognising that the company was not making money, the institutions began making noises about handing it back to the promoters. Srinivasan saw an opening. He had been in Singapore "sowing wild oats", says a close observer of the affairs of India Cements, and had returned to India by then. The two promoter families made their peace. Srinivasan's obsession was to get the company back. By now, he had made friends with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK, and recognised a kindred business spirit in a rising star in the party: M Karunanidhi's nephew, Murasoli Maran. The two became not just business associates but also close friends.

DMK was voted back to power in 1989. Maran became a union minister and India Cements came back to the promoters with some "friendly intervention" by Chief Minister Karunanidhi. While Sankar became its chairman, the team led by Srinivasan was given full freedom to chalk out a growth plan for the company. Srinivasan launched an aggressive strategy of trying to turn the company around, mainly by acquiring other companies and intelligent pricing. The one-million-tonne-per-annum cement plant of Coromandel Fertilisers in Andhra Pradesh was the first acquisition. Visaka Cement, also in Andhra Pradesh, came later. Soon India Cements became the biggest cement company not just in the state but in the entire southern region.

Despite all the vicissitudes, Srinivasan gets unqualified accolades from unexpected quarters: the trade unions. Although the company had a union affiliated to the All India Trade Union Congress, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions - it's the labour arm of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - too managed to get a foothold. CITU's TK Rangarajan says he had no difficulty in talking about workers' problems with Srinivasan: "I found him empathetic and eager to sort our problems out."


The cricket connection

Along with the renewed friendship with the Sankar family, came the interest in cricket. Sankar became the president of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association in 1993-94. Sankar suggested Srinivasan for the vice-president. Srinivasan, who till then had shown no interest in cricket administration, contested but lost. Much like the strategy to get India Cements back on track, he then devised a strategy to create a foothold in cricket administration: he made friends, this time with AC Muthiah, the chairman of the Spic group. That friendship was tactical. Till 2001-02, Muthiah was the president of the Tamil Nadu Association. The next year, he was succeeded by Srinivasan - a position he has held on to till date.

Family and business challenges intervened. Srinivasan's daughter, Rupa, opted to marry out of caste. His son-in-law, Meiyappan, gradually gained acceptance. Meanwhile, Srinivasan's brother, Ramachandran, began to dabble in sports administration. He began by trying to organise swimming contests. Later, he tried his hand at triathlon and still later, promoted Squash - a sport almost unknown in the state. In business, Srinivasan and Ramachandran grew apart. In 2009, Ramachandran sold his stake in India Cements to his brother and walked out of the company.

When Sharad Pawar became the BCCI president in 2005 (with some help from Srinivasan who by now was a force to reckon with in the Tamil Nadu cricket setup), Pawar made him the treasurer. This was in part an acknowledgement of the way Srinivasan had handled Jagmohan Dalmia whom Pawar displaced. By now, Srinivasan had become a pro in cricket administration. He single-handedly revamped the cricket infrastructure in Tamil Nadu, though his politics got in the way: the new stands in the MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chepauk, that were built as part of an initiative he took are yet to get a completion certificate, and every match played there has to get the clearance of court. What has complicated the matter further is that the state government, led by J Jayalalithaa, would yield no quarter to a sports association headed by a man who is known to be close to DMK.

Cricket and business

Many saw Srinivasan's moves as efforts to deepen business through sport. He contested this strongly. In an interview to a magazine, he said: "India Cements had been involved in cricket even before the game became a money spinner. My father started this involvement way back in the late 1950s. We have traditionally employed cricketers such as S Venkatraghavan, Rahul Dravid, R Ashwin and MS Dhoni. At one point in time, most of the players who represented Tamil Nadu in Ranji Trophy were employees of India Cements. Cricket is a part of India Cements' culture." But charges of conflict of interest persisted. When the Indian Premier League started in 2008, BCCI changed its rules to allow its office-bearers to own teams. Srinivasan by then had launched Chennai Super Kings, an IPL franchise. Muthiah, his erstwhile friend, took him to court. (Muthiah held a grudge against Srinivasan for scuttling his bid to become the BCCI president in 2001.) In April 2011, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court gave a split verdict on the legality of Srinivasan, then BCCI secretary, having interests in Chennai Super Kings.

More charges got hurled at him. Former national selector Mohinder Amarnath charged that Srinivasan interfered in team selection and prevented the selectors from dropping Dhoni ( the Chennai Super Kings captain and an India Cements employee) after India's 0-4 defeat in the Test series in Australia. But the worst charges were made by the Supreme Court-appointed Justice Mukul Mudgal probe committee that found Meiyappan involved in betting and passing information about the team in IPL matches to others.

India Cements, in its defence, said that Meiyappan had nothing to do with IPL. But the Supreme Court was having none of that. "In our opinion, Srinivasan has to step down for a fair investigation into the allegation of betting," said Justice AK Patnaik in the course of the hearing on the Mudgal report "It's nauseating that Srinivasan continues as BCCI chief, he should go if cricket has to be cleaned," the court said. In a later interim order, the court removed Srinivasan and appointed former India captain Sunil Gavaskar as the board's interim working president. The court, however, made it clear that Gavaskar would be in charge only for the duration of IPL, scheduled to be held between April 16 and June 1. Therefore, the game is still wide open to Srinivasan. Meanwhile, in July, he will become the chairman of the International Cricket Council.

Efforts by Business Standard to contact Srinivasan on this matter failed. Srinivasan did not speak to reporters massed outside his residence on the day the Supreme Court gave the order. Indian Cements' corporate communications team denied all knowledge. Time and again, Srinivasan has emphasised the work done by him in popularising cricket. In an interview to Business Today a few months ago, Srinivasan said he had tried to do a lot to create cricket infrastructure in Tamil Nadu and in the rest of the country. "The level of facilities is enormous and we have taken cricket to every nook and corner of the country. The following the sport has in the country, coupled with the interest advertisers have in promoting their products to this audience, has meant that media rights have become the single-largest source of revenue for BCCI. We are using it effectively to promote the sport."

The twist in the tale is the alleged North-South bias. There is a feeling that a North Indian conspiracy is preventing Srinivasan from going to ICC in July. But Srinivasan surely is planning his comeback. Recently, he took everybody by surprise by sending a bouquet of flowers to Muthiah on his birthday - the man was once his mentor and is now his bitterest critic. Does Muthiah have a role in his future strategy? Only Srinivasan knows. Meanwhile, there is no doubt at all that he has a strategy in place: the world will figure out what it was, only much later.

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First Published: Wed, April 02 2014. 23:32 IST
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