India's tweeting cricket boss hits minister for six

Politician accused of helping 'secret girlfriend' buy stake in new IPL team
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The Independent Online

A high-flying Indian minister is under mounting pressure to resign amid allegations over the ownership of a new cricket team in the lucrative Indian Premier League.

The urbane junior foreign minister Shashi Tharoor, a former high-ranking UN official whose reputation has increasingly been tarnished by a series of alleged political gaffes, is accused of using his personal position to help a consortium of friends to buy a new team in the highly popular competition.

What has given the allegations extra spice are claims that one of the consortium's members, a businesswoman who lives in Dubai, is the minister's secret girlfriend and that she has been given a free, lucrative stake in the team.

The saga centres on the recent purchase by a consortium of the licence for a new IPL team that will be based in Kochi in Kerala. As an MP for the state, Mr Tharoor had agreed to serve as a "mentor" for the consortium, which calls itself Rendezvous Sports World and whose members had asked to remain anonymous.

But over the weekend, Lalit Modi, the head of the IPL, used Twitter to "leak" details of the consortium's membership and to reveal that the businesswoman, Sunanda Pushkar, who he said was a friend of Mr Tharoor, had been given a $15m stake in the team. He further claimed that the minister had told him "not to get into who owns Rendezvous. Especially Sunanda Pushkar. Why?"

Mr Tharoor, who is the most popular user of Twitter in India with more than 700,000 followers, soon hit back, claiming he had "had enough" of the allegations. In a statement, he said: "Whatever my personal relationships with any of the consortium members, I do not intend to benefit in any way financially from my association with the team now or at a later stage."

He also attacked Mr Modi, saying: "Various attempts were made by Mr Modi and others to pressure the consortium members to abandon their bid in favour of another city in a different state. His extraordinary breach of all propriety in publicly raising issues relating to the composition of the consortium and myself personally is clearly an attempt to discredit the team."

In Delhi, the opposition has demanded Mr Tharoor's resignation. Prakash Javedekar, a spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said last night: "It's a case of impropriety, of a minister who is using his official position to patronise his friends and there may be things that have not yet come out."

This is not the first time that Mr Tharoor has been at the centre of controversy over remarks he has made as one of the first prominent public figures to use Twitter in India.

Last year, his Tweets describing economy air travel as flying "cattle-class" left his Congress party fuming, given that the party leader, Sonia Gandhi, had directed ministers to fly coach to save money. He then offended his party when he tweeted his concerns about new visa policies the government was introducing.

Analysts say much of the controversy has to do with the manner of Mr Tharoor, who has never lacked confidence in his abilities, as well as jealousy within his party. A former UN under-secretary general and author of many books, he was appointed to a ministerial position immediately after being elected as an MP for the Keralan city of Trivandrum last year.

Last night, the Congress Party leadership was said to be meeting to discuss the matter. Asked about the allegations, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, currently in the US, said: "I have heard about these things... When I go back, I will get all the facts, and in the light of those, if any action is necessary, I think that would be the proper way to proceed."

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