Why sports betting must be legalised

An industry that operates above ground is less likely to engage in fixing

The ongoing spot-fixing controversy in Indian Premier League cricket has evoked the usual response. We need a new law—to criminalise cheating in sports—, with harsh punishments, strict enforcement and so on. Given statements made by politicians who are also cricket administrators, it is possible that such a law will indeed be enacted. But if you think the problem of fixing will come down substantially because of this, you will be mistaken.

First, let’s be clear—no matter what you do, it is impossible to completely eliminate illegal activity. There will always be some people who will cheat. What you can do, however, is to reduce the incentives for cheating to such a level that very few people cheat and tighten enforcement enough to catch some of those who do. If this is done, there is a possibility that eventually a culture of integrity will emerge and you’ll have few errant cases to deal with.

In other words, you need to drain the swamps. In the world of Indian cricket, the swamp consists of the illegal economy of betting. Because betting is considered illegal, it is mostly under the control of underground international syndicates that are usually mixed up with other, more dangerous types of illegal activity—like arms trafficking and terrorism. These syndicates operate outside the law and often with key operatives located outside the country, beyond the reach of Indian authorities. The criminal syndicates bribe policemen, bureaucrats and politicians in order to be able to carry out their activities. They also employ thugs and other unsavoury characters to enforce ‘contracts’. And yes, it also creates a lot of unaccounted money that then goes into other underground activities.

There is an economic rationale for this entire criminal economy to exist—there is a lot of money in betting. According to FICCI, illegal betting in sports is worth Rs 12000 crore to Rs 20000 crore per annum. If betting is legalised, this rationale begins to weaken. If people have a choice to place their bets at licensed betting counters—like they do for many sports in many countries—the likelihood that they will prefer to deal with unlicensed bookies will be lower. How much lower depends on the regulatory framework—competition among operators, taxation and anonymity, for instance—but to the extent that it does, the illegal operators will suffer.

It makes ample sense, therefore, to legalise betting and regulate it with the purpose of prevent the industry from falling into the hands of criminal syndicates. As the swamp is drained, the likelihood that it will breed disease-causing mosquitos will go down. There will always be unscrupulous individuals who will attempt fixing, but they will be a lot more isolated from the underground criminal networks than they are today. It is riskier to be an individual crook than to be a member of a big criminal syndicate; so fewer people will be tempted. Law enforcement authorities will be able to do a better job apprehending them because they are fewer in number and operate as individuals or small gangs.

Is it necessary to legalise betting? Won’t law enforcement alone suffice? Well, merely tightening laws and enforcement is likely to have the effect of raising the price of fixing. Spot fixing, like match fixing, will continue, but players and bookies will demand higher prices.

From my archives: On legalising prostitution and two thoughts from Amsterdam

Against cash rewards for our world champions

Why we must challenge medieval-style patronage at public expense

You’ve heard it in stories. You’ve seen it in plays and movies. The all powerful king is sitting on his throne. A poet, artist or athlete arrives in his court, and impresses the king with his accomplishments. The king then hands out a reward—gold coins, land and sometimes even his daughter—to the man. You might even remember scenes where the king takes off a pearl necklace from around his neck and throws it around that of the grateful subject.

Times have changed. India is a democratic republic. Unlike kings and emperors its political leaders do not rule over us. They are the representatives we appoint to govern our affairs according to laws made with our consent. India’s treasury is not their personal purse to do with as they please. They are the custodians of the taxes we pay to be used for purposes we have pre-approved. Sadly, this is only the theory. In reality the relationship between the government and citizen is more like the one between king and subject rather than between republic and free citizen.

It is precisely this mindset of giving inams that causes our state governments to shower cash prizes and land allocations on the members of world champion cricket team. Let there be no mistake — it is important for governments to publicly recognise and honour excellence in any field. But it must be done so in an appropriate manner. There is no reason why the Indian taxpayer should spend even a paisa rewarding the Indian cricket team for winning the world cup. The tax rupee has many more pressing uses.

Now it can be reasonably argued that the money thus given away does not pinch the exchequer. What’s a few crores in budgets that run into thousands of crores? This view misses the point. These are not the private funds of the politician giving away the money to bask in the afterglow of India’s World Cup victory, but public funds over which the politician is merely a custodian. The legalistic response that these funds come out of the discretionary budget of the chief minister doesn’t wash, because even discretionary spending must be in the public interest to be justified.

It is not that the Republic lacks ways to honour and reward accomplished citizens. There are the Arjuna awards for sportspeople. Why have them if crores are arbitrarily handed to cricketers? Why hand out crores when there are Arjunas?

There are other ways the state can honour sportspeople. There are tens of stadiums in the country named after Jawaharlal Nehru, a great man certainly, but one whose sporting achievements were modest. Why not rename these stadiums after sportspeople who have done the nation proud? It won’t cost more than a coat of paint to paint a new signboard. Bangalore’s Anil Kumble Circle is in the right direction, but why not name new urban landmarks after them (yes, this can be done only after creating new urban infrastructure)?

There is another reason why inams are unacceptable. They perpetuate the medieval mindset of a government that rules and patronises its subjects, rather than a government that governs and respects its citizens. It is the same mindset that robs people of their dignity by patronising them. It is the mindset that robs people of power by doling out entitlements. The entitlement economy aims to make India a nation where goods are free but people are not. As Ramesh Srivats says “Get a free laptop. But not the freedom to say what you want. A free TV, but not the freedom to see what you want.” It bans websites that you should not visit. It bans books that you should not read. It gives you the right to education but insists that you cannot send your children to a nearby school because it doesn’t have a playground.

Javed Akhtar’s unfortunate comment shows just how entitlements cause divisiveness and lead society down the path of competitive intolerance.

Far more than any external threat or domestic challenge, it is this mindset that holds India back. If the person handing out the pearls believes he is the ruler, it is implicit that the person taking inam is subordinate and subject, not a free citizen.

It was wrong to leave Pakistani cricketers out

It is in India’s interests to be the subcontinent’s talent magnet

If you have been reading this blog for some time you might have noticed that The Acorn has consistently been against any measure that falsely conveys an impression that Pakistan is no longer a sponsor of international terrorism in general and proxy-war against India in particular. That is the reason why this blog has opposed using a cricket series in Pakistan to initiate a ‘peace process’. And that was the motivation behind the April 2005 online banner campaign against inviting General Musharraf for a cricket match.

No to Musharraf - April 2007 campaign
The "No to Musharraf" campaign - April 2005

India must resolutely work towards the dismantling and eventual destruction of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. Well-meaning but strategically unsound moves—from officially contrived ‘peace processes’ to grotesque media campaigns—are counterproductive towards this end. Even serious diplomatic dialogue with the Pakistani government is unlikely to lead to anything productive, given the chronic powerlessness of the civilian government and the unremitting hostility of the military establishment.

But does this mean India should close its doors to individual Pakistanis who might wish to travel, trade, work or study in India? Not at all.

It is in India’s interests to be a magnet for the subcontinent—and the world’s—talent. This has historically been a source of India’s civilisational strength, and will continue to enrich the country in the future. Indeed, like it is for the United States, openness to foreigners can be a competitive advantage for India, because China will find it much harder to do so. Also India is the only nation that has the capability to remain open to victims of cultural illiberalism and persecution (even if competitive intolerance has diminished its capability to do so). Now, given the nature of the threat from Pakistan, there is good reason to be extremely careful in issuing visas, but it would be strategically counterproductive to close doors indiscriminately.

That is why it was wrong of Indian Premier League teams to drop all Pakistani players from the competition—if there was a risk of their not turning up due to bilateral tensions, then that risk could well have been reflected in the price during the auction. [Note: I am only interested in cricket when India wins by a large margin. But my INI co-blogger Dhruva Jaishankar is a genuine cricket fan. Read his take at Polaris]

Just as it is wishful thinking to believe that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex is interested in a settlement with India on anything other than its own terms, it is self-defeating to turn away influential and talented Pakistanis from developing vested interests in India’s success. Unilaterally dropping trade restrictions and unilaterally allowing Pakistani cricketers to play in India is entirely consistent with weakening the military-jihadi complex.

An Oxford education helps

…when holding up the jihadi end

“The reason is that I’m not a target for the extremists because from day one I opposed the War on Terror. The terrorists don’t consider me one of the American puppet politicians in Pakistan.”

From the moment he heard the news about this week’s attack in Lahore, he was convinced that Pakistani extremists were being made the scapegoats….In his view a “foreign element” was almost certainly involved. “It could be India, Afghanistan, the Tamil Tigers. The motive is to damage the state of Pakistan and end cricket here. The shocking thing is that there was so little security for the players.”

H e denies that Pakistan is now a breeding ground for terrorists. “The madrassas may be producing fundamentalists but there is a difference between fundamentalists and militant extremists.”

He says he does not condone suicide bombing. “Suicide bombing is a result of extreme desperation where you have such hatred and anger that you are willing to use your body as a weapon. God forbid anything happened to my family but I can understand that if something happens to your dear ones then in anger…” [Times Online]

You see Imran Khan is one of those people—like Pervez Musharraf was—who seems almost reasonable because he is so presentable to middle-class drawing rooms. Take out the face, the voice and the identity of the speaker. Just look at the words in cold print, and you realise that the person saying them is an unvarnished apologist of jihadi terrorism, seeking to exploit the sympathy in Pakistani society for the jihadi cause (if not for their methods) into a platform that he can use to gain power. [He exploited religious outrage and he has expressed, err, rather quaint, views on the Indian psyche]

He is dangerous—just as General Musharraf was—because such a person is likely to have no compunctions about feeding the jihadi monster to stay in power.

And who said terrorists don’t attack cricketers?

Pakistan is the jihadi prize

It is too early to arrive at a conclusive assessment on the motives behind the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. [Update: See Prem Panicker’s take.] But it is compelling to see this attack as the latest in the series that include the ones on Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and the Islamabad Marriott in September 2008. The possibility cannot be ruled out completely, but there is a small chance that the hit was ordered by LTTE (and carried out by sundry terrorists recruited in Pakistan). [Update: See B Raman’s post] However this is contra-indicated by the fact that so far, the Tamil Tigers have not claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attacks on Benazir Bhutto, to the ones on the Islamabad Marriott and many others across Pakistan suggest an attempt to destabilise the existing political order prevailing in the country. What next is an open question. Do the jihadis want to use the ensuing state of turmoil to turn Pakistan first into a war zone and then into a Taliban state? Or is the purpose to reinstate the Pakistani military establishment into the corridors of power? Or worse, are these not separate questions, but two different formulations of the same question? Would the next Pakistani military dictator care whether he is the president of the Pakistani republic or the Amir-ul-momineen of an Islamic emirate?

The answers are uncertain. In the face of the uncertainty, and in the light of past evidence, the prudent course is to treat the Pakistani army as connected to the jihadi groups in a military-jihadi complex. It is unclear if the Pakistani army wants to sever these connections, and unclear if it can sever them even if it wants to. Transforming the Pakistani military establishment therefore is the first step in stabilising Pakistan.

And unless Pakistan is stabilised it is only a matter of time before attacks like the one on Sri Lankan cricketers, and earlier like the one in Mumbai will be common across the cities of the world.

Call the team back!

India must pull out of this series…for the sake of good cricket

The Catapult makes an important point about geopolitics in a post on how India was subject to all-round cheating in Australia:

In a way this is symptomatic of the way India approaches its foreign relations, trying to belong to institutions and abide by the rules of a world order shaped by other powers to suit their own agendas and hoping that its “good behaviour” will be recognised and rewarded rather than like China which threatens to undermine it unless it is satisfactorily accommodated in the global power structure. And no prizes for guessing who is getting the better bargain. [The Catapult]

The Indian cricket authorities have been content to try and exploit the economic opportunities that result from India’s market power. That they failed to ensure that umpires and referees didn’t cheat the India team says something about BCCI’s attitude towards the ‘politics’ of the game.

Queuing up outside the the ICC’s office with an appeal in hand is not the thing you do after something like this. It would serve the interests of Indian cricket (and that of cricket itself) better if India were to just call the team back and call off the rest of the series. Why?

Because it’s not merely about revoking the three-match ban on Harbhajan Singh. But because the BCCI must ensure that atrocious umpiring and match refereeing don’t recur in future.

Bad umpires and ungentlemanly behaviour are much better deterred by calling the series off. This is a far more credible signal precisely because it is a costly signal. So far, the BCCI has not distinguished itself in this episode—torn as it is between its role as the dominant controller of the Indian cricket market and the steward of the Indian cricket team. It issued half-a-threat and then half-retracted it. In doing so it revealed its intentions: that it is not really serious about backing its cricketers or ensuring that Indian teams don’t suffer in future. It just wants the dismal show to go on…

It is not for BCCI to worry about geopolitics. It is not the time to strike some “wishy-washy” compromises. If the BCCI cares for Indian cricket, it would do well to bring the players back home. [Update: As expected, BCCI tries and contents itself with a compromise]

Related Link: The Other Side on Monkeygate: Things BCCI can do

Sunday Levity: A cheat sheet for Sominists

A brief guide to writing articles about India that people will notice

1. Choose at least one from The List of Odious Things: poverty rate, inequality, caste, communal riots, dowry, Bollywood etc. (Advanced or more ambitious writers can try their hand at more than two)

2. Then pick one from The List of Good Things: democracy, economic growth, stock market, IT industry, cricket, Bollywood etc.

3. Blend the odious items into the good ones. It’s okay if they don’t mix. Then sprinkle some adjectives, nouns, verbs and other optional ingredients.

4. You are done.

NB: Don’t worry about political correctness. It’s asymmetrical.

[This brief guide has been offered for people who are usually too busy to research their articles properly for the subject is complex and may not even have time to read Neelakantan’s seminal article on this topic. It was prompted by this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, via email from Amit Varma, which Salil Tripathi has dispatched into the stands, over the bowler’s head. The word “Sominism” was coined by GreatBong.]

Update: GreatBong on the issues Down Under.