Blurring lines between the IPL and Polls 2009

March.30 : It is a truly amazing concept. Perhaps even a measure of the awesome impact of corporate power and glamour upon the psyche of the media in our country. The woeful minority which was not breathlessly glued to TV screens or eagerly watching the IPL matches last year, will instantly identify with the outrage that some of us feel when discussion after discussion equated the General Election with the second season of the Indian Premier League. I repeat, the General Election to the Lok Sabha, a massive rededication and renewal of our democratic system of governance, is the sacred time when the average voter, gets a chance to make his/her voice heard in our polity. And every single time, s/he never fails to send an unmistakable message to erring politicians to shape up or ship out.

The media was, in all seriousness, comparing the IPL with the General Elections, and panels were actually discussing how the necessity of security cover for elections was affecting the IPL schedule.

Therefore I first want to place on record my displeasure, as a citizen of India, that IPL can even be discussed at the same level and in the same breath as elections to the Lok Sabha. It is a classic case of TV channels defining the agenda, projecting all the while soundbites and visuals of the charismatic owners and franchisees of the IPL. After all, who can resist halting the endless zapping of the remote if Shah Rukh Khan’s face flashes on the screen? Even those terminally uninterested in cricket will stop to see what Shah Rukh Khan is saying. On my part, I certainly did, and I found that he was saying all the right things. He said that elections were more important than anything else, and he had absolutely no problem with the shifting of the venue. All other owners said much the same thing. Lalit Modi added that this was by no means a major setback for the IPL and although it presented a logistical challenge he was more than prepared to face it. He reiterated that the IPL would be back in India next year, and by way of further explanation said that in any case 99 per cent of the IPL fans watched the matches on TV.

So said where then was the problem? No need to look further than Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. He actually came on, of all things, a sports show to give a phone interview. He first arrogantly ticked off the anchor for daring to ask if his criticism of the government for failing to organise security for the IPL was a political or election issue, and then proceeded to shout about how India’s pride was at stake, and about how as a result of the government’s incompetence (Central government, of course) India was now beginning to look as unsafe as Pakistan. He wondered if we could now hold the Commonwealth Games or even small international conferences in future. Well, lo and behold, I said to myself, cricket has a new champion. Will cricket Mr Modi is, of course, the moot point, as his only earlier brush with the game was failing to even congratulate or honour the Pathan brothers when they had played spectacularly well for India.

Mr Modi went on other channels, ratcheting up the rhetoric with every passing minute. Now he was saying that it was a shameful moment for India (What? Not Godhra?) and next saying that he would guarantee security for the matches. In his excitement Mr Modi forgot that he is neither the Prime Minister nor the home minister of India. Unless he was going to hold all 59 matches in Gujarat (would he welcome players from Pakistan?) there was no way he could guarantee security for the entire IPL. More importantly, Mr Modi also forgot what his own DGP had said to the home ministry — that Gujarat could not provide security for the IPL until the elections were over. Thus, either Mr Modi does not know what is happening in his own government, or is deliberately distorting facts.

Regardless of all the macho talk, the stark reality is that in today’s day and age, it is impossible for anyone to "guarantee" security. Thus Mr Modi’s wild claims and belligerence managed to achieve what I had thought was impossible — namely that it was impossible for any politician to sink lower than Mr Modi when he rushed to the spot of the Mumbai terror attacks and made communal statements. This time Mr Modi has outdone his own record in trying to politicise and communalise both cricket and security. The fact that his statement hit all channels at the same time makes it amply clear that this was no accidental observation but an attempt to score electoral brownie points, using the lowest common denominator.

This is by no means a diatribe against the IPL. I fiercely resent the entire colonisation of the TV and print media by cricket and cricket related stuff during the IPL season but I concede that this a free country and if a large number of compatriots want cricket to dominate their screens during the IPL season, I have to ruefully put up with it.

As we are all too aware, cricket is right up there with cinema and politics as a national obsession and I strongly believe that in many ways the game of cricket is inspiring and aspirational to thousands of our young people. When our youth in rural areas or small towns see a Dhoni or a Sehwag they see themselves up there — it is a wonderful fulfilment of a dream when their aspirations are translated into reality. In that sense, cricket is truly admirable.

However, I have to add, that as a citizen I do feel regret that cricket has moved on from being a sport, inspiring national pride to a commercial corporate venture where there is no loyalty to country or region, but the over riding consideration is money and, to some extent talent, (of the cricketer).

In this avatar cricket has lost its innocence… With its emphasis on celebrity and instantaneous impact, it’s closer in spirit to Bigg Brother and Pop Idol than to Test cricket" (Mike Marqusee).

All said and done, cricket will and does evolve in its own way and there can be no ethical complaint from anyone on this score. However, when lines start blurring between the IPL and national General Elections then it’s time for us to put our priorities in perspective.

Jayanthi Natarajan is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson.

The views expressed in this column are her own

Jayanthi Natarajan


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