Over the last week, Indian cricket scored two diplomatic self-goals that had the potential to significantly damage prospects of using sport as a medium to renew people-to-people contact in South Asia—the last hope to ease tensions in the region.
First, Virender Sehwag, the stand-in captain, was insultingly dismissive about the challenge Bangladesh, the minnows of Test cricket, could pose to India—the reigning No. 1 team in the world. Second, the franchisees of the Indian Premier League (IPL) collectively ignored players from Pakistan, the T20 cricket World Cup champions, in the players auction. IPL is the latest version of instant cricket in which two sides play 20 overs a side, referred to as the Twenty20 (T20) format.
The swipe at Bangladesh came just after that country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina concluded a path-breaking visit to India in which she made a significant foreign policy departure with a big push towards a greater relationship with India.
Also Read | Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns
Sehwag’s dismissive comments about the Bangladesh cricket team would have reinforced popular stereotypes of India as the region’s self-appointed big brother and complicated efforts for a more nuanced understanding of its neighbour.
The move by the IPL franchisees comes in the backdrop of a prolonged period of tension between India and Pakistan and the continuing implosion of India’s western neighbour—something that has led to the country being denied the right to co-host the cricket World Cup along with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India in 2011.
While one row died without creating too much furore, largely due to some deft handling by Sachin Tendulkar, the latter has snowballed into an unsavoury controversy that once again stoked the simmering tension between India and Pakistan. While the government has come out formally to deny the sotto voce charges levelled in various newspapers by unnamed cricket officials, there is no denying the fact that it is a setback.
The two incidents had the potential to fuel popular sentiment in both countries and at the same time reflect a lack of understanding about a changed India.
The country, despite its overwhelming number of poor people, is beyond the tipping point and is now positioned on a growth trajectory that will eventually redefine its position in geopolitics, too.
Obviously, the country is acquiring a new persona as it is no longer perceived to be an underdog. Some in the political leadership of India recognize it and are guilty of not convincing more of us about it.
As Kishore Mahbubani, dean and professor in the practice of public policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, remarked in an interview published in Mint on 16 January, “There is yet disbelief in India that it should start preparing itself for its role as a great power.”
This came through clearly in both incidents, which smack of immaturity. Popular reaction, both in Pakistan and initially in Bangladesh, was predictable—a round of India trashing. Of course, Bangladesh chose to largely ignore the slight and hence did not escalate the matter; in any case, since the remarks came from a normally reticent Sehwag, one could safely assume it was not a case of the in-your-face display of testosterone that comes naturally to Australian cricketers.
However, the IPL incident illustrated the undesirable manner in which this tournament has evolved. We would never know whether the government sent a signal to IPL or whether the franchisees, in what seems to be statistically improbable, individually came to the same decision to not bid for Pakistani cricketers. In either case, the logic was not probably thought through.
Sport is the best form of people-to-people contact—the best palliative to tackle the political stereotype theories passed around on either side of the border. And in this, cricket, by its sheer fan following in the region, comes out on top.
An absolutely entertaining event, IPL was a new frontier for cricket fans; now, it has tied up with Google to beam the games over the Internet. However, the associated glamour that comes with the bringing together of wealthy sponsors, Bollywood stars and the top names of world cricket, has turned the very objective of hosting such sporting events on its head.
So far the business model was a key part of cricket alongside the primary objective of popularizing sport. By deciding to move the league out of India last year rather than make changes in its schedule, given that the country was going through a general election, and by now deciding to ignore (boycott as Pakistan sees it) cricketers from across the border, IPL has proved that cricket is business and not sport.
Nothing wrong with that really, if it is accompanied by a transparent process and overseen by an independent regulator—and please, no government interference. In fact, it would have prevented the country from being subjected to insinuations and being drawn into a diplomatic row, a distraction that it can do without. It may still not be too late to rethink the IPL strategy.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor ofMint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org