The effects of the politicisation of cricket in India, the power of the sport and the riches it brings all played out at the same time when the Indian Premier League (IPL) dragged on despite the carnage inflicted on the country by Covid-19. The glitzy cricket tournament, which was eventually halted, was chastised for being incongruent with the humanitarian situation engulfing the country.
Governing body the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was forced to postpone the IPL indefinitely after multiple cases of Covid-19 among players and support staff were reported in Ahmedabad and New Delhi, two of the badly hit cities during the second wave of the coronavirus in India. The 60-match tournament would have concluded in Ahmedabad on 30 May, but only 29 games had been completed in 24 days of cricket when the BCCI abruptly called off the league on 4 May.
Four days before that decision, India became the first country to register more than 400 000 infections in a single day. The new infections pushed India to above 20 million cases.
On 26 April, India’s leading spinner Ravichandran Ashwin became the first player to step away from the tournament. “My family and extended family are putting up a fight against Covid-19 and I want to support them during these tough times,” Ashwin wrote on Twitter. Three Australian cricketers – Royal Challengers Bangalore’s Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson, and Rajasthan Royals’ Andrew Tye – also withdrew from the IPL. Tye cited fears of being “locked out” of his own country after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australian cricketers competing in the IPL will have to make their “own arrangements” to return home after his country banned all flights from India.
The BCCI resisted calling a halt to the tournament despite players withdrawing and appeals for a postponement, raising grave reservations about the body’s lack of compassion for the nation. The IPL’s governing council had said the league had “a robust bio bubble” and the games were played without spectators, making it safe to proceed. “IPL provides a much-needed distraction for all from the doom and gloom around us,” an official told the Reuters news agency.
The IPL is one of the most valuable sports leagues in the world and many said that postponing or cancelling the tournament would be financially disastrous. “We are talking about a huge economic system here. By stopping the IPL, what do you do? You plummet the nation into more gloom, talk about more debts and more pandemic,” Indian cricket writer Boria Majumdar told CNN.
“It is misguided moral outrage to call for an end to the IPL amid the pandemic,” The Indian Express newspaper said in its editorial on 27 April, adding that the league is a big money-making machine that generates ads and jobs that a struggling economy must not disregard. “To grudge a few hours of escape to people under stress is to be a killjoy bent on planting a flag on the moral high ground.”
Many others, however, took a divergent view, saying that the IPL’s administrators were ignoring Covid-19’s impact in India that reflected insensitivity to the mounting loss of life. “People can say anything about entertainment and distraction but honestly, a match in Delhi at this point of time is terribly inappropriate and terribly insensitive,” said senior sports journalist Sharda Ugra.
She highlighted that Delhi’s Arun Jaitley Stadium, where some of the matches were being played, is just a short distance from Nigambodh Ghat, where mass cremations of Covid-19 victims were happening.
Cricket Ireland joined the chorus, pointing out that “behind the million-dollar glitz and glamour” of the IPL, a massive humanitarian disaster was unfolding in India. “As we cheer sixes and centuries, behind the televised facade hospitals run out of beds and now oxygen. India, we see your plight and our thoughts are with you,” the Irish cricket body tweeted.
The IPL was hosted in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last year under extremely tight regulations following a six-month delay because of the pandemic. BCCI president Sourav Ganguly reiterated after that tournament’s promising conclusion that the board was committed to taking it back to India, hopeful that the pandemic would have subsided significantly by the start of the new season.
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi attacked the previous Congress government in 2019 for twice shifting the IPL out of the country. Speaking at an election rally, Modi said: “The youth takes a lot of interest in IPL. But there were two occasions when it could not be played in India and it was played in South Africa. This happened in 2009 and 2014 [when India co-hosted it with the UAE during the elections]. The government at the centre was so scared of terrorists. That government had no courage.”
As a result, arguably it was vital for Modi to continue with the IPL as a public-relations exercise to showcase his strong leadership, while still spreading an optimistic message that the state is in charge of the situation. In contrast to expectations, however, when the second wave engulfed India, the country’s healthcare system collapsed and critical resources ran dry, triggering a massive public outcry.
Cricket’s role in politics
Cricket in India performs three significant roles within the national polity and in the public sphere. For starters, it is a remnant of the country’s British colonial legacy and thus a reflection of India’s freedom struggle. Second, the sport acts as a focal point for social cohesion, bridging ethnic, gender and religious divides and therefore serving as a cultural expression of national identity. Last, it is a foreign-policy instrument, a case in point being the frozen cricket ties with Pakistan.
The sport has long attracted Indian politicians, not only because of its widespread popularity but also as a means to gain influence, revenue and votes. Almost all previous and current governments, at state and federal level, have sought to take advantage of the game’s popularity. Following India’s World Cup triumph in 1983, then prime minister Indira Gandhi began toying with the idea of using cricket’s popular fervour for political ends by appointing her own man, then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, as the BCCI president.
Several top Congress leaders, such as NKP Salve and Madhavrao Scindia, and politicians from other regional parties have held positions at the BCCI and on state cricket boards. Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar served as the BCCI president from 2005 to 2008 and as the president of the International Cricket Council from 2010 to 2012. He also headed the Mumbai Cricket Association till 2016, before the Supreme Court of India-appointed Justice RM Lodha committee forced him to relinquish the post.
The Indian Supreme Court overhauled the BCCI’s management in 2017. It imposed term limits and barred government ministers from holding positions. The court sacked BJP leader and BCCI president Anurag Thakur and secretary Ajay Shirke for failing to implement the reforms drafted by the Lodha committee. Observers, however, contend that the role of politicians has grown, especially given the sport’s rapid commercialisation, most notably following the success of the IPL.
The Modi regime, in particular, has further tightened India’s political grip on cricket in the country, with members of the BJP holding key administrative posts at the BCCI. Jay Shah, the son of Modi’s right-hand man and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, is the secretary of the BCCI, while Union Minister Anurag Thakur’s brother, Arun Dhumal, is the treasurer. Their appointments were seen as a push by Modi’s right-wing party to have a board administration that conforms with the party. The Delhi and District Cricket Association is headed by 31-year-old Rohan Jaitley, the son of late BJP leader and Union finance minister Arun Jailtey, who himself was the president of the Delhi cricket governing body.
A recently renovated cricket stadium in his political hometown of Ahmedabad was renamed after Modi, symbolising his growing involvement in the sport. The Ahmedabad cricket ground, the world’s largest cricket stadium, was conceived when Modi was running the state-level Gujarat Cricket Association (GCA) before moving up to national politics. Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries company and Gautam Adani’s eponymous party – India’s two most influential industrialists with deep links to the prime minister – also had stands named after them.
Senior sports journalist Sandeep Dwivedi wrote in The Indian Express that the emergence of Jay Shah as the BCCI’s top boss has brought the Indian political class back to the helm of cricket affairs in India. “Over the last year or so, not even a blade of grass got trimmed in Indian cricket without the mandatory call to Ahmedabad. The GCA headquarters that has on its honours board names like Modi and Shah is where the all-important cricketing calls are being taken,” he said, adding that Sourav Ganguly, the much-celebrated former Indian captain, remains more of a figurehead. “He hasn’t asserted himself, he hasn’t changed the perception that secretary Shah calls the shots.”
Echoing this sentiment, Ugra said Indian cricket today continues to play “second fiddle” to the political ideology in power. “Cricket is merely one of the many engines in the BJP’s dream of cultural expansion,” she wrote in The Wire. “Everyone on the BCCI payroll – players, former and current, officials, broadcasters – seems to have fallen in with the party line and has been herded under the umbrella of uncheerful nationalism.”
Not only has the Modi regime increased its involvement and clout in cricket but many cricketers have also established close links with the ruling political class, either by amplifying the government’s propaganda or by joining the BJP political bandwagon after retiring from the sport. Most cricketers’ silence on the unfolding humanitarian crisis caused by Covid-19 attests to this close relationship. There is hardly a voice critical of the state’s handling of crucial social and political issues.