ANALYSIS: IPL: a metaphor for changing India — Ajaz Ashraf
We admire success; we do not judge the legitimacy of the path taken to achieve it. Are you then surprised when we applaud the IPL and ignore the venality underlying it?
Warts are mushrooming on the visage of the Indian Premier League (IPL) at a pace more furious than that at which Twenty20 is played. Last week, you could even choose your favourite from the spread of scandals on the IPL table. A TV sting operation confirmed the existence of spot-fixing and flouting of rules governing payments to players; film star Shahrukh Khan mistook Wankhede Stadium for a Bollywood set and became embroiled in a vituperative exchange with a security guard; Australian Luke Pomersbach was accused of molesting a woman and pummelling her fiancé in an inebriated rage; and Siddharth Mallya, son of the tycoon who owns the Bangalore team, tweeted sexist remarks. You could have been ensured of more media kerfuffle on such issues had these warts not surfaced so late in the IPL calendar.
The doctors of cricket — writers and commentators — have been doling out prescriptions for restoring to the IPL the innocent exuberance and exhilarating beauty it was supposedly designed to provide. Much in the manner of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, the IPL has sold the soul of cricket to retain perpetually its salacious charm. Perhaps it is futile to search for cures for the self-inflicted torments of the IPL and cricket, other than taking the extreme, irreversible step Dorian Gray ultimately resorted to.
Nevertheless, the doctors of cricket persevere, worried more about the allegations of fixing games and furtive violation of rules than the peccadilloes and sexual misdemeanours of players. But their prescriptions are bound to fail for they, as also us, ignore the profound truth about the IPL: it is a metaphor for a changing India, of what it has become ever since generous shots of testosterone were administered to its society through the opening of the country’s economy. It is not about debating the efficacy of competitive economic models. It is about staring into the mirror and examining what we were and what we have become, and what we might eventually culminate in.
In the 1990s, quite thoughtlessly, the Indian state began to privatise the public sector, much to the applause of the middle class. Public sector units were sold to businessmen whose social network included those in the government. How could this transformation not get mirrored in the country’s popular culture, of which cricket is such an inextricable part? The masters holding the reins of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) perceived in the sport the goose that could lay the proverbial golden eggs for them and their band of rich friends.
Out came Lalit Modi with his idea of a T20 league, and before you could figure out the nature of the beast, his brother-in-law, Suresh Chellaram, became one of the owners. Business tycoon Vijay Mallaya was the vice-president of the Karnataka Cricket Association and he won the bid for the Bangalore team. But quite unsurpassable in audacity was the BCCI’s then treasurer N Srinivasan bagging the Chennai franchise. It was claimed it was not he but India Cements that was the owner; he just happened to be its managing director and principal shareholder. Since an official, like an ordinary human being, too has multiple selves, it was consequently deemed presumptuous on our part to believe his role at the BCCI was necessarily in conflict with his status of proprietor.
We accepted the spiel, as we have so often ignored the conflict of interest in the innumerable scams dogging the government at the Centre and in the states — of ministers allocating scarce national resources to their kith and kin or to those who are their friends or who are willing to grease their palms. But this charge you could not level against Mukesh Ambani, the prince among princes, who bought Mumbai. Could you now doubt the financial viability of a cricket league that had received the endorsement of a global tycoon?
Obviously not, as you still can’t, as his wife Nita cheers and spearheads the team’s progress to the top of the league. Most wives of tycoons have their diamonds; Nita has an entire cricket team. She is now said to possess the business acumen for which her husband is particularly famous. This talent of his was manifest in the recent decision of the prime minister’s office to endorse his company’s demand for increasing the price of gas, which it is extracting from the Godavari basin. It will mean a whopping profit of $ 8 billion for Mukesh over the next two years and a big hole in the consumer’s pocket. We admire success; we do not judge the legitimacy of the path taken to achieve it. Are you then surprised when we applaud the IPL and ignore the venality underlying it?
Through his mere presence, Mukesh may have underwritten the financial viability of the IPL, but the league still required glamour for its marketing pitch. There is rarely an idea acceptable to us until it is Bollywood-ised. Not for nothing has the ageless wonder, Rekha, been nominated to parliament. We become agitated about child abuse and female foeticide as soon as Amir Khan focuses on it. For its campaign on the environment, a TV news channel had to rope in Priyanka Chopra. Even our flagging interest in quizzes was revived because of Amitabh Bachchan’s Kaun Banega Crorepati. Such being the equation between success and Bollywood, we were not a bit surprised to discover Shahrukh had become a team-owner, and Preity Zinta and Shilpa Shetty had acquired stakes in other outfits.
Just as the government bends, even waives, rules to accommodate big businesses, so must the BCCI. Mumbai wanted to play an extra foreign player over the permissible quota of four in the Champions League; yes, it was allowed. At times, the BCCI relaxes rules under pressure. When it turned down the Pune team’s demand for a foreign substitute for Yuvraj Singh, who had pulled out to undergo cancer treatment, the team-owner, Sahara, threatened to withdraw from the IPL and cancel its sponsorship of the Indian cricket team. Presto, the board relented, mirroring the many occasions Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had retracted his decisions under threats from an ally pulling out of his coalition government. The government must survive five years; the BCCI must earn its lavish profits.
Flouting laws is the privilege of the rich and powerful in our society. The TV sting operation imparted credence to the whisper that team-owners were paying far more than the maximum Rs three million to local, non-international players. It remains an abiding mystery why Bangalore’s Chris Gayle chose to play for Bangalore on last year’s fee ($ 550,000) even though he could have fetched a fabulous amount through an entry into the auction pool. Was he paid under the table, analysts wonder. Hush, we should not speculate, we have no evidence, we should watch the Mallyas preen with pride even if their airline, Kingfisher, is in a veritable tailspin.
We believe there are certain entitlements reserved for the rich and powerful. This is why King Khan will want his children and their friends to play on the cricket ground. This is why laws will be flouted, money will be salted away, and as soon as the dragnet closes in on the culprit, he, like the irrepressible Modi, will take refuge in another country. We are a nation unconscionably involved in priapic celebrations of our growing might.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and can be reached at email@example.com