Two national obsessions – cricket and politics – will get full play barely hours from now, and the state of play in both the fields points to a defining moment in both the spheres.
The final cricket Test match between India and England at Nagpur, which gets under way today, will yield a result in five fitful days, but the state of mind of the Indian players as they warm up this morning points to a camp that is distinctly low on morale – and wracked by contentious disputes both on and off the field.
Mohinder Amarnath’s explosive disclosures on Wednesday that BCCI president N Srinivasan vetoed a unanimous decision by all five members of the selection committee ahead of this series that MS Dhoni be dropped as India’s captain following two horrendous ‘away’ series – and his own poor batting record of recent times – have shaken the foundations of the cricketing establishment. Whatever happens in this Test match, where Dhoni will be looking to win and square the series (and salvage what he can of his personal honour), the reverberations from Amarnath’s bombshell will be felt for long – and pile on pressure for changes to the manner in which the game is played in India.
More critically, the dispute calls into question the stranglehold that cricket administrators have had on the game for long, but which has acquired excessive commercial dimensions in an era of IPL franchises. The conflict-of-interest situation arising from Srinivasan’s “two hats” – that of BCCI president and as owner of the Chennai Super Kings IPL franchise, which team too Dhoni captains – is too stark to be brushed away.
If the Indian team had been faring well on the field, such inconvenient truths may have mattered little, given that the BCCI is one heck of a gravy train from which no one wants to disembark too soon. But the team’s rotten show in recent times, even on tailormade home pitches, has exposed not just their onfield fallibility but the fact that what happens within the panelled rooms of BCCI administrators is directly impacting the state of play of the Indian team.
Amarnath’s whistleblowing expose, even if it was not motivated by the noblest of intentions, opens the can of worms in a way that subjects the cricketing establishment to scrutiny – and could perhaps even bring pressure to bear on it to amend the BCCI constitution, which invests such autocratic powers on the president to the detriment of cricket. In that sense, India’s cricketing establishment is at a crossroads, and depending on how things pan out, the game may never be the same.
The other ‘sport’, which too has game-changing potential beyond its ken, gets under way with the first round of polling in the Assembly election in Gujarat. In normal circumstances, the results of Assembly election in one of India’s 28 States, which accounts for only 26 Lok Sabha constituencies (out of 544 all-India), would merely be a sideshow, a footnote in political history.
Yet, what happens here, starting today and culminating on 20 December, when results are announced, has the potential to profoundly alter both the political and economic landscape of India in incalculable ways. The reason, of course, is that the man at the centre of it all – Narendra Modi – is manifestly looking to project himself onto the national stage on the strength of a strong showing in these elections.
That projectile path, is of course, not entirely free of turbulence: the past, and all the historical baggage that it comes with, is weighing down Modi, and it is far from certain that for all the public endorsements by BJP leaders of his putative candidature for prime ministership, he enjoys their unstinted, open-hearted support.
But this much is certain: Modi today represents a force for ‘creative destruction’. He can stir things up in the cesspool of politics: he has palpably changed the way politics is played in Gujarat - you only have to listen to Congress leaders’ rhetoric on the stump over the 10 years since 2002 for validation of that – and has the capacity to do much the same at the national level. The stagnant water of Indian political thinking today reek to high heavens; a churn – within the limits of moderation which today’s polity will enforce – would clear the blockholes and allow the water to flow freely, as it does at the Sabarmati waterfront today.
And just as important, Modi has moved the needle on the discourse over development, away from populist welfarism that has characterised it for far too long. It may well be the case, as his critics have argued, that his record of development in Gujarat is not as sparkling as is made out to be, but Modi has a record to back him up of more than marginal success in experimenting with an alternative paradigm of development.
In the universe of Indian politics, where even the notionally right-wing BJP’s developmental discourse is difficult to distinguish from that of the far Left, Modi’s experiments in advancing the developmental agenda represent a break from India’s economic history. The Congress, the original party of economic reforms, has so lost its nerve that it will begin to undertake even the feeblest of reforms only as a cover to divert attention away from its record of corruption in office. In such a scenario, the Indian economic discourse need a balancing force on the right, and Modi is best placed to be that force.
All this holds true irrespective of whether or not Modi makes that final journey to the citadels of power in Delhi. Just the prospect of his ascendance is enough to stir things up – and change the game.
There is a hush across India as the umpires step out onto the field – both in Nagpur and across Gujarat. Play will commence in a while. But irrespective of what happens on the fields of play, Indian cricket – and politics – may never be the same again…