In its keenness to cancel the India-Pakistan World T20 clash in Dharamshala, the Congress has stumbled upon a fellow traveler: the Shiv Sena. For once, the sparring rivals are on the same side.
Senior Congress leader Virbhadra Singh is attempting to do through abuse of state machinery what Shiv Sena would have done through shrill protests or digging up of the pitch. Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna has lauded the Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister for denying permission to hold the India-Pakistan encounter in scenic Dharamshala and for trying to stop cricketers from the neighbouring nation to visit India.
But then there is a difference.
Shiv Sena's actions are based on their claustrophobic interpretation of nationalism where anything related to Pakistan is blasphemy and has to be opposed at any cost.
For Virbhadra Singh and Congress party though, opposing a World T20 match between India and Pakistan has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with politics — fix his arch-rival Anurag Thakur, the BCCI secretary, son of former Chief Minister PK Dhumal and a fast-rising BJP star.
And in his effort to score a political point, the 81-year-old has prevented fans in his own state from enjoying a rare World Cup clash involving arch-rivals India and Pakistan and has also managed to dent India's image.
As the chief of the state's law and order machinery, Singh may have successfully thwarted HPCA president Thakur's bid to organise the match by raising security concerns, but the move could very well backfire for the longest-serving chief minister who has just over a year left in his term. Mired in controversies and corruption charges and at the centre of two separate investigations by the CBI and I-T department, Singh may have overplayed his hand.
Simply put, Singh can’t flout his role and responsibility as a serving chief minister and give precedence to his personal whims and fancies.
And if there was ever a doubt, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi's resolute silence over this contentious issue reflects the high command's tacit approval.
Through petty politicking and act of putting political compulsions before national interest, the Congress party and its government in Himachal Pradesh have needlessly created a controversy where none was warranted.
All hotels within a 100-km radius of the stadium, which provides a stunning backdrop to a game of cricket, were booked well in advance. Such was the rush for tickets from fans that it had to be sold through a draw of lottery (around 20000-plus tickets from over two lakh registrations). Now that the match has been shifted from the venue to Kolkata, the bookings will have to be cancelled and tickets refunded.
A high-stakes, high-publicity cricket clash in Dharamshala could have placed it on the world tourist map. The economy of this hilly state is based on tourism. There cannot be a worst publicity for the state than its Chief Minister to announce to the world that he is incapable of providing security for a cricket match.
The political game is clear though.
If the match was held successfully, credit would have gone to Anurag Thakur and his associates in HPCA, not to Virbhadra. After all, it was the BCCI secretary who used his influence to bring the marquee clash to a stadium which he was instrumental in building. Anurag’s stock would have risen in state politics, in his party’s organizational matters and of course, within BCCI.
And there's also the fact that by failing to provide security for the fixture, the Chief Minister exposed Dharamshala to the risk of being slapped with a 10-year ban on hosting international fixtures, though that eventuality did not come to pass.
In a meeting held on Tuesday by Union home secretary with Himachal Pradesh’s DGP and home secretary, top state officials parroted the political line taken by chief minister – that they can’t be sure about providing enough security to Pakistan players. That comes from the officials of a state which has largest number of serving and retired armed forces and no history of militancy. Some Congress-led organizations overnight propped up to oppose the match. And Virbhadra Singh duly refused to take action against the protestors. It was all played to a T.
Some Kargil martyr’s families have also opposed India-Pak match. But it is not for the first time that India Pakistan are playing in Dharamshala. It was same Virbhadra Singh who was chief guest for India-Pakistan Board President's XI match in Dharamshala held in March 2005.
Singh also needs to answer why he remained silent when the schedule for this match was fixed about a year ago and raised the bogey of security only at the last minute.