Rahul Gandhi's ‘panauti’ comment has produced a sharp reaction from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). At an election rally in Rajasthan, Gandhi had said, “PM means Panauti (jinx or ill omen) Modi,” implicating that the Prime Minister’s presence in the final match of the Cricket World Cup between India and Australia had brought ill luck to the home team. Reacting to this comment, former Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad labelled Mr. Gandhi’s as “shameful, condemnable, and disgraceful”.
Gandhi’s remark is really unfortunate, insensitive and condemnable for more than one reason. Equally unfortunate is a remark of Samajwadi Party Chief Akhilesh Yadav who, hours after Gandhi’s remark had said, “If the match had happened there (Lucknow), team India would have got the blessings of Lord Vishnu and Atal Bihari Vajpayee and India would have won.”
This is true that cricket has never been politicised in India the way it has been politicised by the Modi government. High-profile political leaders have always been involved in cricket administration in India. Several times the BCCI had been headed by political giants. So many former cricketers are now active politicians and are members of the Parliament and of the Assemblies of different states. But no Indian Prime Minister had gone to the extent of Modi’s. Earlier, Prime Ministers used to send messages to the Indian cricket team after a win or loss and greet the victorious team at their official residences. None had entered into the dressing room of the players. It has been alleged that to satisfy the ego of the Prime Minister and to promote the name ‘Modi’ as a brand, the biggest stadium in the country had been built (and also named after him) in a city which, unlike Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata, does not have a ‘cricket culture’. True that many stadiums in India are named after political leaders – but no Prime Minister of India had a stadium in his or her name when s/he was alive.
In fact, of late, cricket-researchers have been showing great concern for the rapid saffronisation of Indian cricket. For the last few years, the BJP has enjoyed a direct control over the BCCI through its secretary Jay Shah, the son of Amit Shah – India’s indomitable home minister and Modi’s right-hand in the cabinet. So many other BJP leaders also hold official posts across the country in different state cricket associations which are the members of the BCCI. It has also been alleged that through Jay Shah the BJP tried to control the World Cup proceedings “as an extended election campaign” to ensure a third term in office. In fact, the failure of the successful organisation of the G20 summit to have a significant impact on the commoners made it imperative for the BJP government to make the best of the Cricket World Cup to propagate the narrative of the national resurgence under an able leader like Modi. Some were even apprehensive that an Indian win in the final would make Modi call for the general election six months before the BJP’s term ends in June 2024.
Political concerns indeed seem to have governed the choice of the venues of the World Cup since the well-known Punjab cricket-ground, Mohali, which successfully hosted memorable World Cup matches in 1996 and 2011, had not been given a single match this time. It has been alleged too that in addition to hosting the opening and final matches, the Narendra Modi Stadium had been allotted high-profile matches such as India-Pakistan and Australia-England so that the name “Modi” consistently catches the spotlight throughout the tournament. Unfortunately, it is also that venue where a Pakistani player Mohammed Rizwan was heckled by some Indian fans who chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as Rizwan was going back to the pavilion after getting dismissed by Bumrah. The Indian government also delayed issuing visas for the Pakistan team which resulted in Pakistan scrapping plans for a two-day training camp in Dubai. In fact, it has also been alleged that because of the support that Kapil Dev (the skipper of the first World Cup-winning Indian team) gave to the dissenting Indian wrestlers, he was not invited to the final of the tournament. The saffron colour of the new jersey of the Indian cricket team (despite its smart look) has also been questioned as no Indian cricket team had been given a jersey of this colour previously. Modi’s entry into the dressing room with a camera after the defeat in the final, cricket researchers have argued, is an assault on the sanctity of that space. ICC rules also do not permit such an action. The video of the Prime Minister consoling the players has also gone viral. It has allegedly been done only to promote the image of the Prime Minister as a motivational guru.
Those who claim that cricket should be dissociated from politics perhaps forget that cricket has always had a deep association with politics across the globe. Cricket philosopher CLR James in his book, ‘Beyond the Boundary’, rightly observes, “Cricket within the boundary and even beyond it is linked to the complexities of a socio-political cultural mesh. The history of the West Indian land for the last two centuries is also the history of Caribbean cricket. The game became a political weapon to fight against racism as much as any other artificial artifact or political rallies. This is not to belittle the latter, but to speak of the importance of the game.” Problems begin when cricket is used for narrow political gain. Former Indian cricketer and World Cup winner Kirti Azad, who was also a BJP Member of the Parliament before leaving the party, poignantly says, “There is nothing wrong with having a politician [in cricket administration], but the problem is when they start using the game as a tool for their own means.”
If the BJP is guilty of using the game for narrow political gain through the secretary of BCCI, the opposition leaders have failed to resist the saffronisation of the gentleman’s game because of their wrong strategies. Gandhi goes wrong when he calls the Prime Minister ‘Panauti Modi’. Instead of criticising the saffronisation of the cricket administration, he has made a comment that smacks of blind superstitious beliefs. The rhetoric of hyper-nationalism that the BJP deliberately wants to create around cricket can never be combatted by making silly comments, playing to the gallery and fanning superstitious beliefs. Yadav’s remark also fuels the common public sentiments that for winning a cricket match the skill of the players is not enough, rather the blessing of a god is a must. The opposition leaders should understand that saffronisation thrives on superstition and blind faith. Comments of Gandhi and Yadav, unfortunately —instead of fighting— contribute to intensifying the process of saffronisation of Indian cricket.
(Views expressed are personal)