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When Imran Khan, in a heavily edited and highly awaited televised statement, said that he would like to retaliate on behalf of Pakistan should India keep on escalating tension in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, he had well and truly walked far from the sunny creases of his youth. His friend Navjot Singh Sidhu had displayed only a moment of equanimity in remarking that the whole nation should not be blamed for the fault of a few yet the calls for his blood were as fierce as could be expected from a nation of patriots with a phone in hand. Elsewhere, riding high on demands from the likes of Harbhajan Singh that India give Pakistan a walkover in their 16 June World Cup clash, the ever eager, over eager BCCI has announced that it has readied a draft of a letter it will send the ICC, requesting not just to not play Pakistan but to ban the nation from the entire Cup itself. Sourav Ganguly, impetuous in his career but strangely the voice of reason (no matter how skewed), has meanwhile said India could well afford to not play Pak and still win the World Cup. A meeting by the Committee of Administrators has proven inconclusive because it turns out that the ICC does not really consider the World Cup an alternative to the IPL from which nations can be kicked out willy nilly. No worries, now the BCCI will consult that behemoth of cricketing federation which is apparently unparalleled in its capacity to solve issues arising within sports — the Indian government. Virat Kohli has said that he and his team will completely stand by whatever decision the government and BCCI take in regards to playing Pakistan. Meanwhile, trolls have concentrated efforts upon Sunil Gavaskar, who in a leap of self-destructive honesty, decided to comment that the only party who stands to lose if India does not play Pakistan in the World Cup is India and that this friend Imran should try to broker some peace. Things must have been quite dire because Sachin Tendulkar too broke his century-long Twitter silence to say he would hate to see India lose points by not playing Pakistan. Sachin's step did cause a momentary pause in the automatic cycle that transforms critiques of the system into anti-nationals, but not for long. “So, Mr Gavaskar, you are saying for you 2 points is more valuable than nation?” a proud Indian writes on Twitter. "Sachin wants two points, I want the World Cup," says Ganguly. The likes, they keep on coming.
The answer is probably in the remarkable wretchedness with which both politics and cricket control the lives of Indians. There are many countries where sports is important. There are others where politics is all consuming. But India’s uniqueness here has been in allowing both its de-facto national sport and its politics to be controlled by, centred around and chiefly concerning towering individual figures. Here is a country where the two most popular paper mask varieties sold are the faces of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, and that of Sachin Tendulkar. India’s biggest politicians are ones who have had no logical reason to have enjoyed such electoral success. A woman returned to power after having called a largely cruel Emergency. A son was made prime minister because his mother died. When a former actor who then became chief minister — and who was also pretty much a citadel of corruption — passed away, she did so with the knowledge that in the last elections her party fought, it won 37 out of 39 Lok Sabha seats.
What is it about cricketers and politics? Why is it this easy for cricketers in the Indian subcontinent to make even a terrorist attack on Kashmir entirely about themselves? Why have India’s cricketers always been particularly amenable to politics and its murky corridors?
India’s cricketing heroes are not chosen by such emotional parameters.But that is simply because to play you need a set of capacities that do indeed have more solid indicators than EVMs. While every cricketer is an automatic hero in India, not every cricketer gets to dominate the image of the game itself the way a few have. The sport has offered some of its players the chance to be gods and some of them have taken it. And what they say or do, happens. There is no greater example of this than the current Indian captain, who vocally dictates matters that do not just pertain to the lineup and selection, but also the coach, and where people who like English and Australian batsmen should go live. No one can doubt that Virat Kohli is a champion player, or that Kapil Dev bowled well. But images (brand fuelled or otherwise) of Sachin, Virat, Sourav and Dhoni have ruled cricket with scant regard for their everyday performances. People go to political rallies with the same ammunition as they would to a cricket match: a flag and a willingness to shout oneself hoarse. The grounds adjacent to one of the most beautiful cricket stadiums in the world, in one of India’s cities, is famous for hosting crowds of two lakhs for political meetings and protests. It was on those very grounds in 1991, that Mamata Banerjee, then a sports minister of a Congress government had protested against her very government for allegedly not allowing enough funds to be allocated for sports infrastructure development. The Pulwama attack on the security convoy was the worst attacks of India in the history of the militancy. The world of sports, especially cricket, and the world of politics have overlapped often. Cricketers have gone on to become politicians. Some have enjoyed it, like Darbhanga MP Kirti Azad, who played a prank on his own party the other day by claiming Congress workers had helped him loot polling booths in the 1990s. Some have failed at it, like Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, who contested two elections and lost despite having the two things Indians seem to value the most — a royal lineage and a career in cricket. Some slip naturally into it, like Navjot Singh Sidhu, who manages portfolios with ease and says things that (if listened to) could help some Indians cut the vitriol off their tongue. Some others loathe it but are stuck in it — and in this category belongs Imran Khan, who takes up a powerful chair in a country swathed with economic crisis and an overbearing army. It may be safe to say that the little promise that ensured Imran’s election has washed the glean off his image. Belittled by the religious police, by economic disaster, by global pressure on his country’s role in terror funding and by the threat of being pushed into a corner by the world at large over the Pulwama attack, Imran is no longer the man your parents remember as walking tall into a presentation ceremony. Imran’s particular sadness brings us to the timing of the situation that rages. If we have agreed that politics and cricket are India’s twin obsessions, then we also must agree that the first half of 2019 will see two of the biggest events in both — the national elections and the World Cup. Both involve the entire nation. Some grudgingly join the madness, others comment on the extent to which the hoopla is overdone.
India, always heterogeneous and offering few occasions to trigger an unquestioned oneness with the nation, unites only in cricket. The real world troubles of a country divided into two manifest in the war rhetoric of an India-Pakistan match. The rhetoric spills over into real life, especially since a Hindu nationalist government is in power. Now for the first time, an attack which has killed 40 has teased out the power of a nation to feel a foolproof sense of togetherness. The crowd at the campaign rally is already fired, so the man in the garland need not even work hard on the Pakistan bashing to earn applauses and then, hopefully, votes. “Three hours after 40 jawans were killed our ‘Prime Time Minister’ was shooting a film,” tweets Rahul. “You may have known when the attack was going to take place, but we didn’t,” replies the BJP. Here, a minister asks to stop excess water supply to Pakistan, there a cricketer asks to forego an entire match in the biggest tournament of the game. Here, a shooting tournament loses its World Cup berths, there a leader of Opposition asks why Pakistan is not being bombed yet. The frenzy of the final few overs with Misbah at the crease is now everywhere — nothing stops brave keyboard warriors, brave members of the air-conditioned Parliament from charging through the Line of Control, gun in hand. No government, no political party will limit your rhetoric, it’s a day-night match, an unending test of how much you love your country and hate your Pakistan.
Now, with Pulwama in the foreground, for the first time since the 1999 Kargil war, both cricket and Indian politics have something else other than its figures in common — an enemy in Pakistan.