Monday, March 30, 2009

IPL's exit sends out wrong signals (March 29, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Only a reckless banker or a client-less astrologer will be willing to gamble their money and reputation on the outcome of the general election. But one thing is certain: if Congress performs poorly in urban India and fails to reap the harvest of youth votes it is banking on, a large share of the blame will go to the “munshis and managers” who forced the T-20 IPL tournament out of India.

In the course of just one successful season IPL had become one of the biggest global brands, comparable to Wimbledon and the football World Cup. The Central government chose to deal with this Indian achievement with the same bloody-mindedness it displayed in the allocation of 2G and 3G spectrum for the telecom sector. An outpouring of meanness drove the Nano plant out of West Bengal. Last week, P.Chidambaram donned the mantle of Mamata Banerjee and forced IPL out of India. Like Mamata who felt that Ratan Tata could be browbeaten because he was a hostage to money already invested in Singur, North Block proceeded on the assumption that the IPL was a helpless captive. And just as Tata had to cut his losses and resist blackmail politics, Lalit Modi inveigled IPL out of a desperate situation with a daredevil flight to South Africa.

The implications of IPL’s exile from India are awesome. There is, of course, the colossal loss of income for all those directly or indirectly involved in the cricket extravaganza—from humble vendors at the venues to the hospitality and travel industry. This, in turn, will have a bearing on government revenues which are already feeling the pinch of the slowdown.

But there is a more horrifying dimension which goes beyond accountancy. Chidambaram was being more than a little disingenuous when he argued that the IPL organisers were being unreasonable in putting entertainment above democracy. If it had been a case of adjusting the dates of a few matches to accommodate the policing arrangements for five different phases of polling, no one in the BCCI would have contemplated taking such an extreme step. The organisers agreed to add new venues such as Ahmedabad, Dharamshala and Raipur so as not to over-burden the administration of the metros. Gujarat, for example, accepted the offer of six games without any reservations; it had a problem with the date of a seventh match.

It is more than a little curious that the IPL faced resistance only from the Congress-ruled states. It was the firm no from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi that finally clinched the issue in favour of South Africa. In Delhi, where policing is under the direct purview of the Centre, even Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit was in favour of hosting matches. Yet, the police chief informed her and Delhi Cricket Association president Arun Jaitley that no permission would be forthcoming before, during and after the polling. As far as the Centre was concerned, IPL could go to hell.

The Government, it would seem, was intent on teaching the IPL organisers a lesson. Whether this was because of Lalit Modi’s proximity to Vasundhara Raje or prompted by a desire to deflate BCCI president Sharad Pawar is a matter of conjecture. Also worth considering is the Congress Party pressure on the IPL to lift the total ban on political advertising at the venue and during the official telecast. Whatever the real story, there is compelling evidence to indicate that the government hostility was not prompted by national security imperatives. It can hardly be the case that terrorists were intent on targeting only Congress-ruled states.

The global message of the IPL flight to Africa is stark. India has sent out a loud and clear signal that the country is unsafe for any major event that involves international participation and crowds. The simple message: India is as dangerous as Pakistan.

India can only hope and pray that the world of global finance is mystified by cricket and fails to gauge the significance of the IPL fiasco.

If this self-inflicted ignominy is shameful, consider the other implication. India has proclaimed that it will respond to the terrorist challenge by running away from it. If terrorists target cricket, ban cricket; if terrorists frown upon a Rakhi Sawant Nite, deny permission to item numbers; and if zealots in Azamgarh want to impose an ideological veto on a political rally, meekly acquiesce. In an age of vote banks this is called prudent politics.

No wonder the latest batch of Lashkar-e-Tayiba terrorists trying to cross the border carried T-shirts proclaiming “Jihad is my life.” The army took them on frontally and did India proud. The vote-banker in the Home Ministry would have responded differently. He would have banned T-shirts.

Sunday Times of India, March 29, 2009

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