By Swapan Dasgupta
The sharp reaction in Pakistan to the non-inclusion of any of its players in next season’s IPL may seem needlessly petulant. The IPL, after all, is a privately-sponsored tournament and if team owners collectively decide that it is not worth the hassle to involve Pakistani cricketers, it can hardly be said to be a calculated affront to the Pakistani state and its people. It’s a bit like a Pakistani music director claiming that Aamir Khan has insulted his country by refusing to sign him up for his next blockbuster. Life is not always a great conspiracy; momentous decisions are often taken on mundane considerations, peripherally related to lofty matters of state.
Nevertheless, I am heartened by the shrillness of the reaction in Pakistan. If anything, it only goes to prove that Pakistanis attach a great deal of value to the glamour of playing cricket in India. In the 1970s, when India was a struggling socialist country, mired in shortages, the ultimate prize for cricketers was a berth in an English country side. I recall the outpouring of national pride when the dashing Farokh Engineer kept wicket for Lancashire in the 1970s. Pakistanis must have felt an equal measure of pride seeing Asif Iqbal captain Kent, Majid Khan open the innings for Glamorgan, Zaheer Abbas top the averages for Somerset and Intikhab Alam prop up Surrey. That was because England was perceived as the headquarters of cricket. Overseas cricketers even lusted for contracts with club sides in the Lancashire League.
An associated feature of this craving to be recognised in England was the dejection, which quickly turned to anger, if something went wrong. Sourav Ganguly was contracted to play for Lancashire in 2000. Unfortunately, he was not a great success. According to a report in Wisden Cricketer (helpfully included in Sourav’s Wikipedia entry), “The imperious Indian — dubbed ‘Lord Snooty’ — deigned to represent Lancashire in 2000. At the crease it was sometimes uncertain whether his partner was a batsman or a batman being despatched to take his discarded sweater to the pavilion or carry his kit bag. But mutiny was afoot among the lower orders. In one match Ganguly, after reaching his 50, raised his bat to the home balcony, only to find it deserted.”
Predictably, there were many in India (and too many in Bengal) who equated Sourav’s adjustment problems with English racism. They were reacting in a manner entirely becoming of subject peoples who have nothing apart from victimhood for succour.
What we are seeing in Pakistan is eerily reminiscent of an earlier generation’s love-hate relationship with English cricket. Today, India is the power centre of world cricket; it controls the economics of cricket. There is a natural desire to find a place in Indian cricket — and the public adulation is a bonus. Equally, the anguish of exclusion invariably results in intemperate accusations of bias and national humiliation.
Pakistan’s affront is the best certificate for Indian cricket and, by implication, the Indian economy. Along with Bolywood, the IPL is evidence of India’s soft power. Whether we like it or not, IPL is no longer perceived as a private sector initiative; Lalit Modi’s preferences have a bearing on wider perceptions of India. When the Bangladeshi bowler Mashrafe Mortaza was ‘bought’ by Shah Rukh Khan’s team last year for a whopping $600,000, it didn’t merely attract newer fans for Kolkata Knight Riders, it earned India immeasurable goodwill in a neighbouring country that is prone to be rather prickly in its dealings with the big neighbour.
From the perspective of statecraft, it would have made eminent sense for the IPL to have acquired the services of a few Pakistani cricketers. Instead, we are confronted by the needless spectacle of most Pakistanis perceiving the exclusion as a national affront.
India is a point of envy for most non-bigoted Pakistanis; the bigoted ones hate India for precisely that reason. There is a tendency in Pakistan to contrast its own miserable plight (which includes a daily dose of suicide-bombing) with the liberal dynamism of India. Many Pakistanis feel towards India the same way as India feels for the US. There is a desperate desire to be acknowledged.
By ignoring its cricketers, the IPL has unwittingly given a cynical Pakistani Establishment a convenient handle with which to arouse further hatred of the traditional enemy. In suggesting that Pakistan should introspect over why its players are not wanted, South Block has complicated matters and given a private matter an official twist.
At the heart of the problem is the insufficient realisation in India that we are no longer a pathetic Third World country. A ham-handed Home Ministry mindset still seems to dictate many of our responses to complex issues. For example, the silly post-Headley visa regulations meant that many writers from overseas couldn’t make it to the Jaipur Literary Festival. The two-month bar on multiple entries into India also meant that some chose to give the event a miss, rather than make convoluted travel plans.
I don’t know the extent to which a one-size-fits-all visa regime strengthens national security. But imagine if Britain or the US had imposed similar restrictions on overseas visitors. Would we have nodded our acquiescence of their homeland security or would we have cursed them solidly and charged them with xenophobia?
National security is paramount. But before we insist that every knee-jerk restriction is put into effect indiscriminately, it would be beneficial to consider the reaction if we were at the receiving end. The inability to be discerning cost the US enormous good will. India would do well to learn the lessons and move towards an uncompromising but enlightened national security regime, one that is blessed with intelligence and discretion.