Saturday, April 24, 2010

Let state keep its paws off IPL (April 25, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

To those unfamiliar with the byways of Indian politics, last Friday’s Lok Sabha debate on the IPL mess may have seemed a case of Bharat angrily hitting back at India. There was Sharad Yadav sneering at the fundamental dishonesty of the money-bags and pointing fingers in the direction of the evil from Mauritius and Switzerland. There was Gurudas Dasgupta who always gives the impression of being disgusted with everything and, in this case, the trivial pursuit of cricket.

Earlier, we had read about the Left Front Minister in West Bengal advocating a complete ban on IPL because tickets for Shah Rukh Khan’s box in Eden Gardens had been sold well above the marked price. Then there was the indefatigable Lalu Prasad Yadav, a familiar fixture during the IPL-1 games in Delhi, demanding IPL should be nationalised and placed under the control of the Department of Sports.

But why blame traditional politicians who earlier assumed that scams are only to do with real estate and are a bit bewildered by complicated instruments of modern capitalism? Some TV channels have been salivating at the hint that matches may have been fixed to favour betting syndicates, that kickbacks were used to buy private aeroplanes and that the pom-pom girls from deprived parts of the former Soviet Union aren’t innocent add-ons. The Bollywood formula deemed that crooks must be wrapped up in glamour and sex. The IPL has been projected to fit the stereotype.

The contrived indignation over the bent and the beautiful reminds me of what Lord Macaulay once wrote of the religiously-driven Puritans of England: That they indulged in “bear-bating not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators”.

Every generation produces new cultural trends that are linked to entertainment. And every generation breeds the kill-joys out to demonstrate that new fashions signal moral degeneration, national collapse and the end of civilisation as we know it. In the 1940s and 1950s, novels and the theatre were perceived by many to be morally crippling. In the 1960s and 1970s, ire was directed at pop music and film songs — ironically, the very ones that are elevated today to the status of classics. When the Beatles were honoured by the Queen, many World War II heroes returned their medals in protest.

The envious disdain for IPL is reminiscent of earlier generation wars. There is the familiar complaint that with IPL, cricket has ceased to be a ‘gentleman’s game’. The point is well taken and there is no doubt that IPL has more to do with entertainment than sport. Certainly, there is very little in common between a cerebral five-day Test match and the T20 game where a good slog is cheered lustily and a delectable leg glance invites exasperation.

Yet, look at the phenomenon from another angle. In the past, cricket was a middle class game which was patronised by the Maharajas and, subsequently, by a handful of indulgent industrialists. The IPL managed to do the inconceivable.

First, cricket became a mass spectator sport, cutting across classes. Today, the blue collar worker is as interested in seeing a game as the glitterati. Would we rather revert to the days of MCC members clapping politely and muttering “Well played, Sir”?

Second, IPL altered the balance of power in the international cricket establishment. Lord’s had long lost its primacy. But IPL made India the centre of world cricket or at least the world’s cricket economy. This explains why there is a tussle among international players to secure an IPL contract. It also explains why Pakistan perceived the exclusion of its players from IPL-3 to be a national affront.

Finally, IPL gave a tremendous boost to India’s leisure economy. Coming in the wake of the growing internationalisation of Bollywood, IPL injected more than Rs 15,000 crore worth of economic opportunities. It was in particular a bonanza for media but the exchequer too benefited greatly. There are those who gripe about IPL overshadowing India’s ‘real’ problems and question the ethical validity of late night parties in a country of horrifying inequalities. It would interest them to note that a large percentage of the NREGS, the RTE Act and the proposed Food Security legislation will be funded by the proceeds of IPL.

It is necessary to introduce a reality check into the IPL fuss. There are undeniably many things wrong and irregular with the IPL administration. There are conflicts of interest, lack of transparency, infusion of dodgy money, political backhanders and plain embezzlement. There are laws against such crimes and the law enforcement agencies have a full right to investigate, prosecute and even punish. But it would be useful to realise that IPL would have succeeded and flourished even if there were no unethical practices. The popularity of IPL wasn’t on account of the illegal practices — just as the state of the stock market is, in the final analysis, a reflection of economic fundamentals and not insider trading. The greed and criminality of a few individuals doesn’t detract from the fact that the IPL is based on solid fundamentals.

The IPL is a private sector achievement. It was conceived, implemented and nurtured by entrepreneurs without any reference to the state. In a country where statism is rampant, this is anathema to politicians who now want a controlling interest in a successful venture. State interference would be a kiss of death for IPL. It would be akin to TV programmes being outsourced to the Lok Sabha channel.

Just because a Minister was exposed taking a backhander is no reason for an institution to be destroyed as an act of retribution. The IPL demands overdue internal reforms and a thorough clean-up. But the state should keep its grubby paws off. Let it confine its interest to the conduct of its Ministers and the violation of laws.

Sunday Pioneer, April 25, 2010

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