Sunday, December 16, 2012

A limited-overs match is on, grudge series will be next

By Swapan Dasgupta

For an Indian cricket fan in the early-1960s, defeat was a reality we learnt to live with. An Indian side touring England and Australia acquired rich experiences of getting thrashed comprehensively. At Headingley in the summer of 1952, the scoreboard read 0/4 in India’s second innings; and in the Oval Test that year, India was struggling at 5/6 before rain came to the rescue.

India’s solace lay in individual performances. Legends were woven around Vinoo Mankad’s spectacular all-round performance at Lord’s in 1952 and, of course, Oxford Freshman Abbas Ali Baig’s century on debut at Old Trafford in 1959. Inevitably, the search for individual valour often meant creating myths out of very little. In Calcutta, there was a halo around wicket-keeper P.Sen who stumped Don Bradman in a match against South Australia. There is also a vague recollection of a bileth-pherat (England-returned) Bengali gentleman reminiscing about the time Dattu Phadkar bowled four consecutive maiden overs to the legendary Len Hutton.

It may sound flippant, but the liberal discourse on the Assembly election in Gujarat has often resembled the conversations on Indian cricket some 50 years ago. The outcome of the Test was pre-determined and the points of interest were individual performances and the margin of defeat. If India averted an innings defeat, it was regarded as a jolly good show.  

The similarities with the recent narratives on the Gujarat polls are striking. The re-election of Narendra Modi is often taken as given and the real interest is centred on his margin of victory. If the BJP, it is said, secures even a single seat less than its 2007 tally of 117 seats in an Assembly of 182, it will be a ‘moral defeat’ for Modi. Conversely, any improvement over the 2007 performance will be regarded as a categorical mandate and a green signal for his entry into the national arena.

The benchmark set by those who are reconciled to Modi’s third consecutive victory may well be arbitrary and, indeed, whimsical but it does address a larger point: politics is not merely about statistics but is largely centred on perceptions. The definition of an emphatic victory will be subjective.

It is to the credit of the Gujarat Chief Minister that he has assiduously managed to convey the image of representing the Gujarati consensus—as captured by his ‘Ekmat Gujarat’ slogan—which can, at best, be dented on the margins. He has also managed to shift the terms of engagement quite dramatically: the debate in Gujarat on Modi’s 11 years in office bears little resemblance to the so-called ‘communal’ concerns articulated by his detractors in the rest of India. In Gujarat, the opposition has challenged Modi on purely local concerns such as water and the perceived affront to Leuva Patels; in the rest of India the misgivings are over Modi’s, apparently contentious, “idea of India”.

Indeed, the idea of Gujarati uniqueness has become so pronounced that, for the first time in living memory, the Congress mounted a campaign that carried no mention of any member of the Nehru-Gandhi. It preferred going into battle with an evocative media blitz that had a brand ambassador as its mascot.

If the Congress fails to dent Modi’s existing majority, it is almost certain that this ‘non-political’ campaign will be held responsible. More troubling for it, however, is if the campaign succeeds. Will the Congress then acknowledge that the first family carries no political value addition?

On December 20, some of these questions will be addressed, but only perfunctorily. In the imagination of India, the Gujarat election was only about Gujarat and, by association, Modi. The outcome could well help the BJP select its leading face for the general election. But its national implication should not be exaggerated.  Despite the hype, Gujarat 2012 was a limited encounter: one side was battling for victory and the other was praying for a draw. A national election with Modi on the centre-stage will be a grudge series.

The way we play cricket reflects the national character. Yesterday’s India was frightened and unprepared to confront adversaries; today’s India will relish a no-holds-barred scrap. It is best to look upon the Gujarat poll as a tame Ranji Trophy match.  

Sunday Times of India, December 16, 2012

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