India is currently consumed by its two great passions: cricket and elections
By Dinesh Wagle
This article first appeared in the Op-Ed page of today’s Kathmandu Post. Here is the PDF version of the page.
This is a season of fierce competition in India. The two great Indian games are going on and, if the television viewership rating reports are anything to go by, both of them are trying hard to hold the whole of India firmly in their grips. The competitions that share the same acronym IPLs — Indian Premier League (of cricket) and the Indian Parliamentary League (of national elections) — are full of maverick teams and charismatic players who are, like the leagues themselves, playing against each other with full vigour and energy.
While the likes of MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar are pitched against each other under the banners of Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians respectively in the cricket league, the veterans of Indian politics like Lal Krishna Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Manmohan Singh of the Indian National Congress are involved in an intense fight in the electoral battleground. Some of the matches have already been played in both leagues but the results are equally unpredictable in both.
What is known to the public, however, is the fact that the second edition of the cricket league didn’t become as big a hit among Indian viewers as it had been last year. Instead, the news channels that reported and analyzed the parliamentary poll’s first phase on April 16 managed to gain audience significantly. “As IPL (cricket) viewership in season two has dropped, elections have been a hit,” wrote one newspaper. According to a TV viewership rating agency the first IPL weekend (April 18-19) viewership was 3.5 points while political news garnered 3.6.
This time the games are happening in South Africa thanks to some politics in the sport in India. The central and some state governments led by the Congress party expressed their inability to provide security to the games saying that their priority was the parliamentary polls. The IPL boss Lalit Modi who has a close association with the opposition BJP (particularly in Rajastan) wasn’t amused. The charismatic businessman and the brain behind the IPL concept promptly decided to take the whole game outside India, thereby giving the much needed continuity to the money spinning game and its brand. Some cricketing officials inclined to another regional party openly blamed the Congress for depriving the Indians the opportunity to watch the games in stadiums in India. It was also said that the Congress wanted to take revenge against some of its regional allies who are influential in cricket politics and taking doubtful stands regarding their support to the party in the polls.
While the 20-over matches are swift and intense compared to the original and longer formats (Test and One Day) of the game, the political matches for the parliament seats that also include cabinet berths and the prime ministerial position are even more dramatic and colourful. You never know when a team is formed or dismantled or when an ally suddenly turns hostile. Broadly speaking, there are mainly three groups of teams in the Indian polls that are better known as alliances. (For the record, there are only eight teams in the cricket league.)
The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is led by the Congress while the main opposition party BJP leads the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Several regional parties are members of these alliances. Those who are not call their group the Third Front. But all these big banners are valid for the member parties as long as their interests are fulfilled. No one is permanently committed to the alliance and their options are always open. Political treachery and opportunism are part of the games and are closely followed. One day you are praising a person, the next day you spit venom against the same person only to praise him/her again on next occasion! Like all third world democracies, insults are publicly exchanged by leaders, money is distributed to voters and, in the worst cases, candidates and voters are killed.
Having said all that, democracy is India’s biggest pride. It is its democracy that has given India respect globally. Democracy is also a tool for its billion plus citizenry to have their say in the affairs of the state. It is amazing how India manages to organize such a huge spectacle in the span of a month in places ranging from those that are hit by insurgency and secessionist movements to those that experience total lawlessness and anarchy. Not to mention those that receive heat measuring up to 45 degrees celsius.
Thanks to the democratic and other systems that are firmly in place India can handle any crisis (small or big) with ease. Leadership change in any vital institution like the Election Commission itself in the middle of the electoral process becomes a cakewalk. Naveen Chawla replaced N Gopalaswami as the Chief Election Commissioner last week even as some parties hurled allegations against both the outgoing and incoming CECs. But that is part and parcel of a democracy. “What a system,” commented my friend over Gmail chat from Kathmandu. “Just imagine what would happen if the EC were to be changed in Nepal in the middle of elections?” Three days of Nepal bandhs and destroying of public property worth billions perhaps.
But in the age of 24-hour satellite television, the Indian democratic exercise has also become a major source of entertainment that has, as mentioned earlier, defeated cricket in the TV viewership ratings war. And this cricket is not just about bats and balls. It is an unprecedented mix of games and entertainment which brings us to India’s another great passion: Bollywood.
While cricket is considered a single unifying religion in the religiously, linguistically and politically divided nation of India, Bollywood provides a dose of entertainment to the majority of Indians (and many around the world). But Bollywood these days is suffering from strikes. The disagreement on revenue sharing between film producers and theater chains (also called multiplexes) has become so nasty that Bollywood hasn’t seen any big releases in the past several weeks. Indians might not complain now as the cricket league will be entertaining them until May 24. Glimpses of Bollywood are very much visible in the games as some prominent stars of the movie industry won some cricket teams.