Sachin Tendulkar speaks during a felicitation function in Pune. PTI
In a nation of multiple gods, mortals run the risk of being elevated to divinity. With cricket as contemporary India's mass religion, Sachin Tendulkar has had to live with demi-god status for years now. It's a burden he has been conscious of, rarely being drawn into controversy. Not for Sourav Ganguly-like histrionics of baring his chest on the Lords balcony or Virat Kohli-like abuse on reaching a century. Through good times and bad, Tendulkar has gone about doing just one thing with absolute single-mindedness: scoring a mountain of runs. He is the boy next door who has become the god of cricket through the sheer weight of 'pure' achievement.
Which is why his decision to accept a Rajya Sabha nomination in the eminent citizens category is being seen by some as somehow incongruous with his exalted position. Tendulkar as a backbencher MP is seen to lower his stature rather than enhance it. A group on the social media - mainly well organised 'internet Hindutva' groups - has even tried to give it a political twist by suggesting that Tendulkar has fallen prey to a Congress 'conspiracy' to divert attention from scams. Bal Thackeray, smarting perhaps that the original 'Marathi manoos' has not become a Shiv Sainik, has been even more caustic in criticising Tendulkar's nomination.
Before the noise becomes a cacophony, let's get one thing clear: becoming an MP under the eminent citizens category does not make Tendulkar a politician or reveal any political agenda at this stage. If it were so, then the likes of MF Husain, Lata Mangeshkar, Fali Nariman, Pandit Ravi Shankar, MS Swaminathan and many other distinguished nominees over the years would be accused of being politically aligned to the party in power when they were clearly not. Yes, we have had a Mani Shankar Aiyar being made a Rajya Sabha MP under the 'nominated' category soon after losing a Lok Sabha election. The BJP, too, made Hema Malini a nominated MP even while she was actively campaigning for the party. And yes, there is a growing tendency to patronise those who are considered partial to the ruling dispensation.
But the original intent of Article 80 (3) of the Constitution was best reflected by Jawaharlal Nehru when he said in 1953, "The nominated MPs do not represent any political party or anything but they represent the high watermark of literature, art or culture, or whatever it may be." By this criteria, Tendulkar clearly qualifies. That the only sportsman to be earlier nominated was wrestler Dara Singh is a measure of just how historically sports was treated as a 'lesser' activity. Dara Singh too, after all, was more an entertainer than a sportsman. To that extent, Tendulkar's nomination breaks an important boundary: may be the State is finally recognising that sportspersons bring greater glory than most, and the likes of Tendulkar are brand ambassadors for a younger, aspirational India. Even the Bharat Ratna category has at last been expanded to include sportspersons.
But this is where the Tendulkar nomination runs into trouble. A Bharat Ratna is a national honour, one which Tendulkar truly deserves when he finishes his long and remarkable career. A Rajya Sabha nomination is, on the other hand, a responsibility which, ideally, should be backed by a track record of public service that goes beyond individual achievement. It is not a celebrity contest or a star parade (which is why Rekha's nomination is even more mystifying).
Somehow, the fear is that a justifiable campaign for a Bharat Ratna for Tendulkar has got mixed with the 'reward' of a Rajya Sabha nomination. The closest parallel one can draw in this regard is of a Lata Mangeshkar. Lata didi was awarded a Bharat Ratna in 2001, a richly deserved honour for someone whose voice had delighted generations. In 1999, she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Her Bharat Ratna was greeted with universal acclaim but her Rajya Sabha nomination drew criticism when it became obvious that she had little time or inclination to participate in parliamentary proceedings. The fact is, she was almost never seen in Parliament and cited ill-health as the reason.
At 39, Tendulkar won't have health as an excuse for either not attending or staying silent in Parliament. But he is, at the moment, an active cricketer who has made it clear that he has no immediate plans of retiring from the sport. Will, for example, next year when the Mumbai Indians are playing the Indian Premier League, Tendulkar opt for the attractions of T20 cricket or will he attend the summer session of Parliament? What if there is a crucial debate in Parliament on the Lokpal Bill while India is playing a Test match this winter? Which pitch will Tendulkar choose?
It is possible that the nomination which, after all, is a six-year term is a prelude to retirement, and it is entirely possible that issues of time management could become academic if Tendulkar chooses to finally leave the cricketing stage. Even so, the question will be asked: is becoming a Rajya Sabha nominated member the best post-retirement plan for someone with the iconic status of a Tendulkar? Should he not be using his pan-Indian appeal to reach out to millions on issues of public concern? Why, for example, doesn't the ultimate youth role model become a face for a nationwide campaign against drugs, or for safe driving, or even the right to education? Maybe, Tendulkar will surprise us by doing all this and more. But till then, the jury will be out, and the lurking fear will remain: is the greatest cricketer India has produced simply going to be a well-decorated ornament in Parliament?
Post-script: There is one other reason for mixed feelings on Tendulkar as Rajya Sabha MP. The annual journalists vs MPs cricket match may become horribly one-sided if Tendulkar chooses to pad up for the parliamentarians!
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 Network