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In a league of their own

Indian Premier League versus Indian Political League, cricket versus elections, batsman versus neta: India’s two great passions appear to be in direct and intense competition over the next month, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2009 22:42 IST

This season, TV ratings are about to witness a new battle and it isn’t saas bahu versus balika vadhu. As a ratings agency sms suggests, “It’s a battle of the Modis”. Who will you watch for the next six weeks: the controversial but charismatic Narendra Modi, or the equally controversial but pugnacious Lalit Modi? One Modi is playing out his act in democracy’s biggest theatre, the Indian Political League; the other is hoping to make the Indian Premier League season two even bigger than the original. IPL versus IPL, cricket versus elections, batsman versus neta: India’s two great passions appear to be in direct and intense competition over the next month.

Ironically, the similarities between the two IPLs outweigh the differences. Both thrive on drama and excitement. Indian elections are a bit like a 20-20 match now: in a period of messy coalitions, no one knows who is ahead till the last vote is counted. Just as a 20-20 match can witness sudden shifts in fortune in every over, elections too are showing a remarkable propensity to swing on a weekly basis. Just a few weeks ago, it appeared that the UPA was in some kind of a comfort zone. Now, a bit like a bowler who suddenly picks up two wickets in an over to change the course of a 20-20 game, the presence of the ‘fourth front’ has added a new dimension to the election race and made it much more of an even contest.

The cricket league has been built around the concept of city teams owned by corporates. Indian politics is no different. It is increasingly apparent that a ‘national’ election is an aggregation of several ‘state’ fights, each being fought on different issues. Like in cricket, in politics too, it’s the regional franchises which are setting the pace: the national parties are in seemingly terminal decline, it’s the state players who will determine the final winner. Substitute the AIADMK for the Chennai Superkings, the Trinamool Congress for the Kolkata Knight Riders, and the Mumbai Indians for the Nationalist Congress Party, and there will be a realisation that power today is flowing from the state capitals, not a feeble Centre.

Even the pattern of ownership has a distinctly similar pattern. If most of the IPL cricket teams are owned by business families, a majority of our political teams are also controlled by family dynasties. The Pawars, the Nehru-Gandhis, the Yadavs, the Abdullahs, are the effective ‘owners’ of successful political enterprises much like the Ambanis, the Mallyas, the GMRs are the bosses of their franchises. Party legislators, like team players, are almost the ‘property’ of the owner.

If cricketers have a price, and are being auctioned to the highest bidder, so are the netas. In fact, cricket and politics seem incredibly recession-free. Just as the price of cricketers has increased manifold in the last few years, the netas too are demanding staggering amounts for their support to a particular party. At least, cricketers can measure their true worth in terms of raw talent; a politician’s net worth is directly related to his manipulative abilities.

There is the glamour quotient too. Okay, so the Election Commission has played killjoy by preventing candidates from spending on the traditional naach-gaana that was once such an integral part of a campaign. Maybe, we don’t have scantily clad cheerleaders at poll rallies, but there is evidence to suggest that politicians too, like the cricket franchises, are relying on ‘star’ value to draw in the crowds, if not the votes. Shah Rukh Khan may have re-invented himself from an actor to cricket guru, but even he would find it tough to match the manner in which Sanjay Dutt has been transformed almost overnight from ‘Munnabhai’ to Amar Singh’s bhai. From Salman Khan’s special appearances to Hema Malini’s ageing ‘Basanti’ act to Chiranjeevi’s theatrics, there is enough on the campaign trail to rival cricket’s star power in the shape of Shilpa Shetty and Preity Zinta.

Which brings one to the critical similarity: in their present avatar, both the IPLs are designed as a form of entertainment being played out on live TV. There was a time when elections, like a Test match, were spread over several weeks. The campaign was an extended one and politicians planned for it several months in advance. The rival camps shared a mutual respect for each other and certain behavioural norms were expected to be followed. But now, it seems that it’s open season in politics: abuse and ridicule have replaced debate and discussion. Individual battles have replaced a contest of ideas and issues. Shoot-and-scoot politics, accompanied by coarse language, is seen to substitute any meaningful attempt to set the agenda for a nation. It’s a bit like how the refined technique of Test cricket has been replaced by the cross-bat heroics of the 20-20 game.

Last year, during cricket’s IPL, the dominant image, in a sense, was the incident where Harbhajan Singh slapped Sreesanth. Replayed across channels countlessly, it seemed to suggest a complete breakdown of the gentleman’s game. The enduring images of Election 2009 have so far been Varun Gandhi’s hate speech and Jarnail Singh’s chappal-throwing 15 seconds of fame. Does anyone remember party manifestos or any attempt in the campaign to seriously debate issues beyond the usual rhetoric? Manifestos are almost an archival relic, a bit like the solid defensive stroke: nobody, it seems, has time for the ‘boring’ basics of politics.

Unfortunately, in the age of instant gratification, we seem to be losing out on our more enduring needs. This is where the two IPLs must necessarily depart. A 20-20 cricket tournament can perhaps still thrive on creating sufficient hype; an election needs more than just dramatic content to be truly meaningful. As we move towards becoming a tele-democracy, maybe the netas and we, in the media, need to realise that amid the cacophony, it’s the silence of the voter that needs to be understood. For come judgement day, its only the silent voter whose voice will echo across the nation.

Post-script: Kolkata Knight Riders coach John Buchanan has already created a stir in the cricket world by planning on having multiple captains for his team. Let me stir it up a bit in politics: post-May 16, if the elections throw a badly fractured verdict, be prepared for rotating prime ministers.

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network

First Published: Apr 16, 2009 22:32 IST