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Saturday May 18, 2024

Just not cricket: Indian politicians bat for power

Veteran cricket journalist Sharda Ugra said the sport is used as a vehicle for a muscular nationalism

By AFP
April 18, 2024
This representational image shows a kookaburra ball and a cricket bat. — APP/File
This representational image shows a kookaburra ball and a cricket bat. — APP/File

NEW DELHI: Cricket is more than just a game in India: critics accuse ruling-party politicians and the sport’s closely linked mega-rich board of exploiting its huge popularity for electoral advantage.

India begins voting in six-week-long general elections on Friday, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) widely expected to sweep to a third term in power.

Modi’s BJP is intricately tied to the powerful Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), with commentators saying the ruling party has sought to co-opt the sport as a tool to bowl out political opponents.

Veteran cricket journalist Sharda Ugra said the sport is “used as a vehicle for a muscular nationalism”.

“Control is exercised not just through its presence of senior officials connected to the ruling party, but through the use of Indian cricket to further their political messaging,” she told AFP.

Modi’s government is far from the first to use cricket for political gain in India, but his populist BJP has tightened those links further than any before, added Ugra.

BCCI chief Jay Shah is the son of home affairs minister Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man and himself a former president of the Gujarat state cricket board.

Arun Dhumal, chairman of the money-spinning Indian Premier League, is the brother of sports minister Anurag Thakur, who is also an ex-BCCI head.

“The current BCCI is the first Indian cricketing administration which is under the control of a single political party, and not a general clutch of politicians,” said Ugra.

Gideon Haigh, cricket writer for The Australian newspaper, has called the BJP “shameless in its self-interest” for co-opting the sport.

“Cricket is just one of many institutions it has captured, although it is the one most meaningful to the most people,” Haigh told AFP.

The BJP won state elections in Rajasthan in December, and last month a minister’s son took charge of the cricket board.

In New Delhi, the capital’s stadium was renamed in 2019 after a BJP stalwart, the late finance minister Arun Jaitley, whose son Rohan Jaitley heads the state cricket board.

For the previous 137 years, it had been called the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium, after a 14th-century Muslim sultan.

And when India hosted the ODI World Cup last year, Modi attended the final at the world’s biggest cricket stadium – which is named after him – in Ahmedabad.

A home victory would undoubtedly have further boosted national pride ahead of the election, but India lost in the decider.

Modi went into the dressing room, accompanied by a camera crew, to embrace the Indian team. “It happens,” he told them. “Keep smiling, the country is looking up to you.”

India’s delays or denials of visas for the tournament for players and fans from arch-rival Pakistan had raised some concerns.

Other players with Pakistani heritage – including Australia’s Usman Khawaja and England’s Shoaib Bashir – have also faced visa challenges during India tours. The BCCI did not respond to a series of questions submitted by AFP.