IPL is one of the rarest sports spectacles which completely subverts otherwise ubiquitous nationalist and parochial discourses
After months of uncertainty and speculation, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is all set to start; outside the country of its origin and minus the shrieking fans. Everyone, even its critics and detractors, admits to its stupendous popularity. For most of its supporters and fans, it is an event almost of national importance, no less than the General Elections. In fact, a year ago, a large majority of Indians were simultaneously subjected to two kinds of spectacles: one in the sports arena and the other in the political playing field. The dates for both overlapped for a period of one month as the grand spectacle of the IPL (March 23-May 12, 2019) coincided with the heat and dust generated by the General Elections. The Code of Conduct was immediately effective after the dates for the elections were announced on March 10, 2019. In between the elections, the din over the IPL rose to a crescendo and climaxed with the final in which the Mumbai Indians defeated Chennai Super Kings at a “neutral” venue in Hyderabad. As the great excitement over IPL subsided, all hell broke loose over the no-holds-barred election campaigns. There is no doubt about the ephemerality and inconsequentiality of the first, nor about the epochal nature of the second. And yet, many cricket fans think otherwise.
With the pandemic and economy playing havoc, and none of the venues in India playing host, the event may have already lost its usual sheen. Also, the forthcoming elections in Bihar are no match for the national polls last year. Yet, now that both the events are round the corner, it is a good time to reflect on how both affect the public psyche. For cricket has always been seen, at least in the former colonies, as a weapon for political dominance or even as an instrument to fight back dominance; any reader of CLR James’ Beyond the Boundary would know that. Until the advent of IPL, cricket was about national teams and races. As James says, “Cricket…had plunged” him “into politics long before [he] was aware of it. When [he] did turn to politics, [he] did not have too much to learn.” What lessons in politics does the IPL proffer?
The Election Commission lays down the rules of the game in the Model Code of Conduct. The IPL follows most of the rules laid down by the International Cricket Council (ICC). During the IPL and also the General Elections, many of these rules were flouted, decidedly or allegedly. The IPL cricketers, drawn from across cricket-playing nations, were bought and sold much before the event. Apparently, inconsequent to the followers of the game, the prices, sometimes incommensurate with the reputation of many players, were headlined. Many high profile players and erstwhile heroes were left unsold or sold late. Political parties also tried to highlight names of politicians who crossed over from their rivals’ party. There seemed to be a competition of sorts to rope in glamorous cricketers or film stars from Chennai and Mumbai, from Bhojpuri to Tamil stars. Many of them even floated new parties for the cause of democracy, freedom of expression and so on.
In a certain sense, they were engaged in completely different practices; in another sense, they shared certain commonalities, especially in the visual space of the electronic media. The high octane media coverage, with experts in both “fields” crying themselves hoarse regarding the current performances, strategies and forecasts, was common to both the arenas. A few IPL specialists like Gautam Gambhir, who until last year were commenting both on cricket and political matters, jumped into the fray, hoping to prove their political prowess.
But, of course, the man in the street took a keen interest in both, while the satellite channels made merry with increased TRPs and phenomenal commercial gains. In the background of both, the Balakot airstrikes fed the emotions directly and indirectly: directly in the political arena of elections, and indirectly by the absence of cricketers from Pakistan.
For one thing, the IPL is not about national teams. No one cares which country the players come from. The jerseys are of individual franchises and one looks in vain for the nationality behind the jersey in case the player happens to be one of the lesser-known. No, IPL is not about nations and nationalism. Nor is it about parochialism. The teams are named after cities but even the Indian players are not from these cities. They could well be from the city of the rival team. Sourav Ganguly can be the coach of Delhi Daredevils playing against the Kolkata Knight Riders for whom he had earlier played and whose coach he had eventually become. Shah Rukh Khan (a Delhiite) living in Mumbai is the owner of Kolkata Knight Riders. The same kind of fuzzing of identities is seen even among spectators.
Talking of Shah Rukh Khan brings to mind the two sets of affiliation leading to a triangular bonding. Politics and Bollywood, politics and cricket, and cricket and Bollywood. For decades, Prime Ministers have made it a point to pose with winning cricket teams and cricketing heroes. But these are about winning international tournaments like the World Cup. Seldom does one see politicians in IPL events. Last year, around the time of the General Elections, many actors posed with major politicians. One of the X-factors in popularising IPL was that popular film stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta owned franchises.
Whereas communal-based politics is the order of the day, cricket and Bollywood, at least superficially seen, symbolise communal amity. Last year, exactly at a time when communal identities were dominating electoral arithmetic, and politicians were busy dividing and stereotyping people with a certain kind of facial hair, Indian cricketers had broken down this identity divide by almost all of them flaunting facial hair.
Such is the privileging of cricket over other sports. The one cricketing spectacle that the spectators in the subcontinent look forward to is the Indo-Pak encounter during which rabid nationalism rises to the fore. IPL, in contrast, is one of the rarest sports spectacles which completely subverts otherwise ubiquitous nationalist and parochial discourses. The one puzzle that social psychologists need to sort out and explain is how the same people can be so deeply involved in two kinds of spectacles, one entrenched in rabid nationalist discourse and another which is aggressively internationalist. This year, some of these questions will be tested against the backdrop of the Assembly elections in Bihar.
(The writer is a well-known scholar; he is the former head of Dept. Of English, Delhi University and author of books such as Tenth Rasa and The Will to Argue)