Hit wicket

The IPL spat has damaged the perception of India as a safe destination for sport

Written by Y P Rajesh | Published: March 26, 2009 11:07 pm

It was hard to miss the glee in the voice and glint in the eye of Lalit Modi on Tuesday as he addressed the media in South Africa after the country had been chosen over England to host the Indian Premier League cricket matches this year. Among the things that would accrue to South Africa for staging IPL 2.0,the consummate salesman who happens to be the IPL commissioner and BCCI vice-president listed,is the financial windfall from the 30,000 room-nights that the tournament would utilise,the dozens of flights players,officials and fans would take,and so on and so forth. For the government back home,it was a bouncer hard to duck,even though the bowler had overstepped.

A day earlier Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram — who incidentally was the first to raise the red flag of security over the IPL after the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore — went on the front foot and hit out at the cricket board after it announced its decision to move IPL out of the country,and more specifically,slammed its supporters,such as BJP leaders Arun Jaitley and Narendra Modi,seeking to score political debating points.

It may not be naïve to believe that the knowledgeable home minister,the shrewd IPL commissioner or the many other worthies involved with cricket and political administration in the country do not perhaps realise the import of what they have just achieved. It is not just cricket that has become the victim of,on the one hand,the paranoia triggered by Lahore and,on the other,the blind muscle-flexing of a cricket board drunk on the power of the millions it has made from the game in the post-liberalisation era.

This needless spat has also,without doubt,damaged the perception of India as a safe destination for sport; and by its logical extension,can also be applied to tourism and business in these recessionary times. Before critics of this argument can pounce with a counter about how the world’s largest and most complicated democratic exercise,the Indian elections,are any day more sacrosanct than cricket,here’s why perceptions matter.

Every time there is a major terror attack,a political upheaval,an assassination or an accident that snatches away for good a key national leader,analysts and policy-makers tend to look at how various financial markets react to get an indication of the seriousness of the blow. Sometimes the markets plummet and at some others they factor in the damage and plod along,depending on a host of factors.

Many a time,outsiders feel there is little rationale in the way markets react,but there is no denying they are noted in times when symbolism and atmospherics have become as important in the conduct of government and of administration as are ground realities. This is similar to the reasons tourists cancel or put off plans to visit a destination after a terror attack there even though the possibility of another attack in the same place,immediately,could be remote if not non-existent. A photograph of a railway coach ripped apart by a bomb or an iconic hotel dome on fire can undo years of tourism campaigns in some parts of the world and trigger travel advisories.

Which is why it was a near-miracle — even if made possible by the clout of the BCCI — when the English cricket team returned to India to play a three-Test series after abandoning the one-day series,following the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Not only did that reaffirm the stoic resilience India is known to be capable of,it also signalled the country’s ability to pick up the pieces and carry on with business,and pleasure,as usual. This is the same kind of signal Pakistan craves every time a cricket or hockey team has hesitated to visit the country on security grounds in the aftermath of 9/11. And until Lahore,Islamabad had pulled it off rather successfully,with the 2004 visit of the Indian cricket team there considered the peak of sports diplomacy. All the more reason why India should have managed elections and the IPL simultaneously and enhanced its reputation.

Lahore and 26/11 certainly made terror gaming in the region much more complicated for security planners,and the five-phase elections only added to the complexity of organising the IPL simultaneously. But given will,it should not have been impossible for a country with visions of global power. This,by the way,is not an argument based just on rhetoric. During the 2004 Lok Sabha elections,about 38,000 state policemen and another 3,000 Central forces were deployed on and around the days of voting in Mumbai —

India’s largest and now also its most insecure city.

Last year,about 1,000 policemen were on duty when IPL matches were played in Mumbai and about 600-700 when played in the satellite city of Navi Mumbai. This number is not drastically different for other cities too. And,given the attempts of the IPL to juggle dates of matches to avoid clashing with polling in host cities,the intransigence of some states over committing security is all the more perplexing. Questions also remain about whether enough thought was given to abridging the tournament this year to single round-robin from double round-robin,considering how tedious it seemed to get in the middle stages last year.

All of which make it difficult to ignore insinuations that there was more to this than just cricket and security. A sideshow in Maharashtra,where NCP chief and BCCI superboss Sharad Pawar’s prime ministerial ambitions were not taken too kindly by the Congress,and some strange turnarounds by local leaders over security,gave more than just a glimpse of the politics that crept in and muddied the waters. And before they knew it,both sides seem to have pushed each other off the edge in their game of brinkmanship. Cricket offers many metaphors to life,but none such as both batsmen running each other out.

yp.rajesh@expressindia.com

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