IPL vs. ‘Indian Poverty League’: The Great Indian Cricket Show

March 30, 2010 at 6:31 pm (Essay, Subarno Chattarji)

 As the IPL3 (Indian Premier League) juggernaut rolls on there can be little doubt that it is a phenomenon and not just in cricketing terms. Lalit Modi’s brainchild is a spectacular combination of Bollywood (Shahrukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Shilpa Shetty as immediate stakeholders), corporate interests (Vijay Mallaya, Subroto Roy et al), the usual nexus of politics and cricket, U.S. style cheerleading and time-outs (a seemingly seamless intermeshing of American Football and basketball), and some excellent cricket.

That an event in its third year played only in a handful of countries is now comparable in commercial terms to major sport franchises in Europe and the U.S. is testament to the business skills of the IPL Commissioner and his team. Modi has little doubt that the franchisees will recover their investment: ‘“We are just two-year-old and every team that has been run well must be making profit. If not, they are probably marginally short of making profit,” he told CNN-IBN channel. Buttressing his case, Modi said, “Sports is one of the leading businesses of the world today. English Premier League, NFL, NBA, Spanish League, Bundesliga – these capture the imagination of the youth and the people.”’ [‘IPL franchises will recover their money: Modi,’ PTI, 21 March, 2010, http://in.news.yahoo.com/20/20100321/1416/tnl-ipl-franchises-will-recover-their-mo.html] The corporatization of cricket is not new – what is novel are the ways in which the T20 format has been converted into a major sporting extravaganza, intertwining sport, media, glamour, money, and hype to unleash a continuum of excitement and cricketing drama.

Most of the cricket has been brilliant and it is easy to be mesmerized by the series of games where world class players (some of whom have retired from international cricket) slog it out. The wham-bang nature of T20 has not meant that the action is cornered by younger players. In fact all time greats such as Dravid, Hayden, Ganguly, Jayasuriya, Tendulkar, and Warne have played some sublime cricket. Watching IPL teams battle it out is a perfect example of ‘dream teams’ pitted against one another in the only cricketing space where this is possible. In a different context Mike Marqusee analyzes the ways in which, ‘Sport became both preparation and substitute for war, a theatre of competition not merely between individuals and teams, but between nations and peoples.’ [Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2000, p. 46] IPL maintains the competitive element in terms of individuals and teams and the enormous financial rewards at stake, but it internationalizes cricket in a significant manner and seems to ameliorate the hyper-patriotism that the game has come to symbolize especially in the Indian subcontinent.

The template of this patriotic fervour is the India-Pakistan rivalry where cricketing skills meet with primordial anxieties embedded in national identity. To cite Marqusee once more: ‘Even as cricket’s base had become more democratic and inclusive, ethnic and communal divisions [in India] had grown more acute, and ethnic and communal politics more aggressive. These politics intervened repeatedly in cricket, and that was why India and Pakistan had been unable to meet on sub-continental soil for seven years.’ [Mike Marqusee, War minus the Shooting: A Journey through South Asia during Cricket’s World Cup. London: Heinemann, 1996, p. 20] Marqusee’s comment looks primarily at sub-continental scenarios prior to the 1996 World Cup but the long shadow of communal identity politics haunts the IPL as well. The exclusion of Pakistani players from IPL3 following threats of the Shiv Sena and the Sena’s questioning of Shahrukh Khan’s patriotism because he stood up for the Pakistan cricketers are two obvious examples. The Sena also wished to extend its writ to Australian players (to be banned from playing due to race attacks against Indians in Australia) and even Tendulkar for daring to say that Mumbai was for all Indians (subsequently silenced by Tendulkar’s record-breaking one-day double century). To its credit Australians and Tendulkar continue to play in Mumbai in the IPL, but the bidding fiasco over great Pakistani cricketers robs the event of some of its international sheen revealing the immediate parochial political spaces which cannot be transcended by all the razzmatazz.

In another context, a NDTV 60 Minutes programme (22 March 2010) attempted to deal with some of the politically charged and contrastive aspects thrown into relief by the bidding for two new IPL franchises. It highlighted the obvious dichotomy between Rs. 3235 crores spent to buy the Kochi and Pune teams for IPL4 and indices such as hunger which represent levels of deprivation in India. The contrast between the panellists – Subroto Roy insisting on the business model and Ashis Nandy and Harsh Mander pointing to moral, ethical, social, and political paradigms beyond monetary considerations – served to bring to the fore an important set of issues and debates. As a mainstream English language channel NDTV deserves all credit for entering this arena. However, almost inevitably, the binaries were projected by the moderator in terms of consumption versus austerity, the latter being associated with a ‘socialist’ model (the moderator’s terms) and ‘socialism’ seen as something that is discredited. As an aside it is interesting that President Obama is seen as a ‘socialist’ and his health care reform a ‘socialist’ takeover by big government. While providing Nandy and Mander media space to put forth alternate political and ethical models, the ‘socialist’ tag seemed to discredit moral concerns at the same time that it raised those very concerns. For the millions who live on Rs. 20 a day and the 50% who go hungry (statistical graphics provide on screen) well-targeted, effective, incorruptible government interventions may not be a terrible idea, especially since the business model seems largely uninterested in the poor and disenfranchised.

The NDTV programme is, despite its problems, representative of valuable media interventions and it raises further questions. IPL serves as a lightning rod bringing to the fore consumer and corporate cultures that revel in their own wealth and brilliance as exclusive domains. Within these corralled worlds national and international economic realities – such as growing inequities within India and the disproportionate burden borne by the poor during the recession – are either irrelevant or impolitic (impolite?) and therefore ignored. The internationalization of teams is wonderful in cricketing terms but these teams and their owners, advertisers, and followers are not innocent of particular local and indeed global contexts. The IPL mode of existence and operation could be perceived as literal and pathological markers of collective/national desires and a sense of having arrived (or at least moved further along the road to a consumer-entertainment haven).

Yet why focus solely on the IPL when there are so many other symbols of national desire from malls to multiplexes to the bomb? This criticism is not aimed at NDTV or any other single media provider but at the media landscape as a field which seems to see events as stand-alone ones rather than as being interconnected. Some concurrent media events such as Mayavati’s garland, Narendra Modi – the initial mystery of his date with the SIT and subsequent appearance, the continuing Maoist violence and recent bandh, increasing expenditure for the Commonwealth Games along with dubious labour practices at Games sites, the 26/11 trial and (non)access to David Headley swirl around the IPL as if they were totally discrete happenings. Various types of dispossession and modes of resistance, the history of communal violence and non-conviction of their leaders and perpetrators, terrorism and national tub thumping are all an integral part of India in the new century. Arguably by focusing on the inappropriateness of money garlands and on over-the-top bids for IPL franchises the media establishes a kind of equivalence and ‘objectivity’. Yet both are seen without context and the former is easily lampooned while the latter is a sign of Indian prowess. Similarly the Maoist ‘menace’ is seen almost universally as a law-and-order problem rather than expressive of desperation and anger borne of deep generational and institutional inequities fostered in independent India. The point is not that media outlets ignore inequities in India. Mainstream English language newspapers do carry articles which deal with problems such as a recent Times of India piece which focused on the 58% of Indians who do not have access to toilets. Such reports, however, exist as stand alone ones with no background and no follow-up, while the details, intrigues, tweets of IPL buyers and their ministerial backers are covered in great detail. Paradoxically it is through inclusion that the darker aspects of India are kept at bay, occasional blips in an otherwise confident and wealthy (and not afraid to flaunt it) country. It’s time to turn the TV on for the next IPL encounter.

– Subarno Chattarji

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