Friday, May 23, 2008

It's not cricket

This first appeared on comment is free, but what the hell...

If sport mirrors society, then India's Twenty20 cricket league has been a revelation. There have been allegations of racism, on-field violence and blunt sexism directed at imported cheerleaders. Off-field bigotry and pitch fisticuffs are deplorable, but the fact that they are being debated is not.

For this we have to thank the arrival of Twenty/20. Although cricket has always been seen as a religion in India, it was one that was only observed when the national team played. Very few people ever turned up to watch the domestic game in India, which was a poor preparation for the big occasions and did not garner meaningful television audiences.

The result was that Indian cricket became a trainspotters' delight - full of obscure language and rows over statistics, which only emphasised its idiosyncrasies. Twenty20 has finally ended this exceptionalism, asking Indians to think themselves as global trendsetters. That in turn has made the country take seriously debates about sporting attitude, fans' behaviour and the influence of money.

By borrowing from baseball and football and with a billion dollars behind it, Twenty20 has also revived a wilting sport. In this incarnation cricket has at last caught up with modern sporting age.

Like other spectator sports, razor-sharp reflexes in Twenty20 must be melded with technique. Pouring a day's game into three hours and 240 deliveries means that wrong decisions are mercilessly penalised. Purists might complain that gone is the tussle of wits between batter and bowler, replaced only by a slugfest of runs. But fans like a game that fits nicely into an evening. There is also no option for sides to draw - finally recognition that rewarding sporting prowess matters more to fans than competitive balance.

There is more to sport than watching teams vie for supremacy. Shorn of nationalism, Twenty20 has at last made cricket in India a cultural obsession in the same way football is in England. Thousands turn up at stadiums. The teams are multi-national and multi-ethnic. Indians have finally learned to love the brilliantly coarse Shane Warne, who has seen his unfancied team, the Rajasthan Royals, dominate.

The league has also proved you cannot buy success: billionaire Vijay Mallya spent a small fortune on Bangalore's Royal Challengers only to see them bottom of the league.

The game itself is a vehicle for change - challenging Indians to ask whether they as a society are really as modern as they think they are. In sport, when a country has issues, its teams face many of those same issues. So Indians have had to own up about the racism that blights their society - the apparent sending home of two black cheerleaders because of their race was front page news in Delhi. When the bombs exploded in Jaipur, home of the Rajasthan Royals, international players were not condemned for wanting to return home.

It is clear that the game is here to stay. In the coming years it will be interesting to see how the Twenty20 league shapes up. There have been calls from the Pakistan cricket board for a team to be based in Lahore. This presents risks as well as opportunities. It is true that good sporting rivalry is good for business, but it'd better if this did not stir a religious version of hooliganism.

Do not blame the game if passions explode. Twenty20 is the illustration, not the explanation, of the problem. That's why it has had a profound and welcome cultural impact in India. There are promising signs that it will become a sporting glue, binding together people from different backgrounds in support of the game. If that is not cricket, who cares?

Friday, May 16, 2008

The impotence of being

You won't find me saying this too often, but there's a piece worth reading in the Hindu. In the opinion pages, Vidya Subrahmaniamexamines why Rahul Gandhi, scion of India's powerful ruling family, will fail to attract voters from the Dalit or untouchable community in the country's biggest state, Uttar Pradesh. She contrasts this with the vote-building success of Uttar Pradesh's chief minister, Mayawati, who leads a Dalit-empowerment party that swept to power last year.

The bottom line is that the Congress still functions as a royal court which pays lip service to the concerns of the downtrodden but is unwilling to let Dalit leadership advise the throne. In politics symbols are important. Mayawati's success as a politician is a spur for Dalits who see a conspiracy to keep them out of power. But images are themselves powerless. As Ms Subrahmaniam points out Mayawati is helpless to stop the everyday brutality perpetuated by other castes against Dalits.

Why the untouchable question remains central to the politics of India might confound western readers who are fed a daily diet of economic success stories about the rise of the country. The reality is that caste is central to the character of India's public life. People have yet to break the boundaries of gender and social-standing in India and are unable largely to choose a life for themselves.

Mayawati's rise seems to signify one big change. The first Indian regime was concerned with freedom from the British. It was also about defining the freedom of the self in the constitution. We are in the midst of the second regime where power is paramount. Power between the states and the nation and by one person over another.

The first regime, dominated by the Congress party, lasted more than 40 years. Mayawati's dream may be to be prime minister but I suspect her real role in politics will be to push India to the next stage of political development: that of rights of people and groups. When these become important in India, Mayawati will have won.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Left at the barricades

If there is one place where the intellectual is venerated and his or her presence in or influence upon politics celebrated, then it is leftist India. The left-wing Indian leaders are clever, articulate types usually well-travelled and better read than their contemporaries.

So it is always disappointing to see them entangling themselves in knots. The thinking is never a problem. The “thinking through“ a disagreeable situation is. So on the nuclear deal with India the communists see the risks but weigh them too heavily. Indian leftists want to be seized by the moment, rather than to seize it.

Take Sitaram Yechury's piece today in the Hindustan Times, which name checks the New Statesman as the source of analysis. Again the understanding of the situation is correct: the US seeks to be top dog and cloak the pursuit of its national interest by blaming the rise of the rest.

But the solution is not to ban a form of trading, a bugbear of the communists and the demand of a very clever left-wing economist at the Planning Commission. This is merely an attempt to popularize a key part of the left's agenda, one which spectacularly failed to capture the attention of the public.

What is worrying that this strategy of permanent opposition turns off the electorate, who understand that those who shy from the logic of events can never be trusted to be masters of fate.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Would You Choose to Live in Tory Britain?

Eh no. Unfortunately I don't have the casting vote in any British election. It is going to be pretty difficult to go back and have to put up with the smugness of David Cameron's Tory party.

If he does make it to No 10, it will be on the back of a slick media campaign and the tiredness of a Labour government. I interviewed "Dave" in Delhi in September 2006 and he was not the great triangulator, straddling left and right to come through the middle. He came across as a upper class public school boy on the make, resembling all those PR guys you'd meet in the 90s who were, to paraphrase Paul Keating, "shivers looking for spines to run up".

I hope this is just the public's way of saying shape up Labour.