This essay is prompted by my recent sighting of Sachin Tendulkar at the annual Air Force Day Parade and flypast earlier in the month. The experience was so galling and distasteful that I decided to put my thoughts down for posterity. However, I felt that I should, perforce, go through a much-needed cooling down period before I put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, to be literally accurate). My feelings on this issue were exacerbated because I had witnessed this travesty a number of times earlier at the same function over the last few years.
The great cricketer, a Bharat Ratna winner, Parliamentarian, astute business person and Honorary Group Captain in the IAF, was, of course. sitting next to the Chief of Air Staff and the Chief of Army Staff in the very first row of participants and invitees. Along with the other armed forces personnel (of all ranks) present at the ceremony, ST or Tendulkar (as he will be referred to in this essay) was obliged to come up with a military salute a number of times during the ceremony.
The quality of ST’s performance was dismal and pathetic. He seemed to have put in no effort at all in learning how to go through the most basic exercise that a soldier needs to do. And readers would do well to remember that our Air Force (like the Army and the Navy) has its own specific variant of the salute.
However, this was not what upset me (and many other Services personnel) I have spoken to in the last few years. The most galling aspect of ST’s conduct was his unkempt and unmilitary turn-out at the Air Force Day ceremonies. Our man landed up at these auspicious occasions without bothering to trim his hair as is required under military protocol for all Services personnel, except, of course, for Sikh warriors. It was such an unseemly spectacle that many people, including yours truly, were very unhappy to see it. In contrast, ST’s fellow-cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni has done the Army, the country (and himself) proud by his commendable conduct as a Lt. Colonel in the Territorial Army.
We now need to widen the scope of this essay to cover the entire spectrum of issues that should be analysed. The principal theme I want to present for my readers is the Indian penchant for going overboard with our national icons, whether heroines or heroes. As we go along, the essay will, of course, bring out certain unsavoury aspects of our national culture and psyche.
In the case of ST’s Bharat Ratna, there was an air of inevitability. It had to happen some day or the other. After all, it was bestowed on him by a desperate UPA Government that sought to clutch at every straw it could find. In 2013, I could see a leaking UPA ship of State that was listing heavily to port or starboard (take your pick). Faced with this calamity, the gang of Sonia, Rahul and Manmohan Singh, the sozzled captain and chief officers, could only think of earning a few brownie points as the waters were rushing in.
There was also a high probability that the shabby denouement happened because the Clown Prince (Rahul) discovered at a match in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium in October 2013 that a sizable number of people were clearly very happy to take the mickey out of him. This must have convinced the flunkeys in the Home Ministry and other exalted agencies to conclude that a Bharat Ratna for the little master was a sure-fire way to deflect the public mood. With a pliant media at its command, this looked a certain winner for the netas and factotums in 24 Akbar Road and 10 Janpath.
Never mind that the highest accolade the Republic can grant was besmirched and tainted by this decision. Probably for ever, if not for the foreseeable future. What India witnessed was not the proverbial baying for blood but a baying for the Ratna for an icon of the masses. Admittedly, an icon with feet of clay (more of it later), but an icon all the same. History is replete with examples of self-destructing regimes looking for messiahs and bagatelles to save their onions (no apologies for the mixed metaphors).
I have, in some of my earlier articles, referred to the tragi-comic ambience in the Führerbunker in Berlin in the last few days of the Third Reich as the Red Army relentlessly blasted its way to the German capital. In 1945, the Germans had no messiah waiting in the wings. However, a few decades earlier, the foreign-born Russian Tsarina (a parallel many readers will appreciate) depended on a debauched and deviant Rasputin to try and stop the country’s tortured masses from overthrowing the regime.
In these shores, we have to understandably look at the Roman Empire and the way the regime promoted the blood sport of the gladiators and lions. This ensured that the masses were amused and hypnotised while the elite continued their pillage and plunder. Looting and robbing the empire for their personal gains. Cricket in India, today, occupies the same position as gladiatorial fights did in ancient Rome. Some of the Lutyens zone denizens probably have hallucinations of the cricketers chanting “Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant” (“Hail, Emperor (Caesar) those who are about to die salute you”) as they swagger into our cricketing stadia.
However, there is another angle here, which can possibly explain the magical and mesmeric hold that this moronic and asinine sport exercises over the minds of the Indian masses. It is the supreme sleight of hand through which the departing colonial power, the English (yes, I am leaving the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish out of this exercise) left their poisoned chalice in our land as they decamped in 1947. Cricket was the proverbial sting in the scorpion’s tail that would ensure that, arguably, the world’s oldest continuing civilisation would forever be hobbled as it moves into the second decade of the 21st century and beyond. In a more extreme version, one could think of it as a cyanide pill.
We now come to the billion-dollar question: what makes cricket so popular in India? Why has a game, that is almost peripheral in the former colonial country, been adopted by the newly-independent natives with such passion?
My thesis is that the Indian ruling class is to blame. By focussing on cricket, to the near-total exclusion of other sports, and encouraging it with all the resources at its command, our mandarins have led the country to this sorry state. The official broadcasting organisations (the good old AIR and the fledgling Doordarshan) were prime culprits. Not to be outdone were the wretched politicians. The Indian elite deliberately chose not to create physically-fit and healthy citizens. Let us not overlook the double-whammy; not only do we perform appallingly in normal sports and score very low in overall physical health, we also have a huge number of couch-potatoes and total nerds who sit glued to the television for days on end to watch cricket. Pot-bellied and mindless citizens can never pose threats to the ruling junta.
Needless to say, this popularisation was also accompanied by side-effects with significant political, social, commercial and criminal implications. With the advent of big money from business houses, funds from gambling, betting and smuggling soon followed. Soon, Indian cricket became a cross-road for all the criminal activities that one could think of. And the cess pool only widens every day. Currently, the game hovers precariously at some point between moonshining and extortion.
It is from this tainted source that the nation got its 42nd Bharat Ratna. I am not for a moment suggesting that Sachin Tendulkar, himself, has ever been tarred by the brush of unlawful or prohibited activities, To his credit, the young man has studiously kept himself away from the slime and the sleaze. Indeed, he has always been a model of probity in the crowd that he lived in. However, the deep sense of unease about our national ethos remains. Which other country would go to the extremes that we have done? Did France confer on Michel Platini a Grand Cross of the Legion of Honneur (equivalent to our Ratna)? Was the legendary American baseball player Babe Ruth given the Congressional Gold Medal or the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the two highest civilian honours in the United States? Did Bobby Moore get the Order of the Garter? The readers will get the drift of what I am saying.
It is our sense of hyperbole that is so disturbing. As a nation and society, we go overboard in almost every major area that one can think of. The result is that the dignity of what we do is undermined substantially by the accompanying hype. On a few critical issues, ST, too, has been found wanting. Blame it on the hoopla surrounding him and the halo that his fellow citizens put on him. When he was gifted a Ferrari in 2002 by an Italian company which had appointed him as its brand ambassador, the maestro, already a crorepati hundred times over, applied to the government (and successfully received) an import duty exemption. Feet of clay for the icon.
Worse followed. Conferred the rank of an honorary Group Captain by the IAF, the master blaster did absolutely nothing to promote and popularise the air warriors. Some senior Air Force veterans have openly said that the accolade conferred on ST was primarily because of an IAF chief who was a Maharashtrian. Lastly, ST’s performance as an MP was a disgrace.
Since this essay is partly about cricket and in every way about ethos and values, we must end with Kipling, the archetypal imperialist. His saving grace was that he also wielded a fine pen when it came to non-colonial matters. In his epic poem “If”, he warns his imaginary son in the following unforgettable words:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
What, then, should we think of a country where ersatz heroes, particularly if they happen to be part of ten flannelled conjurers, and their maestro count for everything? I am sad to say, in conclusion, that ST and many other desi icons would not have passed muster in any genuine competition for choosing India’s true role models.
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Jay Bhattacharjee is an advisor in corporate laws and finance, based in Delhi. His other areas of interest include socio-political issues and military history. He has been a commentator and columnist from the mid-1990s