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How cricket became controlled by Hindu nationalists
The ongoing ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup is an elaborate, six-week campaign rally for India’s nationalist prime minister ahead of next year’s general election.
The ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup, which kicked off on Oct. 5 in Ahmedabad, India, has long been touted as the "flagship event of the international cricket calendar.” The tournament is one of the world’s most viewed sporting events, attracting carnival-like atmospheres with hundreds of thousands of live spectators. This year’s edition is arguably the biggest one yet.
It is also an elaborate campaign rally for India’s nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi.
The tournament, which runs for a total of six weeks, opened at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, the world’s largest cricket stadium which was renamed after the country’s incumbent leader two years ago. The stadium seats approximately 130,000 people and is located in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where he served as chief minister from 2001-14.
The stadium will also play host to a politically-charged showdown with long-time foes Pakistan on Oct. 14, as well as the final on Nov. 19 and the closing ceremony.
The decision to host some of the Cricket World Cup’s key fixtures in Ahmedabad—a city that is not considered a significant hub for cricket in the country—underscores Modi’s attempt to utilize India’s most popular sport to increase his political capital ahead of next year’s general election.
Modi’s political clout has long been associated with cricket in India. The prime minister once served as the president of the Gujarat Cricket Association. Once Modi became prime minister, leadership was transferred to Amit Shah, Modi’s Home Affairs minister and one of his closest political allies. It was under Shah’s leadership that the Narendra Modi Stadium project was undertaken.
Meanwhile, the International Cricket Council (ICC) is effectively controlled by The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which is overseen by Shah’s son Jay as the board’s honorary secretary. This emphasizes the control that India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Kanata Party (BJP), has over the sport and how much influence it can wield during a tournament on home soil.
Modi has also made use of his new cricket stadium in political functions. He hosted former U.S. President Donald Trump there in 2020, as well as Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese, who took a lap of honour around the stadium in a chariot with Modi during a match between the two sides. This is yet another example of how Modi has weaponized the sport as part of his national strategy and foreign policy agenda.
The Cricket World Cup is likely to be Modi’s biggest sporting showcase to date. The tournament, which is supposed to be operated by the ICC, will effectively be run by the Indian government through the BCCI. It is an expansive public relations campaign for Modi’s ruling party that happens to be masquerading as an international tournament.
Apart from utilizing the event as a campaign launchpad, Modi and the ruling BJP can expect to derive some other benefits from the world cup, including a boost in nationalist fervour if India’s sensational team do well in the tournament, as well as a chance to distract from many of the country’s ongoing ails.
Since his rise to power in 2014, Modi has engaged in an aggressive dismantling of democratic norms and institutions in India. The prime minister’s government has overseen the deterioration of civil liberties and freedom of expression. His emboldened BJP party has launched attacks on civil liberties, personal rights, and freedom of expression across India. Modi has also enflamed tensions and religious strife with India’s Muslim minority as part of his Hindu nationalist agenda, leading to a sharp increase in organized violence against the marginalized group.
Most recently, police in New Delhi raided the homes of prominent journalists belonging to NewsClick, an independent news organization known for its critical reporting on the Indian government. The outlet’s founder was arrested and more than forty others were questioned while devices and documents were seized under an anti-terror law.
“We strongly condemn these actions of a government that refuses to respect journalistic independence, and treats criticism as sedition or ‘anti-national’ propaganda,” NewsClick said in a statement posted on its website.
Despite presenting itself as the world’s largest democracy, several human rights organizations have since downgraded India’s status as a democracy, with one Swedish-based institute referring to it as an “electoral autocracy.” The Guardian has since reported that the Indian government is “secretly” working to maintain its reputation as a democracy. The article also noted some of the officials who pushed back against the government’s desire to maintain its reputation as a democracy, chief among them was Amit Shah, an ardent Hindu nationalist.
While the Cricket World Cup is an opportunity for Modi to project India as a thriving democracy, sports have, in some case, also helped expose the rot within his government.
Earlier this year, some of India’s top female wrestlers staged a months-long protest against rampant sexual abuse within the country’s wrestling federation. Some of the accusations were levied against the federation’s president, Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, who also happened to be a parliamentarian in Modi’s BJP party. The protesting wrestlers later accused the Indian government of pressuring them to withdraw their case against Singh. The New Delhi police force also allegedly tried to weaken some of the charges against Singh, including a complaint of sexual abuse filed by a minor.
While the wrestlers paused their protest in June 2023 as they attempted to pursue legal recourse, the entire incident was a national embarrassment for Modi and his government. Several opposition leaders visited the protest site or expressed support for the demonstrations. Some of the ruling party’s own members even voiced support. The incident also drew significant media attention from The New York Times, CNN, among others. Even India’s own 1983 World Cup-winning cricket team, issued a statement in support of the protests. Roger Binny, the former cricketer and incumbent president of the BCCI, was the only member not to voice his support.
Meanwhile, the 2023 Asian Wrestling Championships were moved from New Delhi to Astana, Kazakhstan due to the pending inquiry into Singh.
Now several months removed from the wrestling debacle, Modi is looking to reclaim sports as a platform to project strength and national consensus in his leadership.
Cricket, a sport introduced by British colonizers to tame and distract the Indian masses, is once again being utilized in a similar form, except this time it is India’s own government that is subjugating its people.
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