Sunday, September 30, 2007

20-20 Politics

Byline by M J Akbar: 20-20 Politics

Politics is not a 20-20 game, or even a limited overs match; it is a patient Test series, with long stretches of grafting and boredom, and innumerable breaks for lunch and tea. Excitement is limited to crunch time, and such occasions are rare.

Those who celebrate India’s victory over Pakistan in the final of the Twenty20 tournament celebrate the least of the team’s achievements. The game was superb precisely because it was so evenly matched, the teams separated, in the end, by the strength of a single flick of the wrist. The youngsters led by Mahendra Singh Dhoni deserve applause because they defeated much more than the best cricket sides in the world.

They defeated, for starters, Shoaib Malik. The young Pakistani captain ended a glorious tournament on a silly note when he thanked "all Muslims" for their support to Pakistan. Pakistani players seem obliged to appropriate the Almighty into all proceedings, but that is their privilege. They would be wise, however, not to appropriate all Muslims on their side, for the good reason that all Muslims are not in or with Pakistan. Perhaps Mr Malik lost the match because he was wearing a blindfold. That is the only explanation for his inability to recognise that there were two Muslims in the Indian side. Irfan Pathan, Man of the Match, did everything possible to remind Pakistan that Indian Muslims wanted India to win. It may be news to Pakistan’s players that Irfan’s father was a muezzin in a small mosque in Gujarat, and his mother wears the hijab in public. The subcontinent apart, does Shoaib Malik believe that a billion Muslims, Indonesians, Malays, Arabs and Turks, were sitting closely glued to their television sets, cheering Pakistan? It would be a miracle if 99% had heard of cricket, a game as foreign to them as the English language.

Perhaps the difference between victory and defeat is the gap between a closed and open mind.
Dhoni’s boys did their country great service in a second subliminal region: they defeated the egotism that has bogged Indian cricket for so long. The egos of the Big Three, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid have become bigger than the team. Three ex-captains in a single eleven must be some sort of a world record. The team was divided into three individuals in different moods, ranging from sulk to self-interest to petulance, and eight other players trying to fit into the minimal space these three left for others. Trust me, if the Big Three had any idea that the 20-20 victory would be as big as it became, they would have been in the team: fitness is not a problem in this form of the game, because 20-20 is only half as demanding as the full one-dayer. On the other hand, if the Big Three had been there, the youngsters might not have won. Alone, they had a different body language, a palpable common commitment, and unity of spirit. This was a victory for new India, which has now marched a step ahead of modern India. It was a triumph for small-town India, for popular rather than rarefied India, for an inclusive nation, not an exclusive elite. If this is the future, the future is bliss.

It is tempting to see this as the defining culture of contemporary India, the essence of a confident democracy, its populism rid of both elitist genuflection and sectarian tensions. No definition of popular culture can encompass the whole of India; but will there be enough such Indians to control the balance in the next general elections?

The thought did occur to me that one section of India had adopted the basic tenets of 20-20 cricket even before the rest of the country became addicted: television news. Frenzy, drama, nasal diction and a compulsive need for instant decisions have become its hallmarks. Not all Indian television is there yet, mercifully, but the attitude is pervasive enough to spill over into parts of print. And so, when the Left was playing chess with the government on the nuclear deal, much of the media kept covering it by the rules of 20-20 cricket. Artificial teams were conjured up to lend excitement to developments. The CPI(M) was split into the pro-Congress Bengal Lions, led by Souradeb Bhattacharya, and the China Contras, led by Rahul Karat. Journalists were chasing their own version of the story, reporting the collapse of the China Contras in the twelfth over, or a compromise when the collapse did not take place.

There is a useful rule to remember when covering the Left, and they will demand coverage for some time yet. It functions democratically; they take the politburo and the central committee seriously. This means that there is inevitably debate on issues as important as the survival of a coalition that rules the country. But this debate is not conducted in public. Differences are sorted out behind closed doors, and when they cannot be reconciled a vote determines their fate. The CPI(M) does not conduct its debate through media, much as it may dishearten media to discover this. When the party’s general secretary takes a position, he does so after taking a sense of his committee. It is not arbitrary imposition. No comrade is impressed by traditional media games like twisting half of a quote to suit an editorial line.

What is surprising is not the media’s willingness to see what it wants to see, but that so many seasoned politicians fall into the same constricted mire. Almost everyone in the Dr Manmohan Singh government had convinced himself that the Marxists would have an epiphany moment at their party conclaves in Kolkata, and return, sheepishly no doubt, to pay homage at the feet of the Prime Minister. The venerable Jyoti Basu was meant to bring the Marxists into harmony with the American timetable for the nuclear deal.

Clearly the first thing that happens when you join government in Delhi is amnesia about anything that might be inconvenient. Jyoti Basu was on the verge of becoming Prime Minister of India in 1997 instead of Mr Inder Gujral, when he was stopped not by his allies but his own party. The politburo voted against the idea because it was not ready to permit the party to share power in Delhi. Jyoti Basu did not utter a word of protest, although much later, in an interview to this columnist he did call that decision a "historic blunder". Any party that lives by such rigid discipline cannot be split by media whims.

If the Manmohan Singh government does not halt the process by which the nuclear deal travels to the next stage, through the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Left will withdraw support. This is what the Left has been saying and this is what the Left will do.

Politics is not a 20-20 game, or even a limited overs match; it is a patient Test series, with long stretches of grafting and boredom, and innumerable breaks for lunch and tea. Excitement is limited to crunch time, and such occasions are rare. One is due in the first week of October, when the next, and perhaps final round of talks take place between the government and the Left. The chief negotiator for the Congress is foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, but he is not the chief decision-maker. He would have happily bought six months of silence so that the government could get on with the rest of life.

But whatever happens, do remember that the game in Delhi is chess, not 20-20 cricket.

No comments: