Cricket, by far, remains India’s favourite sport and seems only set to increase in popularity. Launched in 2008, the trailblazing T20 format Indian Premier League (IPL) has become one of the most watched sports events in the world, pulling in millions of dollars each edition in revenues. This is not without significant effort on the side of the Indian authorities, represented by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), who commit millions more to the improvement and upkeep of all formats of cricket in India.
However, like most other popular forms of entertainment in India like Bollywood, the sport has been unable to avoid the not-so-slow creep of politics into it. Since its first election to power in 2014, the BJP has set out on the co-optation of media, civil society, and entertainment to ensure the propagation of its ideology to the masses. It is not alone in history having done so; in fact, thinkers like Gramsci would perhaps point to this as an almost natural procedure for a state to undertake. Yet there are certain aspects of India under Modi’s BJP that make this a more contentious issue.
Since 2019, the cricket board has been under the leadership of its secretary, Jay Shah, the son of India’s Home Minister and one of the BJP’s most powerful members, Amit Shah. Under Shah’s administration, the BCCI has become undoubtedly the most commercially successful cricket-governing body in the world, pulling in $1 billion in revenues in 2021 alone!
While an able leader, Shah’s BCCI has become increasingly mired in controversy over not just administrative issues but in the increasing penetration of political agendas into sporting events. For example, when the Australian team toured India in March, the Narendra Modi stadium played host to an opening ceremony that saw Modi and the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese tour the stadium filled with thousands of BJP supporters which observers have said seemed more like a political rally than a cricket match.
Furthermore, the 2023 ICC World Cup hosted in India has also – like most sporting events anywhere in the world – become an opportunity for the host country to display its political achievements and power. The World Cup this year has witnessed matches played in the gigantic Narendra Modi stadium, the largest cricket stadium in the world. The stadium is not just named strategically; it is located in Ahmedabad, Gujrat, the centre of Modi’s power.
Moreover, Gujrat is also the state where deadly intercommunal riots in 2002 left over a thousand people dead and thousands more injured, the vast majority of them Muslims. These riots happened under Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat, and the construction of the Narendra Modi Stadium in the city of Ahmedabad since 2015 has been a not-so-subtle message that the BJP is unconcerned with justifying its past, and is content to erase it or bury it under literal concrete.
India also successfully completed its first moon landing with its internationally praised Chandrayaan program. This string of high-profile successes has meant that the BJP has ensured a strong base from which to contest upcoming elections in 2024, following earlier observations of weakening support in favour of the Congress-led opposition. The latter’s position now looks tenuous, with internal tensions amongst the diverse coalition fired up. Rahul Gandhi of the Congress insists it is going strong.
In developing and diverse countries such as India and Pakistan, and others before them, sport has often been one of the few points of unity and widespread national support. One need only look at the South African rugby team – the Springboks – following the end of its apartheid regime in the early 1990s to understand just how important a role sport can play in national consolidation. Yet this role need not necessarily always be for good.
India’s new generation since the BJP’s rise to power has perhaps seldom seen a neutral force in civil society. Bollywood’s slide into increasing nationalist rhetoric and polemic is now – though not in the same way – being followed by cricket. Whilst films do well in directly portraying this rhetoric in an in-your-face manner, the increased politicisation of sports serves to demonstrate the widespread legitimacy and propagation of the national ideology.
When children in India now see the Indian team play cricket, they also see flags printed with “Bharat Army” waving triumphantly amongst the stands, and they see the familiar faces of leading politicians sitting humbly in the same seats as other audience members. It only helps the BJP that India in the last decade has been wildly successful in the realm of sport, in terms of attracting international talent and attention through the IPL and also in its increased prominence in other sporting events such as the Olympics and other athletic competitions.
The creation of a new generation that has grown up watching India succeed time and time again across science, industry, art, and sport under the rule of the BJP is undoubtedly a point of concern for those opposed to it. If the BJP can be seen to have done no wrong in its administration that led to these successes, then its other activities and rhetoric are also legitimised. The game of cricket, one of the most followed and beloved things in the country, was perfectly poised to achieve this goal, and the BJP has managed to hit it for a six.
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