Cricket in the service of Hindu nationalism


MS Dhoni of India bats during resumption of the Semi-Final match of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 between India and New Zealand on July 10, 2019 in Manchester, England. PHOTO/Clive Mason/Getty Images

Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government are using cricket to spread their influence in the United States.

The world’s best-supported sports team is playing in the United States this weekend. Not that you would have heard much about it, unless you’re Indian or happen to live around Broward County, Florida.

India is set to play two cricket matches against the West Indies — the combined national team of fifteen Caribbean nations and dependencies — at Central Broward Stadium, five miles from downtown Fort Lauderdale, in a game that will pass by the vast majority of the American sporting public.

Of course, this game isn’t about America. It isn’t really about the West Indies either, though technically they are the hosts of the series. This is all about India, because when it comes to international cricket, it usually is all about India. They are the game’s powerhouse, the biggest supplier of television eyeballs and marketing dollars to the sport, and as such, they call the shots.

Everything stops for cricket in India. Everyone knows that, too, which is why the country’s politicians are never far from the game — particularly India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi.

India is huge, of course, with a population of 1.3 billion people, and cricket is by far the biggest sport. Television audiences are therefore staggering: their recent clash with Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup in June was watched by one billion people, or roughly five times the numbers for the most-viewed Super Bowl ever.

With that many eyeballs, it’s big business. India’s biggest pay-TV company, Star Sports, pay $8.5 million per game to broadcast the Indian Premier League (IPL), behind only the NFL and the English Premier League in terms of revenue. The IPL, which is only eleven years old, has grown so rapidly that it has surpassed Major League Baseball’s sponsorship revenue by almost 50 percent.

What Do They Know of Cricket?

Politics and sports are inextricably linked in India. Modi, elected in 2014 and reelected by a startlingly large margin earlier this year, has represented the sharp end of Hindu nationalist politics throughout his rise to India’s top job. He first came to international prominence in 2002 as chief minister of his home state of Gujarat in western India for his lack of response, bordering on complicity, to riots that killed thousands of Muslims.

In his five years as prime minister, Modi has deliberately challenged India’s constitutional commitment to secular politics, and embraced economic neoliberalism in a country that is rapidly privatizing and deregulating. His foreign policy has also been aggressive: he has courted fellow authoritarians like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and shares Putin’s taste for choreographed man-of-nature posing; he has turned up the heat on already simmering tensions with Pakistan and Bangladesh; and he has used the theoretically neutral Indian Army as a propaganda tool.

Needless to say, the allure of cricket, where India’s particular brand of rampant consumer capitalism has transformed the landscape, where India can square off against its neighbors and its former imperial overlords, and, crucially, where India usually win, is very attractive to Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that he leads.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, to hear that the Modi government see the Indian cricket team as their best PR weapon, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the governing body for cricket in India, as just another tool to be controlled.

The BCCI is near-hegemonic in the sport, backed, of course, by the overflowing coffers that come from hosting the IPL. Star Sports, and by extension the BCCI — the strength of this link is indicated by the fact that Star Sports’ commentators are contracted to the BCCI — provide 74 percent of the funding of the International Cricket Council (ICC), who are notionally the sport’s global governing body but in practice acts as a private members club. The recent World Cup in England gives just a glimpse of their power: India started the tournament late, to give their players adequate rest after the IPL — South Africa’s third game was India’s first — while the whole format of the tournament was designed to exclude smaller nations and maximize India matches (and Indian TV viewers).

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