Bengaluru, India – In March, before an India vs Australia Test match at Ahmedabad’s Narendra Modi Stadium, named in honour of India’s current prime minister, a stage was set up for a pre-match ceremony marking 75 years of India-Australia cricket.
Modi and his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese first took a lap of the stadium, waving to spectators in a golf cart modified to look like a golden chariot. They then made their way to the stage to listen to speeches and watch a performance before the Test could start. As part of the ceremonies, Modi was presented with a picture of himself in the Modi stadium.
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It was a glimpse of the politics that the India-hosted 2023 International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup will likely serve up.
Home advantage, a hugely talented squad and the Indian cricket board’s sheer financial clout have made the hosts favourites to win the 46-day tournament, which starts on Thursday.
A victory would trigger wild celebrations among fans, especially since – despite India’s cricket ruling body having the deepest pockets in the game and the success of the Indian Premier League (IPL), cricket’s most lucrative and popular T20 franchise league – it has been 12 years since India last won a World Cup.
From the naming of stadiums to the choice of venues, and the demonisation of Pakistan and Muslims more broadly, some observers say that Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is using the tournament as a launch pad for a third term in office.
Some even speculate that, if India win, Modi may even call for elections six or so months before the BJP’s term ends in June 2024.
Historian, novelist and cricket fan Mukul Kesavan says this World Cup is “more politicised” than ever.
“It is hosted by a country whose government turns every event into a celebration of itself with an eye on imminent elections,” Kesavan told Al Jazeera.
“From its point of view, the World Cup is a cricketing G20,” he added, referring to the September gathering of the world’s political leaders in New Delhi, which was promoted as a triumph of Modi’s supposed growing global statesmanship.
Writing in The Hindu newspaper last week, columnist and author Suresh Menon said the World Cup would serve “as an extended election campaign”.
Referring to star players, he even predicted that it “is likely to be remembered not as Kohli’s or Stokes’ or Bumrah’s World Cup so much as the BJP’s World Cup”.
Cricket as a political tool
In the age before social media, the main connection between politicians and Indian cricket was a meeting of every victorious team by the prime minister and/or the president of the day at their official residences. Bad performances led to questions in parliament.
If any political dignitary came to a game, they would meet the players either at the start of the game or during a break, with quick handshakes down the line before heading to the viewing gallery. Meanwhile, leading politicians from various parties have headed the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).
But the BJP has taken the nexus to a new level; most significantly through its widespread control of the BCCI.
The BJP’s direct line into the BCCI and the organising of the World Cup is through its secretary Jay Shah, 35, son of Amit Shah – India’s powerful home minister and Modi’s right-hand man – as well as other officials across all levels, particularly the BCCI’s member state cricket associations.
Former India cricketer and World Cup winner Kirti Azad, who was also a BJP member of parliament before leaving the party to join the opposition Trinamool Congress, says, “There is nothing wrong with having a politician [in cricket administration], but the problem is when they start using the game as a tool for their own means.”
While the ICC is the official organiser of the World Cup, and the BCCI made no formal announcement of a tournament director, Shah has been the major voice, face and spokesperson of the event.
Every BCCI decision around the World Cup – the schedule, the choice of venues, opacity around tickets for public sale – is being viewed, fairly or unfairly, through the lens of politics. The BCCI did not respond to a request for comment.
The BCCI’s decision not to hold matches in the city of Mohali, which staged memorable World Cup matches in 1996 and 2011, is seen by some as a snub against the state of Punjab, which voted in one of the BJP’s political rivals to power in the state elections last year.
Meanwhile, the most physical expression of the amalgamation of Indian cricket and contemporary politics has come through the construction of the world’s biggest cricket stadium in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, the capital of PM Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
Its construction began in 2015, a year after Modi became prime minister. The stadium can seat as many as 132,000 spectators, and its first event was a political rally for Donald Trump in 2020. In 2021, it was named the Narendra Modi Stadium.
The majority of Indian sports venues are named after politicians, particularly leaders of the BJP’s rivals the Indian National Congress, but it was the first time that a politician honoured was still in office.
At the 2023 World Cup, the Modi stadium will host its opening match and the final as well as three other fixtures including, on October 14, the biggest fixture in cricket: India vs Pakistan.
Author and senior cricket writer Pradeep Magazine suggests that, as well as commercial and capacity concerns, the decision to stage the match in the city – made by the BCCI as well as local and national government and security – has a political dimension by getting Pakistan to play in “the capital of the state which is the BJP’s Hindutva laboratory. In which they have successfully used the politics of Hindu-Muslim riots to come to power”.
Modi served as the Gujarat chief minister from 2001 to 2014, and has denied allegations by rights groups that he tacitly supported the 2002 riots in the state in which dozens of Muslims were killed.
Under Modi, Indian Muslims have been increasingly demonised and discriminated against.
“There has never been an Indian government like this BJP government – which is not just anti-Pakistan, but anti-Muslim,” Magazine said.
The Indian government also delayed issuing visas for the Pakistan team, requiring them to scrap plans for a two-day training camp in Dubai. Then their first warm-up game in Hyderabad on September 29 was held behind closed doors.
According to the Indian Express, the Hyderabad police were unable to provide security due to the staging of two festivals which “culminate on September 28”. The two festivals, one Hindu and one Muslim, were, in fact, held the day before the match.
Meanwhile, under Modi’s rule, India’s mainstream media has increasingly turned cricket and the enormously talented and watchable Indian team into a symbol of a heightened Hindu nationalism and jingoism of the BJP’s “new India”.
Television coverage and advertising around every multinational cricket event focuses on India’s domination of their rivals and the ridiculing of the opposition, particularly Pakistan over its World Cup defeats to India. Shortly after Pakistan landed in Hyderabad, TV news media made much of their inability to find beef on their hotel menus – cow worship being one of the BJP’s chief political planks.
However, these efforts were belied somewhat by the warm welcome the Pakistan team got on their first arrival on Indian soil for seven years late last month.
Meanwhile, outside of social media, there has been very little criticism in the mainstream media of the BCCI’s handling of the World Cup – either of the confusion over scheduling, logistical issues for travelling fans, and the difficulties in buying tickets.
Kesavan calls Indian cricket a “paradox,” with the World Cup run-up proof of how “a massively successful commercial operation that can’t transparently sell tickets to cricket’s greatest event”.
But any criticism of the BCCI and India’s World Cup is now seen as a criticism of Jay Shah, and by extension, the home minister and the ruling government, and so is seen as best avoided.
Modi himself is not involved in any advertisements or marketing for the Cricket World Cup, but his social media feed constantly features cricket, and he is expected to be at the India-Pakistan game. BJP party insiders say that should India perform strongly, invitations will go out to heads of state from other nations to be a part of key matches.
Jayaditya Gupta, consultant editor at ESPN India, played down the politicisation of the 2023 World Cup by saying it is not so different to that at other global sporting events he has reported on, such as football World Cups.
“Large sports events have long been used to make statements,” he said. “I think it is unexceptional for politicians to associate themselves with social or cultural success, and [try and] distance themselves when things hit the fan.”
Yet, with such political stakes loaded onto a tournament, there is always the possibility of pitfalls; particularly if the Indian team stumbles – either against Pakistan or at the final hurdle.
“I just wonder if Pakistan win that game in Ahmedabad, what would happen?” Magazine asked. “How would [the BJP] react and how would their own people react? So are they taking a risk by hosting it there?”