Many years ago, anxious State Governments, fearful of dismissal and imposition of the President's rule on grounds of administrative breakdown, warned their Collectors and District Magistrates that they would be held personally responsible for any law and order problem, however trivial, arising in the districts under their charge. The plight of the poor officers saddled with such an onerous responsibility was portrayed by a newspaper cartoon showing a hapless Collector pleading with two women at a public water tap to stop quarrelling, lest that ballooned into something major, leading to the imposition of the President's rule.
The current national debate over the Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament reminds one of that bizarre situation. Things unconnected with the game and acts of alleged individual misdemeanour are held up to show the tournament and its controlling body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), in a poor light. Casting more important business aside, Parliamentarians thunder at the autonomy of the BCCI from the Government, and by implication from Parliament.
An emboldened Union Sports Minister takes potshots at the body, over which one of his senior ministerial colleagues of a different political hue and with a substantial political base had held sway for long. The moral high ground, from where one can condemn the goings-on in the IPL and in the BCCI, is getting crowded.
The Crassly modern
What accounts for this sudden rush of interest in the IPL, and with it in the affairs of the BCCI? One may well start with the IPL. In the subcontinent, along with the change in the tastes of youth and of a large body of grown-ups in general in matters of dress, food and music from the traditional to the crassly modern, interest in cricket has also undergone a metamorphosis, from quietly watching a patient, skilful contest between bat and ball to noisy approbation of pyrotechnics. The offshoot is the limited-overs avatar, of which the more popular format is the T-20. The IPL only showcases this trend in the form of a multimillion-dollar annual spectacle. The T-20, though, is not all whiz-bang but a strenuous form of constant aggression and movement in the torrid, unrelenting Indian summer. It takes a toll on the players and the crowds, not to speak of the Indian electricity grid.
Through the IPL, BCCI, has grown vastly rich and highly powerful in international cricket bodies. TV channels fall head over heels to secure broadcasting rights for the matches for several years in advance, and sponsors of advertisements queue up to secure advertisement spots.
Teams and players have come to have a cult following and youngsters splurge money over T-shirts and other memorabilia, demonstrating their loyalty to their outfits and heroes. The players, of course, pocket huge caches of moolah, irrespective of whether they do well or badly. With cheerleaders, waving fans and drum beaters adding to the cacophony and carnival atmosphere, the IPL tournament marks a joyous addition to the Indian festival calendar.
The new national event
It would seem that the fact of IPL emerging as a national event is the reason for the rise of the government's and elders' ire at the BCCI. Following the happenings in the Commonwealth Games in 2010, sports bodies in India, in general, are on a sticky wicket and are easy pick for critics. The IPL is a new experience for the Indian establishment to come to terms with. That it is a highly competitive sporting event like the FA Cup matches in England or the basketball matches under the NBA in the US, is missed in the glare of the money and glamour that surround it.
The control of cricket in India, much like that of its counterparts in other countries of the Commonwealth where it is played, lies with the BCCI, an autonomous apex body of State-level associations. In fact, sports and athletics bodies almost everywhere — except in the days of the former socialist countries of eastern Europe or in China today — are run by autonomous institutions, a good example being the Football Association in England. The US Government does not spend a single dime in conducting the Olympics in the US, nor is it involved in selecting athletes to represent the country in international events.
The urge to control
Why then should the Government try to wrest control of cricket from the BCCI, a body which has been controlling it since as far back as 1928? Is it the huge money and patronage that today's cricket brings with it, or a feeling that the State should control the commanding heights of sports as it did with the economy before 1991, or is it that anything representative of India should be under governmental care?
Or is it that the ubiquitous Comptroller and Auditor General of India can hold the BCCI under its probing lens? Or is it that the IPL franchises are a haven for parking black money, as some have alleged?
No one, in all seriousness, can accuse the BCCI of being even remotely responsible for the unsavoury events that took place lately involving some players in hotel rooms and some owners of team franchises on the grounds. These were acts of individuals, and barring one, where a franchise owner remonstrated with the umpires over a decision that went against her team, they were unconnected with the game itself. Though not adduced in defence of any particular erring franchise owner, one may point out that it is not unusual to see a manager of an English football team gesticulating from the sidelines at a referee over a decision adverse to his team.
At a more substantive level, if there be anything wrong with the contracts entered into by the BCCI, then the courts are there to be moved. Certainly, the aggrieved parties will not let matters rest quietly. Even in organisational matters, judicial intervention is always available as a remedy.
It may be recalled that under orders of the Supreme Court of India, the election of office bearers of the BCCI was once held under the supervision of the Election Commission of India. Likewise, any suspicions of unaccounted money finding its way into the IPL, as alleged by some, can be investigated by government agencies.
In the past too, there have been occasions when the Government was not exactly pleased with the BCCI. When India were world champions, the nation rejoiced but the BCCI didn't receive the due praise.
But when India lost badly in a test series abroad, a pall of gloom descended over the land, leading to a rash of harsh criticism from the cognoscenti as well as the rest. But these are situations which every cricketing nation finds itself in, some time or the other. Getting incensed over defeat and demanding that the control of the game should be brought under the Government is not the best solution.
In the final analysis, the present controversy over the BCCI seems to be an effort to cut the tall poppy down to its supposedly correct height. That it has grown so tall on its own does not seem to matter.
(The author is a former Secretary to the Government of India.)