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Cricket in the Service of Hindu Nationalism

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

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. (Clive Mason / Getty Images)

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).

While TV money has enabled India to break the white-tinged paternalism of England and Australia that ran international cricket for most of its first hundred years, India learned the imperial lesson well, and saw no need to reform a governance structure that disproportionately rewards it as the club’s biggest member: India receives three times as much from the ICC as the next best-funded nation (England), and over two-and-a-half times the funding given to the ninety-three worst-funded nations combined.

It is this soft power that sees these games moved to the United States. While the West Indies are the host nation, and subsequent games on the tour will be held in the Caribbean, nobody wins more from two games being moved to Florida than India. Cricket West Indies (CWI), the body that governs cricket in the region, is in catastrophic debt to the BCCI — estimated to be $43 million — after West Indian players pulled out of a tour to India in 2014 due to a pay dispute with CWI. It is thought that the BCCI insisted on the games being moved to Florida, essentially turning them into home fixtures for India rather than the West Indies.

This is not an exercise in growing the sport, or opening up new markets to cricket — it is a question of moving the game to where the fans already are. And in this case, those fans are Indians living in the United States.

The Modi government has made it a priority to take firm control of this soft power. The BCCI’s tax-exempt status was removed; there have been concerted efforts to bring it under direct control of the Sports Ministry; a committee of administrators appointed by India’s Supreme Court (a Supreme Court whose fiercely guarded judicial independence Modi has worked very hard to undermine) sits in some murky combination of oversight of and perpetual war with the BCCI’s appointed officers. Then there is the curious case of Anurag Thakur, a career BJP politician who has spectacularly failed upwards. He was removed as BCCI president by the Supreme Court and almost convicted of perjury in January 2017, then found himself personally appointed by Modi as both finance minister and corporate affairs minister in May 2019, days after Modi’s reelection.

The players, too, have lined up behind the prime minister. Virat Kohli, team captain and a figure so influential that he made the Time 100 list, has fronted government anti-litter campaigns, while MS Dhoni, Kohli’s predecessor and still the most marketable athlete in India, will miss this series to serve in the Indian Army. This is like Tom Brady missing NFL games to join the National Guard.

When Modi was reelected in May, a slew of Indian cricket legends tweeted their support — in conspicuously similar language, with nationalistic tropes like “new India” and “greater heights” appearing across several players’ tweets. Prominent current player Ravindra Jadeja even described Modi’s reelection as “a victory for believers over non-believers.”

One might reasonably ask what a cricket match being moved from the Caribbean to the United States has to do with the prime minister of India. This game could be seen as a thank you to the millions of diasporic Indians who live in the United States and who have, largely, backed Modi’s politics to the hilt. India’s cricket team is the single biggest symbol of the nation abroad and the rallying point for “patriotic” Indians wherever they are in the world. For context, when India recently played England at the Cricket World Cup in Birmingham, England, Indian supporters well outnumbered England fans.

While the vast majority of diasporic Indians cannot vote in Indian elections, that does not mean that they have been silent on the country’s politics. Thousands engaged in phone campaigning for Modi, staying up well into the night in the United States to call back home and canvas for the BJP.

Pro-Modi flash mobs were held in front of prominent monuments all over the United States. After the 2014 Indian election, Modi held a rally at a packed Madison Square Garden as a thank you to Indian Americans. A similar event to celebrate his re-election has already been planned for Houston in September. What better way to start the party early than with a visit from Modi’s biggest PR representatives?

Cricket is the one thing that all Indians can agree on: the love for the sport, and its ability to touch every level of society, is unmatched. Narendra Modi knows this more than anyone. The West Indian cricket writer and Marxist, CLR James, wrote of the sport: “What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?” In India, this is truer than anywhere else.

It is often joked in India that the multilayered relationship between cricket, politics, and money is so deep that there is no Hindi language term for “conflict of interest.” India’s trip to the United States is as good an example of this as one could wish for.