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Why World Cup win was a national catharsis

April 06, 2011 17:41 IST

The World Cup victory has come as a badly needed morale booster for the country. But it is also a warning to the political class that their leadership can be usurped. This apolitical trend can be unhealthy for a democracy, says Neerja Chowdhury.

The only thing reminiscent of the kind of outpouring of joy that was seen after India lifted the cricket World Cup -- that this writer remembers -- was in 1977, when the Janata Party had wiped out the Congress all over north India ending the Emergency rule of Indira Gandhi. People had rushed out of their homes in sheer joy and the streets resonated with the drums and dancing and music, and sweets distributed till all hours of the morning, as there was palpable relief in north Indian capitals.

Last Saturday's victory, releasing pent up emotion, was in some way a catharsis -- and a cocktail of relief, pride and nationalism, coming as it did after eight months of scam after scam hitting the headlines.

The victory by Team India proved to every Indian that 'we can do it'. The way Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his boys clawed back to victory, after the scintillating and classy display by the Sri Lankans and the early loss of wickets of Virendra Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar, made the event that much more special, and indeed moving, for an otherwise demoralised Indian nation.

The last months had injected an element of self-doubt in Indians about India as a power of the future which had arrived centrestage of the world. In recent years this had been the dominant feeling among young middle class Indians in particular. Starting with the Commonwealth Games scam, and political skeletons tumbling out without let, many felt a sense of shame as nothing seemed to be going right, and Indians saw the rapacious loot by greedy politicians in collusion with industry honchos and corrupt bureaucrats milking the system.

In contrast, the Boys in Blue asserted that excellence was possible with 'self-belief' and professionalism and hard work. Therefore Mumbai and Mohali were much more than getting the better of Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Or about being hailed as cricket champions after a gap of 28 years, though cricket does turn on the Indians like nothing else does, barring Bollywood.

Look at the way the entire Wankhede stadium sang the national anthem with feeling at the start of the match. Or the great silence that descended over the 38,000 crowd watching when Sehwag was sent packing by Lasith Malinga right at the start of the Indian innings. Or the way every run made by the Indian team was applauded not just in the stadium but in home after home.

There was a time when the role of inspiring the nation was played by political leaders. We have come a long way from those times. Now politicians were trying to use the cricketing contest to their advantage, with ministers making a beeline to watch the match and be seen there so that some of the feel good generated could rub off onto them also.

Even the reclusive and security-surrounded Sonia Gandhi watched the match at Mohali in the regular stands along with Rahul Gandhi and came out at midnight on the streets of Delhi to celebrate with the people after the Mumbai win.

The urban middle class, which comprised Dr Manmohan Singh's support base, has been agitated by the recent scams which have dented the PM's image. An otherwise miserable prime minister, targetted by an unrelenting opposition baying for his blood all through the Budget session of Parliament, decided to field what turned out to be a googly and invited his Pakistan counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani to watch the India-Pakistan semi final.

Dr Singh must have calculated that even if it turned out to be no more than a photo op, it would send the media in a tailspin, which it did. And as calculated, the scams took a back seat, and continue to do so for the moment. The news about A Raja and others chargesheeted in the 2G case was eclipsed by the World Cup victory to such an extent that people hardly registered it amidst the cricket euphoria.

The PM must have also calculated that his invite to the Pakistani premier, with Mohali coming a day after the home secretary level talks between the two countries, would help restart the stalled Indo-Pakistan peace process, which is an issue close to Dr Manmohan Singh's heart. It also compelled the Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to stand -- or sit -- by him at Mohali.

Remember, the Congress had reined the PM in after Sharm-el Sheikh, when Dr Singh had tried to think out of the box during his talk with Gilani in Egypt soon after coming to power in 2009. The PM's ploy was also meant to blunt any opposition from the BJP, which encouraged the peace process when A B Vajpayee was in power but has consistently opposed it since the UPA came to power. But it would be that much more difficult to take exception to a prime minister being invited to attend a cricket match.

This is not to say that the mere act of inviting the Pakistani premier has -- or was expected to lead to a breakthrough in Indo-Pakistan relations. It is not the civilian government alone in Islamabad which can deliver. Given the multi-polarity of authority in Pakistan, the military establishment in Rawalpindi has to come on board to affect a breakthrough. But atmospherics do have a place in creating a thaw, and Indian opinion had hardened towards Pakistan after the 26/11 attacks.

Undoubtedly, Dr Singh took a calculated risk. For had India lost at Mohali, his move could have not only fallen flat but run the risk of becoming counterproductive. But the PM's gambit clicked -- thanks to Dhoni's boys.

There was however a discordant note in the midst of all the feel-good that was generated last week. And that was the Rs 45 crore tax waiver given to the International Cricket Council. The ICC is hardly a body which needs a tax break. It is not doing cricket for charity. From all accounts, it has generated revenues of Rs 6,000 crore during the World Cup.

A tax waiver is not a dole by a philanthropist individual or agency, it is given at the expense of the people of India. It was being given by the government which till not long ago, was making a case for curtailing food entitlements for the country's most deprived and marginalised, on counts of not having enough money. For the same reason, it had argued against ensuring the nutritional requirements of women and children, the most vulnerable, in the Food Security Bill, on the anvil.

The World Cup victory by India has come as a badly needed morale booster for the country. But it is also a warning to the political class -- that their leadership and iconic role, which they are supposed to play in a democratic set-up, can be usurped by other sections of society to an extent that should cause them concern. This apolitical trend can be unhealthy for a democracy.

Neerja Chowdhury