The match went down to the wire… ultimately, the winner was decided by the third umpire. No, I am not referring to a close finish in a cricket T20 match, but to the results of the Rajya Sabha polls in Gujarat. Like its acronymic twin, the Indian Premier League (IPL), the Indian Political League (IPoL) is today’s greatest spectator sport for the ten months of the year that the cricket IPL is not in operation. Indians have an abiding interest in these two spectator sports: cricket and politics. Spectator, because most have never played the game and because both circuses (like the Roman ones) provide titillation on an almost continuous basis, given the ubiquity of cricketing and political contests in the subcontinent.
I thought we Bharatvasis had had more than our fill of political spills and thrills after the Yadav father-son battle in Uttar Pradesh, the coronation of a religious head as Chief Minister in the same UP, the internecine struggle for power in Tamil Nadu after Amma’s departure and the “about-turn” change of government in Bihar. I was wrong: we are now in a perpetual silly season, where political shenanigans in different states dominate the public consciousness, titillated by the blow-by-blow descriptions given on a round-the-clock basis by screeching reps of the electronic media. As Gujarat has shown, we need our daily dose of Bollywood-style drama, replete with Bengaluru resorts, income tax raids and exciting polling processes coupled with hysterical scenes outside the Election Commission in New Delhi.
The IPL is, of course, still in its childhood (nine years and counting) as compared to its hoary grandfather, the IPoL, which has entered its sixty-sixth year of life. The IPoL, in the first fifteen years of life, was somewhat staid in appearance, resembling Indian cricket of that time, when test matches were the only source of entertainment for the masses. Things became far more exciting when legislators started defecting en masse on an almost daily basis after 1967, giving rise to the popular Aaya Ram Gaya Ram phenomenon. Elections also ceased to be once-in-five-year affairs and, with the delinking of Parliament and State Assembly elections, were held year in and year out. Things have become far more exciting in the past four decades, ever since the Congress Party’s dominance in the political hustings was successfully challenged, much in the same way that Bombay’s stranglehold over the Ranji Trophy was loosened by upstarts like Delhi and Karnataka.
But it is the similarities in the IPL and IPoL that command our interest and attention. An examination of these highlight both the features that the two have in common as well as the ways in which, with its infinitely superior financial resources and experience, the IPoL has managed to straddle universes that are outside the reach of a modest IPL.
Everything starts with the auction of players. However, unlike the annual or biennial auctions in the IPL, the IPoL auctions are continuous in nature. These auctions are conducted by the team managements themselves and are held on camera. Unlike the IPL, there is no way to know the cost of each player to the team. In earlier days, especially after anti-defection laws were passed, auctions took place only at specified intervals, when elections or by-elections were due. Nowadays, the trend is towards mass auctions of large portions of a team, rather than individuals. After a match (read election) is over, even an entire competing team can be merged with the existing team (think Goa and Manipur).
What keeps the players in the IPoL engaged continuously are the opportunities given to them to twist the rules of the game to keep adding to the moolah already given to them at auction time. Even before the match starts, there are chances available to seduce the ground staff to prepare a pitch conducive to one’s strengths. These could include freebies distributed recklessly prior to the election or illegally transferred just prior to the start of the match. The players would not be averse to nobbling the on-field umpires as well: to their eternal regret, the umpires (the Election Commission and its paraphernalia) have proved immune to blandishments.
But nothing stops the players of one team from influencing the opposing team members, given that the open auction system is in place. The match can then be suitably fixed, with all the 22 players going through the motions of a keenly contested match. Even measures like shepherding all the players of one team to a hidden sanctuary prior to the match and producing them only at match time are often futile, given the ubiquity of mobile phones. Where phones are confiscated, there is nothing to prevent signals being given on field to compromised players, as was the case in IPL matches (and as was so wonderfully demonstrated during the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections). The unsuspecting public is generally unaware of the charade, though it does wonder sometimes why its favourite batsmen are throwing their wickets away. The match-fixers — the management, the players and their backers and financiers — are reaping the rewards of the crowd attendance, through revenues from crowd payments (taxes, etc.) as well as from the extra-legal earnings through inflated infrastructure and supply contracts.
The only flies in the ointment for the players in the IPoL are the oversight authorities in the form of the Election Commission and the courts of the land. The players have a code of omertà between themselves, known more commonly as “honour among thieves”. Knowing that matches can go either way, depending on the quality of manipulation by both parties, the best option is to keep silent on the transgressions of one’s opponents, in the hope (and trust) that the favour will be reciprocated at the opportune moment. When nemesis does catch up in the form of a whistle-blower, an enthusiastic judge or a conscientious civil servant, the indicted players rely on the lumbering judicial system and the loopholes of the law to stay out of prison as long as possible.
This then is the “saam-daam-dand-bheda” approach, attributed to the astute Chanakya, that is the governing philosophy of the IPoL. It starts with friendly advice to opponents to join the current popular dispensation while the going is good. Where moral suasion is insufficient, the lubrication of lucre is added to sweeten the deal, either in the form of upfront payments or deferred gratifications in terms of dabbling in patronage and sharing in the spoils. The unmoving opponent is then subjected to the travails of the legal system, through innuendoes and insinuations leading to registration of cases and protracted litigation that could go on for decades, punctuated possibly by stretches in prison. It helps that most players in the IPoL have a past that renders them vulnerable to such pressures.
The final tool is the “divide and rule” strategy that has been perfected over the centuries by our colonial masters. The IPoL players are masters at winning the support of important segments of the crowd by exploiting differences in language, religion, caste and ethnicity. And so, the game goes on “to the last syllable of recorded time” as lamented by Macbeth. It is apposite that his soliloquy ends with the statement “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” His ruminations would find favour with our ancient sages, who saw this life on earth as maya. And yet, we go through the illusive make-believe, the political dramas that characterise our petty lives.
The author, Venkatesan Ramani, is a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). His work focuses on public policy reform and improving public service delivery systems.
Tweet at Venkatesan: @vramani10