Monday, April 30, 2012

Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/April 29, 2012


Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar is only 39 years old. He has many firsts to his credit. On Google, he is listed over 50 million times. He is the only player who has scored 100 centuries in first class cricket, including in 20:20 and 50:50 matches. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to retire, since cricket brings him more money in one match or a single product endorsement than his new role as Member of Parliament for a six-year term. With all the glitter and glamour in his pocket, does Tendulkar need a favour from the government for a seat among those who are being questioned day in and day out? Sachin is the ozone among the 121 persons who have been nominated to the Rajya Sabha since 1952. But he is the first sportsperson to be honoured such, after a mere half-hour tea meeting with Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Maharashtra politicians and corporate leaders have been promoting Sachin’s name for the Bharat Ratna. Finally he has landed in the House of Elders.Since Sachin doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to retire from cricket, questions are being raised about his future intentions. Last year, he spent over 225 days playing in India and abroad. It is during the lucrative cricket season that Parliament sessions take place. However, Sachin watchers feel that he has latent political ambitions. He may continue to play the game, only to take the plunge into politics two years from now, when both the Maharashtra Assembly elections and the Lok Sabha polls are due. A nominated Rajya Sabha MP has a few privileges which an elected member doesn’t: no declaration of assets is necessary. Moreover, he or she is free to join any political party within six months after being sworn in. Will Sachin?Since the Congress party’s downward slide in Maharashtra is apparent, it needs new, young faces to revive its fortunes. The party is particularly concerned about the inroads that the NCP has made in its vote banks in Maharashtra. Though the cricket superstar is close to Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, ideologically he is closer to the Congress and its leaders. It is also not a coincidence that all three newly nominated MPs are from Maharashtra. However, the other two—Rekha, an ageing Bollywood siren, and Anu Aga, a successful entrepreneur from Pune—symbolise mere tokenism. However, it is clear from the current round of nominations that the Congress is determined to use national icons—retired or yet to retire—to send the clear message that it prefers merit over politics when it comes to distributing political dole.

However, there are many who feel that the latest RS nominations were made in such a tearing hurry to stall pressure from UPA’s allies. The whole Sachin exercise was kept top secret. It was discussed only between three luminaries: Sonia, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P Chidambaram. Normally, it takes a couple of weeks for the CBI, the income tax department and local police to clear names for Rajya Sabha nominations. It is mandatory for the government to get a clean chit from all these agencies before issuing the notification. Unless it was done secretly by the Prime Minister’s Office, nobody had any inkling about the impending nominations to fill the seats that had fallen vacant. Kapila Vatsyayan retired only last month. According to UPA sources, allies like the DMK, TMC and some chief ministers, as well as powerful Congress leaders were pushing their own candidates for nomination. Once the pressure started to mount, Sonia decided to play her trump card of choosing persons who wouldn’t invite criticism.

Normally, national icons are inducted into the Upper House for their contributions in their own fields, but only when they are about to start a new vocation, or if their presence would help the government to promote certain sectors or strategic relations with other countries. For example, famous film icon Prithvi Raj Kapoor was the first film star to be nominated by Jawaharlal Nehru soon after the Rajya Sabha was created. Kapoor remained an MP until 1960. He was useful in promoting Indo-Russian relations. Indira Gandhi chose Nargis Dutt who was suffering from cancer. Indira nominated her soon after coming to power in 1980 and Nargis died in 1981. So far, only 10 Bollywood actors have been nominated, of which only four have been women. However, there was a method in the madness.

An excessive indulgence for film stars and sports stars reflects the weakening hold of the demoralised and defamed political class, which wants to shore up its dwindling electoral fortunes. Perhaps they have forgotten, such stars shine only in their respective areas and have been failures when asked to seek a mandate on their behalf. Will Sachin and others convert their national acceptability into future personal liability? Only they can decide.
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