July 3, 2008

The politics of morality

The West's hypocrisy over Zimbabwe may feel obnoxious, but the BCCI has to decide whether it wishes to be the patron-in-chief of a dysfunctional and compromised cricket body

Robert Mugabe's reign over Zimbabwe continues unabated © AFP

In the late-seventies, when governments in southern Africa came in white racist flavours, Robert Mugabe was a hero. Leftist undergraduates in my university preferred him to Joshua Nkomo, his rival in the Rhodesian resistance movement, because he seemed more unequivocally red. And in the matter of winning liberation from white tyranny, Zimbabwe led the way: it achieved majority rule in 1980, more than ten years before its larger neighbour, South Africa. Just thinking about that time raises ancient memories: the wonderfully named first president of Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana; the leader of the Patriotic Front, Bishop Muzorewa; the new place names - Zimbabwe, Harare - that seemed so unlikely then, but which so swiftly replaced Rhodesia and Salisbury in our maps and minds.

If Mugabe was a famous resistance hero then, he's a notorious third-world thug now. On the face of it, in this he doesn't seem exceptional. North Korea's deranged Stalinist regime, Saudi Arabia's fanatical kleptocracy, and Libya's one-man state are measurably further removed from representative government than Mugabe's Zanu-PF rule, which at least takes the trouble to hold elections before it steals them - as Mugabe has just done. Loathsome though he is, it isn't clear that the state he runs is less democratic than China, which is going to host this year's Olympic Games, an event which every country in the world will attend.

But Zimbabwe has been singled out by western countries as uniquely obnoxious. Queen Elizabeth has withdrawn the honorary knighthood granted to Mugabe on the advice of the British government, and Britain and America have imposed economic sanctions on Zimbabwe. Britain's Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, has instructed the ECB to cut bilateral ties with Zimbabwe, and specifically to cancel Zimbabwe's cricket tour of England next year.

This has led to some heated argument about western hypocrisy, shored up by familiar accusations of inconsistency and partiality. Why hasn't the West asked for Saudi Arabia to be banned from the World Cup, given that it's run by fundamentalist despots? Why isn't Israel sanctioned for brutalising the West Bank and relentlessly stealing Palestinian land? Why hasn't Burnham instructed the British Olympic association to boycott the Games in the context of the Chinese "occupation" of Tibet and its moral indifference to genocide in Africa?

This debate is relevant to Indian cricket in the context of the impending ICC meeting that will discuss, among other things, a proposal to strip Zimbabwe of full membership of the ICC and disbar it from playing international cricket at the highest level. The BCCI has declared that it will support Zimbabwe's current status as a Full Member. The thinking behind the BCCI's stand is straightforward: Zimbabwe's board is a reliable supporter of the BCCI's South Asian bloc in the conclaves of the ICC and one vote in ten isn't to be sneezed at.

In the debate about the rights and wrongs of sanctioning Zimbabwe, several thoughtful commentators, including John Traicos, a white cricketer who played Test cricket for both South Africa and Zimbabwe, have argued that excluding Zimbabwean teams from international matches would be to punish sportsmen for the sins of politicians, an argument that seems to shore up the BCCI's position. They have also argued that banning Zimbabwe is a low-cost way of feeling self-righteous, but one that will do nothing to hasten the end of Mugabe's regime. The fact that the main critics of Zimbabwe tend to be Western politicians and cricket administrators, notable for their selectively sensitive consciences hasn't helped the boycott cause either.

The views of the ECB and David Morgan on this matter are unimportant: what should be decisive for Pawar and Modi as Indians is the position taken by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who have both in recent days condemned Mugabe's leadership.

From an Indian point of view, there are two problems with the argument for keeping politics and sport apart. The Indian government, the Indian intelligentsia and the BCCI were in the vanguard of the campaign to ostracise South Africa and South African cricket for half a century, so we can't now start being principled about the autonomy of sport. The question we need to answer is this: is Mugabe's thuggish and predatory regime as evil as apartheid South Africa? In ideological terms, if we compare the regimes in terms of their ruling philosophies, the short answer to this question is "no". But if we were to compare the quality of life under the two regimes, the answer is less simple.

Under Mugabe, the life expectancy of Zimbabweans, male and female, has been nearly halved, from 60 to the mid-30s. Ten per cent of the population is HIV positive, 20% if you look at the band of people between the 15 and 49. Its agriculture has collapsed, its money is worth nothing, and there is a real danger of widespread hunger and starvation in a country that was once the most efficient grain producer in Africa. The redistribution of agricultural land, disproportionately held by white farmers, has been done corruptly and arbitrarily to enrich Mugabe's political cronies and is one of the main reasons for the economy's collapse.

Peter Chingoka, the president of Zimbabwe Cricket, is, unsurprisingly, close to Mugabe's regime. Zimbabwe Cricket in the last few years has presided over an exodus of its best players and the weakening of the national team to the point where it has less competitive credibility than Bangladesh. An audit of its finances revealed serious irregularities. Under pressure from the BCCI, the ICC has done nothing to hold Zimbabwe to account.

The BCCI has to decide whether it wishes to be the patron-in-chief of a dysfunctional, politically compromised - and in the light of the audit, very likely corrupt - Zimbabwean board. It has to work out whether it wants the ICC to continue to financially subsidise such an organisation, a subsidy that, in effect, makes the ICC and the BCCI complicit in the violence of Mugabe's regime (of which ZC is a client). It shouldn't be a hard decision to make.

The views of the ECB and David Morgan on this matter are unimportant: what should be decisive for Pawar and Modi as Indians is the position taken by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who have both in recent days condemned Mugabe's leadership. When the two greatest political leaders of South Africa's struggle against apartheid are driven to disown a man who was once a comrade-in-arms in their struggle against racist tyranny, it's time for the BCCI to take a break from ICC realpolitik and follow suit.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi