April 28, 2012

Give Tendulkar the benefit of the doubt

Leadership hasn't been his strength but statesmanship has come almost naturally to him

You know it's the silly season when, with a government battling several political and financial crises and an opposition struggling to get its own act together, public discourse on national television, in newspapers and on Twitter revolves around the nomination of Sachin Tendulkar to the Rajya Sabha, India's upper house of Parliament. Lines have been sharply drawn for and against, and the episode has triggered rare public criticism of Tendulkar.

For those who came in late: Tendulkar's nomination - officially by the President of India, effectively by the federal government - is to one of a dozen Rajya Sabha seats that are reserved for persons "having special knowledge or practical experience in respect of such matters as literature, science, art and social service". Previous occupants of those seats have included the musician Ravi Shankar, the artist MF Husain, and the film director Mrinal Sen. Into that fairly experienced - for want of a better word - company is cast Indian cricket's Peter Pan, still breaking records in his 40th year.

The news came out of the blue on Thursday afternoon, catching even India's on-the-ball TV channels unawares. First came reports of his meetings with the prime minister, and Sonia Gandhi, who heads the ruling coalition; this was followed swiftly by rumours and confirmation of the offer and, within a few hours, a formal announcement from the President's office. From meeting the PM to being named an MP, it was all done in four-odd hours.

That, though, set off the chain of criticism, politicking and potshots. The initial reaction was one of shock; there had been no indication of this and even the most incisive cricket observers were flabbergasted. The criticism followed pretty soon, however, and by Friday evening representatives of various political parties were seeing and denouncing conspiracy theories - chiefly that the ruling Congress was using Tendulkar to deflect attention from the issues at hand.

Much more unusual, though not surprising, has been the criticism levelled at Tendulkar himself for accepting the offer. In cricket circles, the incredulity - expressed by, among others, Tendulkar's one-time team-mate Sanjay Manjrekar - is because Tendulkar has not exhibited as a player any leadership tendencies. "Until now I've seen no sign of that," Manjrekar said. The consensus seems to be that Anil Kumble or Sourav Ganguly would have been more obvious choices; Kumble, as Manjrekar pointed out, led the players' negotiations with the BCCI for regularised contracts and has latterly been elected president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association, while Ganguly revolutionised the captaincy.

Even Rahul Dravid would have been a better choice, given his reputation as a deep-thinking player and his successful delivery of the Bradman Oration last year. Tendulkar, by contrast, is famous for not committing himself on issues; leadership has never been his strongest suit, and he never looked comfortable as India captain. Away from the crease he has always been a back-seat player, happier to follow than to lead.

If leadership didn't become him, though, statesmanship does. Adored in India, he is hugely respected abroad for his ability to live a relatively dignified life - relative especially to first-world sports stars - in the largest of goldfish bowls. His iconic status has, for the better part of two decades, sat lightly on his shoulders. He is a role model for millions of Indian children, and still highly sought for endorsements, because he is so totally non-controversial, so completely safe. His silence really is golden. Decorous and politically correct to a fault, he is the ideal member of the House of Elders.

Another criticism is that Tendulkar the player will not have the time to attend sessions of Parliament. One paper calculated that in 2011 he had spent 216 days on tour (the Indian team spent 292 days). Could the nomination not have waited till his retirement? The counter to this, though, is even more clear. It can safely be said that Tendulkar is in the twilight of his career; simply put, his body has pretty much run the length of its course on the field. That he has lasted so long is itself amazing but the niggles and strains are becoming increasingly frequent. A winding down of his career, where he culls one or two formats from his schedule, is only a matter of time. And in any case the Rajya Sabha seat is for six years and should be seen through that long-term prism. It can even be said, without stretching the imagination too much, that he is closer to retirement than his two fellow nominees named on Thursday - the actress Rekha and the businesswoman Anu Aga - and that both ladies have reasonably hectic schedules themselves.

The legitimate question remains: why did Tendulkar accept? It is hard to second-guess a man whose face is as widely known as his mind is not. One empirical fact, though, is that with the World Cup won and the 100th hundred in his pocket at last, he has few cricketing peaks to conquer. It's possible he needed something outside of the game to challenge him, something new to master. Perhaps, like his only parallel in popular culture, Amitabh Bachchan, he has political ambitions; perhaps he wanted an affirmation of his popularity outside the normal field of play. Nothing wrong with that - it would be a personal choice that he is entitled to. And can you imagine the furore had he turned down the offer?

The legitimate question remains: why did Tendulkar accept? It is hard to second-guess a man whose face is as widely known as his mind is not

What these six years will give him, though, is a chance to exist outside the bubble in which he has lived from his mid-teens. He will meet some of the best minds in Indian public life, who, after their initial thrill at meeting him, will go about their business as usual. One of his colleagues in the Rajya Sabha will be Dilip Tirkey, a highly respected former Indian hockey captain, who was elected to the house from his home state of Orissa. Hockey is a million miles from the rarefied world of cricket; large parts of Orissa, a state with high rates of poverty and malnourishment, are similarly a world away from the millionaire mansions of South Mumbai. There is every possibility an exchange of ideas between the two could inspire Tendulkar's life plans once he does retire from cricket.

The Rajya Sabha stint will also be the first time he has shown a willingness to put his name and reputation on the line, to hold himself up to accountability and scrutiny - to move outside his comfort zone, the cricket ground, where he has always excelled and has rarely been questioned, and into an arena where the script is not in his control. Given the potential for bad PR - and it has already started - the sheer boldness of the move deserves commendation.

Will he make a difference? Perhaps the question is irrelevant because nominated members are not nominated to make a difference, as the elected legislators are. They are there primarily as a reward for being good and famous citizens of India, for being leaders in their fields. Anything that rubs off will be a bonus. It's true Tendulkar doesn't espouse too many causes, much less comment on non-cricketing issues, but Rekha, a hugely popular actress of the 1970s and 1980s, has kept a similar low profile through her career, avoiding the glare outside of the klieg lights. There is no indication that she will bring to the Rajya Sabha the intelligence and wit she brings to her craft. Yet she has been given the benefit of doubt - a benefit that has, in public discourse over the past couple of days, been denied Tendulkar.

And that seems to be the crux of the matter. The debate is only because this is Tendulkar - because the king has become an MP.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo in India