Around mid-December 2018, Arun Jaitley, that designated sophist of the Modi 1.0 era, had teasingly suggested that both Virat Kohli and Narendra Modi were “spectacular players” and that “it is not easy to defeat them.” The observation was made at an “Agenda AajTak” event. Jaitley’s tawdry remarks were greeted with good humour.
It will help to remember those were precarious times, uncertain days – much before Pulwama and Balakot, and certainly much before someone had decided that the BJP would be winning 300 Lok Sabha seats.
It is possible to suggest that in making that comparison, Jaitley was trying to gainfully associate his man with a much applauded hero of our new national game. While Modi was still touting a ‘new India,’ it was Virat Kohli who had come to personify for many of us a new national self-confidence. But the Jaitley comparison was not entirely inappropriate.
Both Kohli and Modi have much in common; both have the same exaggerated swagger, the same false sense of destiny, and the same attitude of entitlement. Both have brio, both have a seemingly endless resourcefulness in tactics and sense of the stage, an eye for the camera. Of course, while Kohli effortlessly beguiles our admiration, Modi commands our attention more ponderously.
The Jaitley comparison is relevant on another count. Both Kohli and Modi are embodiments of the so-called “strong leader” syndrome. Both have been marketed as ‘brands’ in their respective fields. We have been made to believe that a “strong leader” is an all-weather answer to all our needs and requirements. In Kohli’s case this argument has obvious limits; for example, in the Indian Premier League, neither his individual performance nor the presumed potency of his leadership has helped his team. Yet the Kohli leadership brand has not been allowed to become sullied.
Perhaps there is a reason for us to remain infatuated with Kohli. There is no getting away from the fact that cricket has come to have such a purchase on our national imagination that for some time now we have all exulted in Kohli’s on-field boorishness. It may not be an exaggeration to suggest that Kohli has become a living metaphor for our national penchant for an ill-defined but definite sense of muscular virility. Nobody found anything amiss when Kohli and his boys donned camouflage caps at the 3rd ODI against Australia at Ranchi; no one found it odd that a sport arena was used to make a fussy statement about Pulwama. We were playing at home and we now increasingly feel free to go beyond the rules. Modi, Kohli and all of us were on the same page.
Yet there is a vastly distinct dimension to Kohli’s leadership. Our fairly consistent success in international cricket is perhaps the only experience we have as a nation of excelling in a globally competitive setting, with impartial rules that are impartially enforced. The very phrase – “that is not cricket” – continues to emphasise the constraints and obligations of the essential fairness of a contest.
This string of successes against other national teams was doubly satisfying because it is against the grain of our new passion for muffasilness and our cultivated inward-lookingness. We have turned our collective back on global standards and global institutions; we disdain those outsiders who do not subscribe to our official slogans and bureaucratic dogmas. Even an Amartya Sen is mocked as an outsider despite his Nobel and Bharat Ratna, not sufficiently ‘Indian’ to question the political orthodoxy. The only outsiders whose applause we care for are those who congregate at Wembley Stadium or Madison Square Garden.
And, that is where the Jaitley comparison between Kohli and Modi breaks down. It needs to be understood clearly that whatever successes Kohli and his boys have notched up have been achieved as per global standards, rules and regulations, competently and fairly enforced by a neutral professional regulator—the International Cricket Council. No one is allowed to have a fix on the game. And, that is why Kohli’s cricket victories taste so delicious in our collective mouth.
By contrast, Modi won his 2019 Cup by mostly ignoring the conventions and courtesies of the rules of the game. Granted, Modi displayed extraordinary stamina and rhetorical imagination, but still the contest did reek of unfairness. The Election Commission of India abandoned all pretexts of standing firm in defence of the integrity of the electoral process; even the higher judiciary itself failed to do its job as a vigorous ‘third umpire’; and, the media – with all its pretensions of being neutral and autonomous and professional—conspicuously fell short of the required standards of ethics. After the convoluted calculations that determined the winner in the England-New Zealand final, the rules and the enforcers of those rules are being debated; we, after our Lok Sabha cup, have firmly refused to entertain any kind of misgivings about the fairness of our contest.
Thanks to Kohli’s failure to bring home the cup, everybody is rushing to sit in judgment over him. Because India managed to thrash Pakistan in the league match, he and his team-mates have at least been spared a brutalising thrashing; but, it is now deemed fair game to second guess him. The loser not only loses the contest he/she also loses their immunity; by contrast, the winner, by hook or crook, walks away with all the violations and infringements. Nobody dare question the nature of Modi’s victory; the critics are simply ridiculed as lamenting over ‘sour grapes.’
The cricket world cup is over, and so is the Lok Sabha contest. And, Arun Jaitley’s comparison between Modi and Kohli has become starkly misplaced because the two different versions of rule of law governed their respective campaigns. At home we can keep on re-writing laws to our convenience but the external world will not be so indulgent to our self-righteousness.