By Umaima Saeed
“I have been influenced by the Prime Minister, his vision for the country. This is a fabulous platform for me to do something for the country,” former India cricketer Gautam Gambhir said, after joining the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Gambhir’s decision to join politics had likely been in the pipeline for a long time. Even if that meant losing fans. Politics in India often suffers from the general assumption that it is sa cesspool of corruption and unsavoury people – while cricket, ostensibly, rises above this pettiness – but Gambhir doesn’t care. He has never been someone who wanted to please others, steer clear of controversies, or stay quiet. Rather, he has voiced his opinions, even if they ran contrary to popular perceptions on many occasions.
Gambhir did not hide his views on Mohammed Azharuddin ringing the bell at Eden Gardens just to please the cricket fraternity. He lashed out at the BCCI for awarding the honour to a tainted cricketer. He did not bat for cricket between India and Pakistan just to sound like a pacifist. And he did not hesitate to point out the lawlessness in the Indian cricket board in the hope that he would get to play for India once again. Gambhir never wanted to be a role model, he only wanted to speak his mind. Like a true neta-in-the-making, he did not shy away from flaunting his hypernationalism.
The former India opener has been building his political brand for years now. In a philanthropic turn, he funds the education of martyred soldiers’ children, runs a free kitchen for the underprivileged in the national capital, and is always among the first celebrities to step up to help victims of natural calamities. His consistent and vociferous support of the armed forces is another aspect of his political side that aligns with his new party’s agenda.
Gambhir speaks about the people of the country much the same way he always spoke for the cricketers as a captain. During his captaincy for the Kolkata Knight Riders, he backed his players to the hilt, defended them, argued for them, and took abuses hurled at them. “I always believe in giving a lot of security to players. We, I think, are the only franchise that does not release a lot of players. We have allowed people to make mistakes. I think maybe that differentiates us from others,” he had once said during IPL 2017.
After the recent Pulwama attack, Gambhir made it clear that the integrity of his country and its people comes before playing cricket with Pakistan.
Similarly, he has always stood up for the people of the country. After the recent Pulwama attack, Gambhir made it clear that the integrity of his country and its people comes before playing cricket with Pakistan.
When asked if boycotting the World Cup game against the neighbours could hurt India on the points table, Gambhir said without mincing words, “Two points are not that important. The country is more important, the 40 soldiers who lost their lives are far more important than a cricket match. If we let go of the World Cup final, the country should be ready for it.’’
Under Gambhir’s leadership, KKR won their first IPL trophy, and then managed to repeat the feat. As an astute captain, he made daring decisions which always reaped dividends — be it promoting Sunil Narine as an opening batsman, or masterminding the field set-up which MS Dhoni will never forget.
A silly point, a leg slip, a short leg, and a slip fielder. Such a field set-up is a common sight in red-ball cricket, but Gambhir used this field placement for MS Dhoni in IPL 2015. And with that daring move, Gambhir gave out a clear message that he is not scared of anyone, not even the two-time World Cup-winning skipper.
He was a great decision maker on the field, and might be an even better one off it. If Gambhir does become an MP, given his track record of speaking out against corruption in cricket, I’d wager he’ll push for positive changes in the sports scenario, which is the need of the hour. He could even be a reply of sorts to the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s public persona.
Even his farewell to cricket, where he forfeited his captain’s salary after his IPL team, Delhi Daredevils, performed abysmally, had an air of noble sacrifice, a quality let’s hope he does not let go of as he takes the political plunge. With the groundswell of support he commands, he is quite the marquee acquisition for the BJP. A New Yorker feature titled “The Political Athlete: Then and Now” underlines how a sportsperson’s outspokenness makes him a potent political force in the current climate of 24-hour newscycles: “Athletes have always been political. But until recently they rarely possessed the means to explain themselves so directly to their fans.”
Gambhir’s leadership skills, proven track record of being vocal about issues that touch the national pulse, and history of helping the deserving prove that he can be a great politician, and perhaps even a future sports minister, making the transition like another successful sportsman, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. It might be too early to say how he’ll fare as a political leader, because he has just taken guard and not even played his first shot yet. Let’s hope he builds his innings with the level-headedness that marked his playing career, and doesn’t end up running himself out.