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When England’s batsmen succumbed to India’s spin attack on the first day of their cricket test match, another Indian was even bigger in the game despite not throwing a single ball: Narendra Modi.
Indian politicians have long been heavily involved in cricket, basking in the money, power and glory of the country’s most popular pastime – to the horror of purists who argue that political interference has held the sport back.
However, Modi has taken India’s cricket policy to new heights. India and England played in Ahmedabad, his political hometown, at a newly built cricket stadium – the largest in the world – which was renamed Prime Minister shortly before Wednesday’s game.
For some observers, the influence of Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party on Indian cricket symbolizes how they are reshaping the country’s political and economic order.
“The stadium itself – the name, the way it was funded, and the people who run Gujarat cricket as a government institution – say a lot about the power structure in India today under the BJP,” said Ronojoy Sen, Senior Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore and author of a history of Indian sports.
Narendra Modi’s supporters see the world’s largest cricket stadium as a symbol of India’s ambitions. © AFP via Getty Images
The 100,000-seat site was designed when Modi ran the state-run Gujarat Cricket Association before advancing into national politics. His right-hand husband, Amit Shah, now Minister of the Interior, became president of the panel.
The on-site booths, built for an estimated 8 billion rupees ($ 110 million), are named after Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and Gautam Adani’s group of the same name, India’s two most powerful tycoons with close ties to the Prime Minister.
Shah’s son Jay is secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the richest and most powerful cricket board in the world, while a father-son duo of Reliance executives have more recently led the Gujarat Association.
For Modi fans, the stadium demonstrates an ambitious leader’s ability to provide world-class infrastructure that will help India shine globally.
For his opponents, however, this is a connection between the prime minister and his lieutenants and favored tycoons, whose collective influence on the political and economic system of India has been hotly debated.
“It’s nice how the truth is revealed,” wrote Rahul Gandhi, chairman of the opposition party, on Twitter. “Narendra Modi Stadium / Adani End / Reliance End / Chaired by Jay Shah.”
Motera Stadium was renamed after the Prime Minister’s hours leading up to the third test between India and England. © Amit Dave / Reuters
Indian leaders flocked to cricket for a long time to promote its universal appeal – its popularity across regional, caste, or religious differences – as well as its numerous opportunities for patronage. While early Hindu nationalist ideologues of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s parent organization, rejected cricket as a colonial import, later generations of leaders like Modi and Shah have embraced it.
“Cricket is a cocktail of money, power and influence – even Bollywood,” said Mahesh Langa, a journalist for the Hindu newspaper in Ahmedabad.
The continued involvement of politicians in local and national cricket organizations has fueled allegations of mismanagement and transplantation. As early as 1959, the legendary batsman Vijay Merchant complained that “there is a lot of politics in our cricket,” according to Ronojoy Sens’s book Nation at Play.
This has sparked reform efforts with limited success. In 2017, the Supreme Court overhauled the management of the BCCI to impose term limits and prevent ministers from holding positions. Some of the reforms are being challenged in court.
Observers have questioned the will of the country’s leaders to distance themselves from sport, particularly due to its rapid commercialization, particularly after the 2008 Indian Premier League kick-off sparked an unprecedented windfall.
“Political participation in cricket is very strong and growing,” said Ayaz Memon, sports journalist and commentator. “It’s an axis in a massive sport that has grown phenomenally rich over the past 30 years.”
Vinod Rai, a former auditor general appointed by the Supreme Court to implement his recommendations into the BCCI, said, “There are very few places where politicians do not oversee these institutions.”
He added that, unlike many others, Modi and Shah had at least managed to get things done. “A beautiful international stadium that has been built is a huge feather in the cap,” he said.
Motera Stadium, as it was popularly known, was originally built in 1983 when the Congress Party ruled Gujarat.
In 2009, Modi, then Prime Minister of Gujarat, was elected chairman of the state’s cricket federation, which had removed control of Congress, heralding his triumph in the national elections five years later.
It was then that he was setting up plans to rebuild the stadium, which reopened to the public last year when former US President Donald Trump visited India. This week the first game against England took place.
That Ahmedabad, long overlooked as a cricket hub, is now on the global racetrack alongside Mumbai, Sydney or London is proof of what Modi’s supporters claim is its transformative vision and execution.
Others said it highlighted how the prime minister focused India’s power structures around himself and close allies – from central government policymaking to using his image extensively to promote welfare systems or sport.
Sandeep Dwivedi, a columnist for the Indian Express, wrote that the center of Indian cricket has “shifted from Mumbai to Motera. . . Not even a blade of grass has been cut in Indian cricket without the obligatory phone call to Ahmedabad. “
For Modi’s loyal base in Gujarat, this shift is long overdue.
Aditya Mehta, a 22-year-old biotechnology graduate student, said off-site, “Our Prime Minister and Home Secretary have built the largest cricket pitch in the world and now every possible game can be played in this stadium.”