Has Harsha Bhogle fallen victim to right-wing politics for his perceived closeness to previous regime?

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Abhishek G Bhaya

Harsha Bhogle has been mysteriously dropped from IPL commentary panel by BCCI, spurring a huge controversy. The Indian cricket body hasn’t offered an official reason for this last minute decision yet.

However, if one is to go by media reports, it appears that the veteran commentator has become a victim of ego-war with BCCI officials and a few senior cricketers along with a vociferous doctrine of ultra-nationalism that is spreading like wildfire these days.

Let’s take a close look at the three possible reasons cited by the media so far for Bhogle’s sacking and, if true, how absurd they are:

Verbal duel in Nagpur

Bhogle had an angry verbal duel with a Vidarbha Cricket Association official in Jamtha, Nagpur during a T20 World Cup match. The current BCCI chief Shashank Manohar is from Vidarbha.

At Nagpur, Hindi and English commentary boxes were separated by the president’s enclosure. Since the door of the VIP box was closed, bilingual commentators were forced to come down several stairs and climb up again to switch boxes for their stints.

Bhogle wanted the door opened, which led to him having a heated exchange with a VCA official. The news of this incident reached Nagpur-based BCCI president Shashank Manohar.

Some close to the board believe this could have triggered the cancellation of Bhogle’s contract.

If this is indeed the case, it reflects poorly on BCCI to sack a respected professional over a trivial issue. The officials would do better to restrain their inflated egos and work towards reforms in cricket administration.

Criticism by Big B and MSD

Amitabh Bachchan’s veiled criticism of Bhogle’s commentary after he was seen not ‘adequately praising Indian cricketers’ during the India-Bangladesh match in T20 World Cup is widely being speculated as one of the main reasons behind BCCI decision.

The Bollywood veteran had tweeted: “With all due respects, it would be really worthy of an Indian commentator to speak more about our players than others all the time.”

Bachchan’s tweet also found support from Indian captain M S Dhoni, who had retweeted the same saying? “Nothing to add”.

Bhogle issued a detailed response to this criticism explaining his professional obligation of being objective. He also made a distinction between commentary in Hindi and other regional languages vis-à-vis the English counterpart saying that while the former could be more India-centric, the English version has to be objective as it caters to a global audience.

“I must confess to being a bit taken aback by the intensity of the criticism yesterday over the question of focussing more on Indian players during the telecast. It emerged after a tweet from Mr. Amitabh Bachchan, someone I admire enormously for the dignified way in which he has always conducted himself,” Bhogle wrote on his Facebook page.

“There are two kinds of broadcasts available to Indian viewers. One, on Star Sports 1 is the world feed. That is the telecast, and commentary that goes to everyone around the world. That includes passionate fans in Bangladesh and Pakistan, in South Africa, Australia, England, the USA, everywhere. That broadcast must necessarily be an objective, balanced portrayal of events,” he added.

Were Big B and MSD playing to the gallery of ultra-nationalists, so prevalent these days in the social media? Why this strange demand from a professional to express ‘passionate patriotism’ where one is mandated to remain dispassionate and objective?

This unreasonable imposition bears the identical rightwing logic that demands people to chant ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ to prove one’s nationalism, as was cited in an earlier article on JantaKaReporter.

Senior players unhappy

This leads to the third point which suggests the BCCI decision might have been influenced by the opinions of some of the senior players.

Following MSD’s endorsement of Bachchan’s tweet, speculations in this regard arose after Bhogle told the Times of India: “The previous generation – when you had the likes of Sourav [Ganguly], VVS [Laxman], Rahul [Dravid] and Sachin [Tendulkar] around – was too classy and too big in stature to get involved in such petty instances.” I

It appeared as if he was hinting at the current lot of players for his dismissal from the IPL panel.

According to a report in the Indian Express, a senior BCCI official, on condition of anonymity said: “When deciding the commentators, we take feedback from everyone. We monitor social media reactions on commentators, and also take inputs from players.”

Players getting involved in joining issues with commentators and journalists is a rather new phenomena. Yes, they have all the rights to express their views and social media has certainly made it easier for them to reach out to fans. However, does it really behove senior players to seek retribution against commentators/journalists?

If the BCCI decision is indeed based on player input and social media reaction, it again exposes the lack of professionalism in the administration of the cricket body.

Let me take the liberty to add a fourth angle to the sordid saga:

Bhogle’s support to Maken

Harsha Bhogle is known to have supported former Sports Minister Ajay Maken’s initiatives to see reforms in BCCI while bringing it under RTI. A series of tweets point to his expressive support for Maken and his policies.

“don’t know about elections and cabinet reshuffles but i do hope @ajaymaken remains sports minister. at last someone talking right language,” Bhogle (@bhogleharsha) tweeted on August 26, 2012.

“happy for @ajaymaken on his promotion, at last we had a sports minister who cared for sport. who gets the job now?,” he tweeted on October 28, 2012 after Maken was shifted to another portfolio.

More recently, on 27 May, 2014, Bhogle tweeted this after Sarbananda Sonowal was appointed as the new Sports Minister by the BJP-led NDA government: “i hope the new sports minister sees his appt as an opportunity and not as a punishment as all those before him, except ajay maken, did.”

Expressing remorse over Bhogle’s dismissal, Maken (‏@ajaymaken) on Sunday tweeted: “Feel bad for @bhogleharsha. Harsha was always supportive of my initiatives as Sports Minister to bring transparency!”

It is worth noting that BCCI has fiercely defended itself against Maken’s moves, taking the matter to the court. Could it be that BCCI, spotting an opportunity after Bachchan’s criticism of Bhogle and Dhoni’s endorsement of the same, hit back at the ace commentator?

Commentator, not cheerleader

It could be either or all of these episodes that could have led to the veteran commentator being unceremoniously dropped from the IPL panel.

The seemingly trivial incidents cited above are not a cause of concern if seen in isolation. However what worries me more is the unifying motivation – seeped in egoism and rightwing ultra-nationalism – behind each of these incidents that raises such a spectre resulting in the victimization of a professional.

Harsha Bhogle has been India’s ace cricket commentator and journalist for over two decades, entertaining and educating fans with his insightful observations about the sports which is followed as a religion in the subcontinent. In a nation where nearly everyone is a self-proclaimed cricket expert, it takes a special knack and objectivity to remain at the top of the game for such a long time.

While passionate fans would love to hear commentators shower [even undue] praises on their national teams and laud their cricketing heroes [even disproportionately], the test of professionalism is not to lose objectivity and go overboard. Commentators after all are commentators, not cheerleaders.

These very attributes have endeared Bhosle to his audience across the world for all these years and seen his rise as one of the greatest cricket commentators of our times.

Victim of rightwing politics?

Finding out one’s political inclination (sports management, and cricket administration in particular is political; just look at the top BCCI and state board members) isn’t a difficult job these days. You just have to scroll through one’s Facebook or Twitter accoount. Has Bhogle been targeted by the current establishment for his perceived closeness to the previous regime (Maken)?

His sacking smells of the same political symptom that sees an undeserving Gajendra Chauhan being appointed as FTII-Pune Chairman or an equally incompetent Pahlaj Nihalani made the chief of Censor Board – people who are closer to the rightwing ideology. While those with independent or contrarian voices such as actor Amir Khan, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai, civil rights activists Teesta Setalvad and even student leaders like Rohith Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid are harassed, victimised, branded anti-nationals and at worst forced to commit suicide.

If professionalism is sacrificed at the altar of egotistism and jingoistic nationalism, that nation is doomed. 2019 is far away. The course correction is needed right now.

(The author is a Gulf-based Indian journalist. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of JantaKaReporter)

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