Saina Nehwal has finally cleared the air. All those who called her out for her embarrassing and infamous copy-paste tweets praising the Prime Minister and the government for one of its much publicized, and now forgotten, policy for women empowerment during Diwali last year can now feel redeemed. The feeling at the time was that Nehwal, tournament-hopping through a busy season, could have been the victim of a directive from higher-ups. There is clarity now.
The 29-year-old officially joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on January 29, welcomed on board at their headquarters in New Delhi.
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Nehwal, who has been struggling in tournaments in the past one year, has joined an ever-expanding list of retired or soon-to-retire sportspersons to join the ruling party in what can only be averred as an attempt to stay relevant, even milk the system perhaps. The BJP, on its part, has established itself as a refuge for washed up sportspersons.
To be fair on Nehwal, she is not exactly at the end of her career, but signs hint that she will be there soon. The World No. 18 has not gone past the quarterfinal stage of any of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) tournaments in the past one year. In fact — and this has some symmetry in it by the way — Nehwal joined politics (those played outside of the badminton establishment that is) exactly a year after she won her last major tournament. It was at the 2019 Indonesia Masters last January.
The BJP has a all-star sports roster at its disposal, though it is debatable whether that has translated to success on the electoral front. The list includes boxer MC Mary Kom, cricketer Gautam Gambhir, wrestlers Yogeshwar Dutt and Babita Phogat, hockey player Sandeep Singh, and last but not least, former Union sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. The shooter, a star in Modi government's first tenure, and a poster boy for its sports projects, seems to have fallen off the radar of late. Quantity is better than quality. And it is what the BJP has always believed. The saffron party now has three Olympic bronze medallists instead of just one silver medallist, for whatever it's worth, and so Rathore looks destined to remain in the wilderness for some more time.
That brings us to the question of BJP’s strategy in roping in sports stars to add to their list of Bollywood celebrities, and, most importantly, the timing of Nehwal’s inclusion. There are reports doing the rounds that Nehwal may join the campaign bandwagon of the party for the upcoming Delhi elections. If that is the case, it clearly shows the desperation of the party, which has been stoking everything from virulent nationalism to communalism to garner traction in Delhi where they are looking to overthrow the popular Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government. Nehwal could be their latest gimmick.
It is tough to understand what these sportspersons, stars in their field, bring to the table insofar as election campaigns are concerned. Practically nothing.
Sportspersons in India are inert on most social and political issues. A complex nexus of the system, the establishment, and the expectations from society traps them in a world that revolves around the sports arena, the medals, the awards, a few brand endorsements, a couple of tweets feting the Prime Minister even. Beyond that, as seen during the ongoing Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests, they remain recluses in a country where they are open celebrities with a lot of power to sway opinions if only they took a stance which is honest and responsible. A paradox indeed.
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And when, at the twilight of their careers, they, for whatever selfish or noble reasons, decide to take a plunge into politics, invariably with the ruling parties of the time, the population usually tend to be dismissive. And that has reflected in the recent elections where BJP’s all-star team contested.
Mary Kom was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. There is no question, therefore, of winning or losing elections. In the Parliament, Kom, a raging boxer, sheds her gloves and persona to don the robes of a reluctant parliamentarian who is powerless to stand up even for the interests of the people she represents in the Upper House. Wrestlers Yogeshwar Dutt and Babita Phogat lost the Haryana elections last year, despite contesting in the hinterland where their popularity amongst the masses, and their potential clout in the caste dynamics is beyond doubt.
Cricketer Gautam Gambhir won a Lok Sabha seat for the BJP in Delhi, for sure. But was that because the voters decided to exercise their franchise on a cricketer or was it votes which were already destined for the BJP? The latter seems to be the possibility considering the wave the party enjoyed in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections across the country.
So, Nehwal, potentially forsaking her ambitions for glory on court in an Olympic year, joining the BJP reeks of opportunism, the kind one embarks on when the realisation dawns that things are looking less rosy up ahead. The question now is what does she get out of joining a party which is employing a very caustic divisive policy in the country.
Is it a political career? All-important support from the establishment for future endeavours? Or it is as simple as a seat in the parliament to chill, with the taxpayer bearing the costs, joining some of the other distinguished stars and a cricketing God occupying real estate there!
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