Establishment Man

The moral timidity of Sachin Tendulkar

13 February 2021
Sachin Tendulkar greets Indian President Pranab Mukherjee (unseen) before receiving the Bharat Ratna award from him at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi, on 4 February 2014. Tendulkar’s personal decency has always been accompanied by a deeply ingrained timidity towards authority, a primal fear of upsetting any establishment, whether cricketing or otherwise.
Prakash Singh/REUTERS
Sachin Tendulkar greets Indian President Pranab Mukherjee (unseen) before receiving the Bharat Ratna award from him at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi, on 4 February 2014. Tendulkar’s personal decency has always been accompanied by a deeply ingrained timidity towards authority, a primal fear of upsetting any establishment, whether cricketing or otherwise.
Prakash Singh/REUTERS

In early January of 2020, Ajinkya Rahane, the vice-captain of the Indian Test cricket team, tweeted a picture of himself consuming vada pav, the famous Maharashtrian snack. Along with the picture, he posted an anodyne question for his followers. “How do you like your vada pav? 1. Vada pav with chai, 2. Vada pav with chutney, 3. Just Vada pav,” Rahane wrote. Sachin Tendulkar, his Marathi compatriot, responded promptly. “I like my Vada Pav with red chutney, very little green chutney & some imli chutney to make the combination even better,” he tweeted in reply.

At the time of this exchange, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act had been roiling the country for more than a month. Throughout this period, Tendulkar had been conspicuous by his silence. The silence had been predictable and, in a sense, his interaction with Rahane was emblematic of Tendulkar’s personality. While the country’s secular future felt at stake, compelling even many otherwise reticent luminaries to speak out, Tendulkar was occupied with the mundane and the banal.

In his book How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, the historian Frank Dikotter underlined the concept of common subordination. “There were many strategies for a dictator to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals,” Dikotter wrote. “There were bloody purges, there was manipulation, there was divide and rule to name only a few. But in the long run the cult of personality was the most efficient.” Dikotter noted that “the cult debased allies and rivals alike, forcing them to collaborate through common subordination. Most of all, by compelling them to acclaim him before the others, a dictator turned everyone into a liar.” 

Dikotter’s concept aptly describes the spectacle that followed a tweet by Rihanna, calling attention to the farmers’ protests, which sent the Indian establishment into a tizzy. In response, an orchestrated chorus of imitative tweets by celebrities across the country, most prominently actors and sports stars, emerged the next day, affirming notions of Indian sovereignty. This spectacle has become a periodic farce of the Modi era, when celebrities—out of inclination, inducement or compulsion—front up as handmaidens for the regime. On the evening of 3 February, as social media was flooded with tweets that read eerily similar to one another, a tweet in the same fashion was posted on Tendulkar’s Twitter account, which has more than 35 million followers. Perhaps the logic of common subordination, and its ever-widening circle, explains why Tendulkar felt obliged to join this grovelling circus. Even so, Tendulkar’s addition to this collective debasement was a surprise.

Tendulkar is as close as it comes to being a sacrosanct public figure, beyond the reach of those in power. No establishment in India—not even the present, vindictive one whose modus operandi is more akin to a mafia state—would ever take the risk of being seen to be hounding or persecuting him.

Vaibhav Vats is an independent writer and journalist. His work has appeared in the New York Times and Al Jazeera, among other publications. He is working on a book on Hindu nationalism and the making of India’s Second Republic. 

Keywords: cricket Sachin Tendulkar Farmers' Protest Ambani
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